Here in Asheville, NC, the police department is updating an ages-old concept in their attempts to discourage unwanted behaviour: public humiliation. As was recently announced, Asheville police have begun posting on their website and on the local television channel names and photographs of individuals charged with prostitution or soliciting for prostitution.
Now read that again, carefully: charged with
Looking over the website, the morbidly curious public (as well as potential employers, landlords, and lovers) can see the faces and names of those among us who may have committed a crime. There is no clear notation made upon the page that these people have not yet had their day in court, besides the fact that in small print it is stated that these are “Prostitution and Solicitation Arrests”. There is no system wherein this list is updated, should an individual be found innocent at their trial. They will be presumed guilty, and suitably dealt with by their peers.
Asheville is not the first city to take such action. Chicago, Wichita, Denver, San Diego, Arlington and Dallas, Corpus Christi, Saint Paul, and others are all on the same bandwagon, although some display only convicted individuals, and others at least note that those featured are innocent until proven guilty.
Many police departments have argued that these “shaming” programs are no different than the “Police Blotter” segments of local newspapers wherein recent arrests are listed. Such arguments are fallacious on their surface, considering that if there were no difference the new programs could not be expected to be particularly effective. The significant difference between the police blotter and the websites and televised targeting (and even, in some communities, billboards beside the highways) is that while the blotter is primarily used to inform, the prositution-targeted efforts are there to shame.
Privatizing Criminal Sanctions
Many police departments have found prostitution an extremely difficult crime to confront, as frequently convictions result only in a fine and the convicted repeating the behaviour (whether on the buying or selling side of the transaction). Sporadic raids and undercover sting operations are not sufficient deterrents to eliminate it. The latest trend, then, is to rely on the social deterrent of shame to do what fines and minor jail time cannot. Effectively, the system has decided to let the people provide the punishment.
The assumption being made is that public shaming of individuals who have broken the law (or may have broken the law) is an effective deterrent in stopping crime because no one wants to live with the consequences of public censure. And while it is undoubtedly true that no one would prefer to have their employment opportunities or living arrangements compromised, this assumption does not factor in the consideration that many who engage in prostitution (particularly street prostitution) already live on the fringe of society. Those choosing to work as prostitutes may already have encountered difficulty in finding adequate employment, and those who patronize them may already have difficulty in establishing “normal” social relations. In using shaming as a penalty for these individuals, we are simply compounding the circumstances which led them to act as they did in the first place. If, for example, a woman has resorted to prostitution because she cannot find employment sufficient to cover her expenses (whether those expenses are a dying mother or a crack habit), what effect will public shaming have on her future prospects?
Another flaw in the theory of shaming as punishment (which is discussed thoroughly in The Economics of Shame by Alon Harel and Alon Klement) is that there is an inverse relationship between the rate of its usage and its effect as a crime deterrent. Very simply, the more people who have been shamed, the less of a stigma it becomes. Furthermore, society itself incurs a cost in shunning individuals, in the sense that it limits the pool of individuals participating (i.e. A realtor whose face has appeared on one of these websites as “arrested for solicitation of crimes against nature” may well be shunned to the extent that he loses his business. The cost to society is one less realtor in the pool from which it can choose), and eventually the cost can become too high. The inevitable result of overuse of shaming punishments is that society will no longer shun those who have been exposed in this way, and the punishment loses whatever effectiveness it may have.
Finally, we must consider the risk, in communities where shaming techniques are employed prior to actual conviction, of innocent people having their lives ruined by these programs. Although the Asheville Police Department site does state that these are prostitution “arrests”, this is hardly an assurance that the community will withold their judgment until those featured have been convicted, particularly as there appear to be no plans to post the results of their trials once concluded. Furthermore, such a policy poses a risk to the local government, as the possibility of harming an innocent citizen opens the door to expensive lawsuits.
A Delicate Balance
Given the obvious flaws and risks inherent in these programs, consideration must be given to whether the problem actually necessitates such dubious measures to solve. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported on February 6 that local police have arrested more than 100 prostitutes in the last three years, with the current working pool being around 20-25 prostitutes. Hardly an epidemic in a town of 70,000. What, then, prompted local police to launch the shaming program?
Police Chief William Hogan, in response to my questions, stated that “The public is up in arms in the neighborhoods where prostitution is prevalent,” and that “The public is quick to blame the police for all of society’s failures and when the courts fail to deal with the problem that does not stop citizens from demanding that the police do something about the problem.” Unfortunately, at the time of publishing Chief Hogan had not responded to further questions regarding the level of complaint from Asheville citizens he had received or whether there has been an increase in prostitution in this area. What seems apparent from his original answer, however, is that local police perceive a great deal of pressure to eliminate prostitution but that the judicial system “has no impact since they receive a fine and are right back on the street carrying on with their business as usual”.
Is shaming so effective, then, that the risks and flaws are worth it? Chicago introduced its “shaming” program in 2005. Prostitution arrests did, in fact, go down by 16.2% in 2006. But then, so did almost every other category of crime, including many which did not have targeted shaming programs. Prositution arrests were already going down in 2005, when the plan was implemented. A 1982 survey did not find shaming programs to be particularly effective in deterring crime, and though modern psychological understanding would seem to support its potential effectiveness, statistics in communities where it has been implemented do not seem to indicate that it is working.
Are, then, the risks to the community engendered by prostitution so great that any effort to quell it is worth an attempt? It is often associated with other criminal activity, such as drug use and violence, but does prostitution create other crimes, or does it tend to exist in seedier areas where these other crimes are also, independantly, prevalent? While the notion that prostitution increases related violent crime is prevalent and generally accepted at face value, there have been no credible studies undertaken which can point to such a connection. With prostitution remaining an illegal activity in most of the United States, it naturally occurs most often in areas where one finds other illegal activity.
Looking For Solutions
While the legal status of prostitution is an extensive topic in itself, as long as we continue to rank it as an illegal activity we must compare the risks to the community of prostitution taking place in our midst to the risks to the community of any form of enforcement. Many dislike the sight of prostitutes working the streets, and the possibility of sexual acts taking place in public may be offensive. Prostitution may bring down the values of property in neighborhoods where it is obvious, due to its association with other criminal activities. As a result of the unregulated nature of illegal prostitution, it may contribute to the spread of sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy. These are not insignificant costs for the community to bear.
On the other side of the argument, we have implemented a program which seeks to publicly humiliate both prostitues and johns. The risk to society of this form of punishment includes the possibility of innocent people being harmed by public misjudgment, as well as the possibility of local government having to contend with expensive law suits, should any innocent person so maligned decide to seek legal redress. Furthermore, such a policy may well reinforce the social conditions which led individuals to work as prostitutes or employ them, in the first place.
At the closing of his correspondence with me, police Chief William Hogan stated:
If you have some realistic and effective solution to this problem I am all ears. I wish life was so simple that we could ask people to obey the law and they would graciously comply with our request.
As a local community, and as a culture, it is upon us to respond to this request. We cannot demand that our police solve all problems while refusing to give them the tools to do so. The question for each of us, then, is what really do we want them to do about it?