Monday, February 1, 2010

Take care of him. He bites.

After watching David Copperfield last night, I could not help but notice this morning that the Victorian England penal code seems to be alive and well in the United States.
What interest does this type of penalty possibly serve beyond an attempt to ruin the business?  And what does this imply regarding the objectivity of our laws?
When the force of government isn’t enough, the judicial system turns toward public shaming. This is but a tiny example of the unique advantage the government has in the powers of persuasion regarding how we think.


Deb said...

Why did this occur to you after watching David Copperfield? I think I'm missing something.

And, I think that the point of this kind of punishment is deterrence.

Lynne said...

David Copperfield was forced to wear that sign in school after he was sent there upon having bitten his step-father (in self-defense).

Rather than reparations or removal of rights commensurate with those which were violated, forced public embarrassment is a way the powers that be persuade the public in deciding that you've operated outside the bounds of that which is "socially acceptable". This should never be a tactic or function of our government.

Stephen Bourque said...

I haven’t given a lot of thought to this, but at first blush, compulsory public confessions strike me as bordering on being “cruel and unusual.” There are a few things about it that seem like an abuse of government power as opposed to an objectively valid punishment.

First, notice the particular class of infractions that this is applied to. I’m inclined to think that many environmental “crimes” have harmed no one, and thus should not be crimes at all, let alone crimes punished in a primitive manner. In cases that harm is actually committed, an appropriate punishment might consist of somehow making restitution. For instance, with the case of the guy who sunk his boat, which is talked about in the article, if his actions really did threaten fisherman, he could be made to retrieve the boat or somehow render it harmless. Why would a prosecutor bother making the guy pay for his own humiliation? Is he afraid the guy will sink another boat someday? That’s absurd. The action seems far less about deterrence than about advancing a popular and manifestly unjust ideology (i.e. environmentalism).

I asked myself: Would I be particularly upset if murderers and rapists were punished in this manner, in addition to serving their jail terms? No, I would not, even though I would still object to it. (See my next comment.) But prosecutors are not forcing confessions for murder and rape. They are forcing confessions for littering. What’s next? Smoking pot? Prostitution? Cooking with trans-fats? Adultery? Late-term abortions? Sneaking into the country to work? Some of those aren’t crimes yet, but if and when they become so, they are perfect candidates for this sort of mob-satisfying stone throwing.

Another thing: There is something eerie about using a form of free speech – an advertisement – to compel a confession. I am wholly against a government putting a gun up to a man’s head and forcing him to mouth words against his will. I would not consider that appropriate even for a mass murderer, never mind for someone who violated some dubious environmental regulation. What is to be gained by a government orchestrating such a charade? That sort of thing should be reserved for communist show trials and Islamist snuff films, not free countries.

Lynne said...

I think it's important to remember that this was a federal court of law - not Andy in Mayberry.