Unless you own a share in a private prison company, you probably think this is a good idea. And you'd be right. Unfortunately, though, our policies don't reflect this universal sentiment. In fact, our current criminal policies do precisely the opposite.
Take Texas, for example, and before I speak of Texas, let me make one thing clear to the fun-loving Texans whose sensibilities might be offended when reading this diary: when I use the phrase "Texas," I am not referring to you personally or the good people fighting the progressive fight down here. Do we have an understanding? Can we use this moment to prevent the inevitable defense-of-Texas posts that I find sort of cute? Good.
Texas is depraved on a host of criminal justice issues, and if you follow the Texas state legislature, you'll see that the craziness of the laws is surpassed only by the craziness of the bills that don't make it through. This month, there's been a major push toward a sort of criminal shaming that detracts from that universal goal we all agreed upon earlier.
If Republicans in Texas weren't doing enough damage, it's actually two democrats who have served up these gems:
A bill by Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, HB 23, would require sex offenders on social networking sites to "ensure" the following information is viewable by everyone who comes to their page: An "indication" that the person is sex offender, the type of offense that required their registration and the city of their conviction, "the person's full name, date of birth, sex, race, height, weight, eye color, and hair color," and their home address. The definition of a social networking site is broad (see Art. 62.0061(f) of the Code of Criminal Procedure). It wouldn't just apply to sites like Facebook or LinkedIn, but also to blogs and any other site through which one can post information and receive communication from the public.
Another bill by Rep. Richard Raymond, HB 133, would require the Department of Public Safety to create a searchable website for people convicted of intoxication-related offenses that, for ten years after their conviction, would publish "the person's full name and last known address," and "a recent photograph of the person, if a photograph is available to the department."I will deal with these bills in turn below the fold, but first, a few words on what seems to be the new move toward shaming our criminal offenders. These bills seem to ignore the realities of what takes place when a person goes to prison. If you think of a person's relationship to society like that of a tag affixed to a shirt, you can understand that certain threads hold people to the law-abiding world. When a person commits a crime and is shipped off to prison, most of these threads are severed.
Our inmates lack human contact in the traditional form. Aside from interactions with prison administrators, officers, and fellow inmates, our convicts are largely secluded from society. With that comes seclusion from all of the things that make people want to respect the law. They're deprived of self-respect and the admiration of their peers. They are separated from the social conventions - schools, churches, clubs, families - that would otherwise encourage a person to respect the rule of law. From wall to wall, these individuals are told that they're outside of the bounds of normal society.
When they come out, the threads are still mostly severed. Perhaps some family members will re-connect with the offender, and perhaps these individuals will rekindle relationships with old friends. As a society, we need those things to happen, because if our criminal justice system's history has taught us anything, it's that our punishments alone do not serve as successful deterrents to crime. Those punishments work in conjunction with the positive reinforcement created by our social conventions. A person not only avoids prison by following the law; he also gains the respect of his peers and society itself by staying within the lines.
So why, then, are we looking to make it harder on our re-entering offenders? Why are we looking to seclude them further, making it more difficult for those individuals to rebuild the threads that hold them to law-abiding society? Why is our criminal justice policy almost specifically designed to encourage re-offending?
The first Texas law deals with convicted sex offenders, and it extends the sex offense registration policies that are already in place within the state. The law requires offenders to wear, in effect, a digital scarlet letter everywhere they go. If they wanted to maintain a blog right here at the Dailykos, they'd be required to tell you in every blog, as a disclaimer, that they were convicted of a sex offense. Strangely, they'd be required to tell a bunch of strangers, after blogging about a potentially explosive topic, exactly where they live.
It's the sort of thing that law and order politicians love, and why wouldn't they? Sex offender policies are almost always extended outward. There are no political points to be gained by speaking out on the legislature floor on behalf of sex offenders, and for politicians without much else on their resume, an easy route to re-election might be a branding campaign as the guy who stuck it to perverts. These incentives ensure an incremental movement toward the total dissolution of rights for these offenders, and even if it takes years, it's certain to happen.
In effect, these sorts of policies only encourage people to create multiple profiles, perhaps igniting the urge to live a life beyond the line. Rather than providing released offenders with the opportunity to re-build their lives, we're labeling them with an identity that they're unlikely to shake. This must be weighed, over course, with the needs of society to protect itself. These policies provide the illusion of protection, but the reality is that they make it more difficult for people to make connections with the sorts of "normal" people that might keep them on the straight and narrow. It makes it more difficult for these individuals to find jobs that might provide them with the self-respect that stops future crime. The potential gains of this digital scarlet letter are firmly outweighed by the costs, as we create barriers to re-entry that make re-offending a reality.
The second Texas bill shows the folly of instituting invasive shaming policies. It's sort of a social experiment that's taking place. First, shaming policies are tried out on a portion of the population that's most loathed. Who will complain on behalf of people convicted of sex crimes? After a period of time, society accepts certain things as normal. Requiring those accused of sex crimes to register in multiple ways is now par for the public course. Once society accepts this sort of shaming, it's easy to extend it to other sub-groups of offenders.
In Texas's case, the next group is drunk drivers. I have to wonder what good a database of alcohol offenders will do. Are you going to check out a street online and change your route based upon the number of drunk drivers who live in that neighborhood? It's the sort of impractical policy that makes no one safer and has clear detriments. The law would simply serve as voyeur fodder for media types and other such individuals who just want to use mug shots and criminal histories to ruin the lives of people who've made a mistake.
Ultimately these policies allow people the opportunity to flex their moral muscles. In the absence of any other outstanding quality, it's nice to point to a tangible database of people who we are invariably "better" than. But these sorts of things don't make us safer. Ultimately, they make re-entry more difficult, and they make re-offending a reality. And if politicians in Texas have their way, these policies will be further extended until all criminal offenders must walk around with signs that say: "I'm Tom, and I'm a criminal."