There are a number of ways to punish parents who fail to pay child support: Garnish their wages, revoke their drivers’ licenses and even throw them in jail. But a Kentucky county prosecutor is trying a different tactic: Public shaming.
Bell County, Ky., Attorney Neil Ward has started to give deadbeat parents a choice: Go to jail or stand in a public place holding a large sign that says, “I do not pay child support.” Regardless of which option they choose, parents are still on the hook for overdue child support payments. Those who fail to make their payments will end up in jail.
When he originally came up with the idea, Bell says parents were ordered to perform four eight-hour shifts with the sign. That’s since changed, and they’re now required to do 10 four-hour shifts. As of early March, three people have opted for the sign-carrying punishment.
“This is another option to hold people accountable for child support,” Ward told The Middlesboro Daily News. “It’s not about humiliating or embarrassing anyone. It’s about holding people accountable.”
Despite Ward’s claim that the goal of the sign holding isn’t to embarrass, sentences performed in public do humiliate and shame those who are being punished. But it’s arguably an effective deterrent. After all, haven’t we all had moments where we’re on the verge of doing something wrong and think to ourselves, “I’d be so embarrassed if my friends found out. What would they think?”
Public Shaming Is Ages Old
The idea of publicly shaming someone who’s committed a crime is ages old.
Every English literature student remembers the story of “The Scarlet Letter,” the fictional story of a woman in Puritan Boston who’s required to wear a red A on her clothes after giving birth to a child conceived through an adulterous affair. And devices such as the stocks and the pillory were used for centuries in Europe and North America as a way of physically punishing and publicly humiliating criminals.
Sign-holding is a more recent form of shaming as a punishment. While it’s physically much less taxing than the stocks, some would argue that standing for hours in all sorts of weather takes a physical toll on a person, too.
In January, an Indiana judge required a man who fled jury duty to stand outside the courthouse holding a sign that read, “I failed to appear for jury duty.”
In 2010, a Houston man who stole money from a victims’ assistance fund was ordered to walk up and down a busy city block holding a sign that reads “I am a thief. I stole $250,000 from the Harris County crime victim’s fund. Daniel Mireles.” His sentence lasts longer than most which involve public shaming—five hours every weekend for six years. Outside his home, he and his wife were required to post a sign reading, “The occupants of this residence, Daniel and Eloise Mireles, are convicted thieves.”Both were also sentenced to jail time and community service.
In 2008, a Nashville judge ordered a teenager on probation to stand in public holding signs that read, “Respect the police, they are not pigs as I stated on my MySpace page” and “There is nothing funny about guns and nothing cool about gangs.”
And, of course, judges aren’t the only ones who dole out public humiliation as a means of punishment. Take, for example, the father who posted a YouTube video last month showing him shooting his daughter’s laptop after a rebellious Facebook post. Or the Tampa mom who made her 15-year-old son stand on a street corner with a sign bearing his name, low GPA and the request, “Honk if I need [an] education.”
A Civil Liberties Violation?
But 20 years ago, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that a lower-court judge went too far when he ordered a deadbeat parent to appear in public with a sign reading, “Need Job to Support Children.” At the time, the New York Times reported:
The case dates from September 1991, when Judge [Eugene M.] Chipman found that [Clarence W.] Epley had fallen $1,475 behind in support payments for his three children. Mr. Epley was jailed until he could come up with $1,000 of that sum and was then ordered by Judge Chipman to find employment by holding the sign outside the courthouse… Mr. Epley did carry the sign for a few days and then found a job… But a lawyer who was a friend of Mr. Epley’s father decided to appeal the order and got support in that appeal from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. In striking down the order, the appeals court said it was “a throwback to the days of stockades and conjures up images of Puritans who fell from grace and were forced to wear scarlet letters upon their chests.”
The ACLU of Kentucky may be gearing up for a similar fight against Bell County officials.
“We’re certainly looking at this policy,” says William E. Sharp, staff attorney for the ACLU of Kentucky. ” We think it is improper for Bell County officials to use these scarlet letter tactics, particularly since they’re unrelated to the rehabilitative goal in this issue, which is getting the defendants to have the means & ability to provide financial support for their children.
“We also think these types of tactics are neither reasonable nor necessary and, in fact, are counterproductive to the ultimate goal of ensuring adequate financial support for the children involved.”