15 October 2010

Scared Silly by ADR?

At a recent community meeting, I learned of a program that diverted some non-serious criminal offenses to a Juvenile Court where kids were judges and juries.  Usually, those proceeding lead to verdicts of community service. This mock “Kid’s Court” is meant to give at risk youths a taste of the criminal justice process without throwing them in the actual juvenile justice system. In theory this sounds promising.

While I was  initially skeptical about letting youths effectively skate off small stuff through this alternative dispute resolution when gangs exploit under aged kids to be lookouts on drug transactions, I have the impression that the juvenile court system seems pretty ineffective, especially since the mistakes of a misspent youth are expunged.  Perhaps the effect of being embarrassed in front of your peers might give some at risk youths a cause for pause.

Some hands-on parents are not waiting for the long arm of the law to catch their scion in flagrente delicto.   A problemed thirteen year old boy in Tennessee was caught by his mother with sneakers that she correctly suspected were stolen. After prayerful deliberation, the mother crafted an unusual way to curb his disobedience.

The mother got the permission of Room Rack Shoe store and the police to have her son hold a sign which said: “I am a thief. I broke God’s law.  I stole. I lied.”   The boy was required to hold this sign for an hour a day for three days in a row.  Some vehicles passing by honked at him.  But some do gooders contacted the authorities to report child abuse.

Although the punishment generated mixed public opinion, the teenager seems to have gotten the message.  He said, "It's humiliation and if you are humiliated, you probably won't do it again.”  The humiliation was only part of the punishment, as the boy was required to weed the family yard.

A Charlottesville, Virginia shop owner took a similar tact when he caught an 18 year old stealing from his costume store.  Andrew Perry, the owner of Halloween Express, was reluctant to press charges with the police and give the young shoplifter a criminal record that makes it difficult for him to land a job.  So he mercifully offered the young thief another option-- he would not call the police if he agreed to stand in front of the store with a sign saying that he was caught shoplifting.  The youth agreed but did not expect the twist in the alternative justice.  The shoplifter had to make his penance dressed in Sesame Street costumes.

I suspect that a young teenager would be totally humiliated with a scarlet letter in front of his friends at the mall and change his ways.  But an older punk might consider such signholding a lark.  It is much more difficult perceiving the punishment as a bad boy badge of merit when you are dressed for six hours over two days as Bert and Ernie.  Your hoodlum friends would not want to hang around plush characters at a strip mall.  I’m sure that the shop owner made sure that indenture advertising comported himself correctly.  And I suspect that several hours being in a full costume was not a cool experience, in more ways than one.

Civil rights activists will often complain that there are too many people incarcerated in the criminal justice system.  Perhaps, but we live in a culture that is not tempered by strong community ties, a legal system that curbs familial influence and a culture that seems to be without shame.

As long as it is an intermittent alternative dispute resolution for non-violent malfeasance by youth, I think that being scared silly can be an effective tool for shaping impressionable wrong doers.

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