The Stocks, scarlet letters, tar-and-feathering and other puritanical forms of punishment have been out of fashion for several centuries, but the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors now wants to help revive public shaming as a way to discourage sex trafficking. Led by Supervisor Don Knabe, the board this week backed a plan to publicize the names and faces of people convicted of soliciting prostitutes, with a particular emphasis on humiliating those who solicit minors.
Human trafficking is a serious issue that deserves greater attention, and it's understandable that the supervisors would look for creative ways to crack down on the customers who fuel the sex trade. Knabe in particular has been an outspoken advocate for harsher penalties on pimps and johns, as well as for treating prostitutes more as victims than criminals. Gov. Jerry Brown signed three county-sponsored bills this year that prescribed jail time and higher fines for soliciting a minor for prostitution and also gave authorities additional tools to investigate and prosecute pimps.
It is entirely reasonable to step up the fight against sex trafficking. But plastering the pictures of johns on billboards, websites and other public places? That's just sensationalism. The practice, already employed in Orange and San Bernardino counties, is designed to embarrass the individuals caught soliciting sex, but is there any persuasive evidence that public humiliation actually results in less prostitution? If someone is convicted of solicitation, he or she has already gone through the shameful experience of being arrested, appearing in court and being sentenced, and the crime is in the public record. A public shaming on billboards and the Internet drags a john's family — his wife, his children, his parents — into the spotlight as well.
Such public shaming is even more troubling when law enforcement agencies publish the names and pictures of individuals who have been arrested or charged — but not convicted — of solicitation. That's what police agencies do in Fresno and Oakland. L.A. is targeting convicted johns.
In the United States, criminal penalties are spelled out in the law and judges decide punishments after conviction. By publishing the names and pictures of johns, the county would add another layer of punishment that doesn't exist for many other crimes.
There are no billboards with photos of rapists or child molesters or people who text and drive. While it's true that the names of registered sex offenders (including people convicted of pimping or sex trafficking) are put in the Megan's Law database, there is at least a public safety argument for that; there is no such argument for naming johns. It's simply deterrence-by-humiliation, and that's a practice that we gave up long ago.
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