Shame, Shame, Shame

Judge Ted Poe's shame-based punishments have brought him fame and the D.A.'s job...if he wants it

Poe's judicial brethren muttered to themselves a bit at his propensity for getting on television, but he has outlasted all his critics. The newcomers who serve with him now are no longer surprised by anything he does.

Poe makes no apologies for the carnival atmosphere his actions sometimes generate. Any publicity that shows the justice system at work is good publicity, he says. The public can relate easily to stories about criminals being forced to clean a historic cemetery or restore a rusted battleship, and can get a sense of justice being done.
Lights, camera, action: A Poe probationer apologizes.
Michael Hogue
Lights, camera, action: A Poe probationer apologizes.

Over time, the punishments Poe meted out began to take on an element that seemed based on shaming the defendant.

In 1994 a piano teacher who pled no contest to charges of fondling two preteen girls was forced to sell his piano and put a sign in front of his house for the next 20 years saying no children were allowed inside.

Three years ago Poe began to increase his use of what he calls "public punishments."

A wife-beater was ordered to apologize on the steps of City Hall, in front of his wife, Poe, police officers, baffled passersby -- and a dozen news cameras.

Since then 84 nonviolent first offenders have been ordered to carry signs in front of stores they've robbed, or apologize to co-workers, or otherwise inform the world what a wretch they are.

All but three of the 84 have stayed on the straight and narrow since then, Poe says.

He says, and attorneys agree, that he spends a lot of time interviewing defendants before deciding what conditions of probation to impose.

"It's usually a young, nonviolent first offender who is concerned about their conduct; they're concerned about what they did, and they're remorseful," he says. "They have an attitude you can work with. Some people just don't want to be bothered and say, 'Just go ahead and send me to jail.' The question I ask is can we work with this person and can they get their life together, because most of their lives are a mess."

The point of the public punishment, he says, is to make the defendant wake up.

"The reason for creative sentencing is to instill responsibility -- sending someone to a penitentiary doesn't do that," he says. "You have little Bobby Oglethorpe in front of you, and it's the most important day of his life. You've got to get his attention. You just can't hand him over to the probation department and let them take care of it."

Poe does, indeed, get intimately involved with many of his cases. If he orders someone to get a high school diploma, he makes sure they send him report cards along the way. His interviews with defendants before he imposes probation conditions can be lengthy; if the defendants' parents are in the courtroom, they're likely to get quizzed too.

Poe still manages to keep his docket as current as any in the courthouse. To some degree, that's because of his workaholic habits; it's also thanks to the fact that many of the "noncreative" sentences are doled out quickly. It doesn't take much time to put someone away for as long as the law allows.

Not everyone is completely enamored with the concept of shame-based sentencing, but the trend is definitely growing.

The atrium at Atlanta's City Hall features a "Wall of Shame" jammed with mug shots of convicted prostitutes and their johns. Drunk drivers in several counties across the nation are forced to wear colored wristbands denoting their crime. States such as Ohio, Oregon and Minnesota have special license plates for repeat drunk drivers.

And of course, there are the people forced to carry signs.

"I don't see the point of having someone stand around in public carrying a sign saying, 'I'm a jerk,' " says veteran legal activist James Harrington of the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project. "Maybe in one or two cases it might work, but it doesn't teach accountability as much as active community service does. If someone burglarizes a house, for instance, make them work for Habitat for Humanity. But carrying a sign saying, 'I'm a worthless toad' doesn't make much sense."

Poe, naturally, disagrees.

"The sign is not just for the benefit of the defendant; it's for the benefit of the community," he says. "People walk by and see it and they say to themselves, 'I ought not to steal, because it could be me carrying that sign.' "

Poe has become the poster boy for the trend. In 1997 he appeared on Oprah and in Ann Landers's column because of his sentencing of a 19-year-old who got drunk and slammed his van into another car, killing two people.

Poe gave him ten years' probation with the following conditions, among others: boot camp; erecting and maintaining a cross and Star of David at the accident site; carrying pictures of the victims in his wallet for ten years; observing the autopsy of a drunk-driving victim; placing flowers on the graves of the two victims on their birthdays for the next ten years; and carrying a sign outside a bar that reads, "I killed two people while driving drunk."

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