ANNAPOLIS – State lawmakers wrestling with the burgeoning problem of juvenile crime should follow the ancient example of New Zealand tribes and “shame” youthful offenders into going straight, a University of Maryland criminologist argues.
“Shaming ceremonies” – in which perpetrators are brought together in emotional confrontations with their victims – started as Maori tribal custom and are now the primary method of juvenile justice in New Zealand, Professor Lawrence W. Sherman said.
They are also being used in Australia and experimentally at police departments in Indianapolis and Bethlehem, Pa.
Sherman raised the idea with Maryland lawmakers during a recent speech.
His proposal is one of a number of creative approaches being touted in Annapolis this year as policymakers confront Maryland’s rising plague of youth crime, part of a national trend.
According to a recent report by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., Maryland ranks fourth in the nation in violent crime by juveniles.
State Police statistics show that juvenile arrests rose 29 percent between 1990 and 1994.
At the Department of Juvenile Justice, an exploding caseload has forced that agency to seek more money every year for the past five years.
“Our juvenile justice system is overwhelmed,” Curran says in the report. “If we do not change this landscape, Maryland’s prospects for reducing its crime rates over the long term are dim.”
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. concurs.
“We can no longer afford a band-aid approach to this problem,” the Allegany County Democrat said in a speech at the start of this year’s General Assembly session.
Taylor has organized a special conference on the subject to gather ideas from national experts. It is set for March 11 in Annapolis.
Sherman believes shaming ceremonies would be a good start toward controlling the problem. He told legislators that shame “may well be the most powerful vaccine available against people committing crime.”
In a shaming ceremony, a police officer presides. Family members and supporters of both the victim and the offender attend.
The offender must recount his crime, then listen to the victim explain the damage done.
“Very often offenders will be surprised by the amount of harm they have caused,” Sherman said. “Very often the offender’s family will start to cry, or to curse, or to condemn the offender.”
The ceremony ends with the group deciding how the offender should compensate his victim. If the offender does not make good on the terms, he is prosecuted.
Sherman is quick to distinguish shaming ceremonies from such approaches as public spanking, proposed recently by a New Hampshire legislator. Methods that employ humiliation stigmatize perpetrators, he said, making it more likely they will offend again.
With shaming ceremonies, “the offender comes out a cleaner person,” Sherman said. “It’s not how others see us, but how we see ourselves that keeps us from committing crimes.”
In other state initiatives this year on the subject of juvenile crime:
– Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, and 16 other delegates are sponsoring a bill making it illegal for adults to serve alcohol to minor guests in their homes.
Jacobs began pushing for change after seeing the body of a 15-year-old girl found behind the lawmaker’s home in Edgewood. The girl had been drinking in a home where adults were present and died of exposure after she was carried outside by some boys. Two of the boys have been charged with her murder.
– Curran’s report suggests increasing the use of metal detectors in schools. Metal detectors have been shown to reduce by half the number of weapons carried at school, the report says.
– Del. Timothy D. Murphy, D-Baltimore, wants police to give tickets to juveniles for minor offenses such as property damage or theft involving less than $100. The cited youths would perform community service.
– Dana Lee Dembrow, D-Montgomery, and two other delegates hope to establish a special fund to compensate victims. Offenders would be hired to perform manual labor for state agencies. Their wages would go into the fund.
– Del. Frank S. Turner, D-Howard, would require judges to suspend the driver’s licenses of youths found guilty of possessing alcohol, drinking at school or other alcohol violations. Currently, judges may suspend licenses in such cases but do not have to.
– The Department of Juvenile Justice is considering a program where offenders would earn money for restitution by working for local businesses. The “Earn It” program has been used successfully in Quincy, Mass., for 20 years. A task force on juvenile justice reform created last year and chaired by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has not yet released its recommendations. Its deadline for doing so is June 30. -30-