It's not unusual for newspapers to refuse to run advertisements--they make judgment calls all the time. Pornographic movies are often refused space in the local newspaper, and you probably wouldn't get away with calling your boss a sleazeball in the classifieds.
But what made the recent case of a Florida newspaper different was that the ad the paper refused to run had been ordered by a county judge. It was part of a sentence imposed on 43-year-old David Davis, who had pleaded no contest to charges that he had solicited a prostitute.
In December, Escambia County, Fla., Judge William P. White Jr. ordered about a dozen defendants, charged with crimes ranging from drunk driving to shoplifting, to buy display ads in the Pensacola News Journal with their photographs and statements explaining their crimes. The ads, which would have cost $72, were ordered instead of jail time.
This kind of sentence has been imposed on defendants--who are convicted or plead no contest--in various parts of the country since the 1980s. But the News Journal's refusal to participate in the punishment may signal an incipient backlash caused, in part, by newspapers' concerns over the propriety of accepting these so-called "humiliation" ads.
Pensacola's publisher said he objected to his newspaper becoming a vehicle for the court, while an Oregon publisher said such a practice could result in discrimination against those who cannot afford to buy the ads.
The Newport News-Times in Oregon ran a few "humiliation" ads in the late '80s, but now says it wouldn't if asked. The Providence Journal-Bulletin in Rhode Island published an ad paid for by a convicted child molester in November, 1989. (Providence readers were outraged that the man did not receive jail time.) Now, the paper says it would review the practice if asked to run another ad.
After much discussion and legal counsel, the Vero Beach, Fla., Press-Journal began running ads purchased by people convicted of driving under the influence about three years ago. However, Darryl Hicks, the paper's general manager, said he probably would not run ads for any other crime.
"There was considerable difference between what Judge White ordered in Pensacola and what we are doing here," Hicks said. "What the judge in Pensacola wanted to do was run ads for a whole array of charges and I would not approve that. . . . Also, pleading no contest is not the same as admitting guilt, so I would have difficulty with that."
When "humiliation" or "apology" ads began showing up in newspapers in the 1980s, the controversy centered on the effectiveness of the ads. Now, however, the debate has centered on the propriety of newspapers accepting them.
Indeed, the publisher of the Oregon newspaper now says that she would not run such advertisements.
"I don't think that we would be running ads like that anymore," said Mary Jo Parker. "I came (as publisher) in February of '87, and I believe we ran one shortly thereafter, and then we didn't receive any more," she said. Local judges stopped the practice, she said, probably because the new district attorney didn't like the punishment.
Although The Los Angeles Times has not been asked to run such ads, the newspaper does not have a policy specifically prohibiting them. Any request would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, said Jeff Klein, assistant to publisher.
The high cost of incarceration has forced judges and prosecutors in many states to consider alternatives to jail time. The rationale behind the ads, besides punishment, is deterrence, particularly in small towns. If you see a neighbor's photograph in the newspaper above a confession of driving under the influence, goes the rationale, you might think twice before trying it yourself.
Malcolm Young, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit Washington group that advocates sentencing reform and increased use of alternatives to incarceration, says that economically healthy states generally aren't as interested in such alternatives as poorer ones.
Historically, California has not been as interested in sentencing alternatives as some other states, but this may change, too. Last year, a Department of Corrections blue-ribbon commission found that during the last decade, the state's prison population and the amount of money spent on adult and juvenile facilities had each tripled even though the crime rate has remained constant.
The commission concluded that the California penal system is "out of balance" and that innovative measures must be taken to avoid prison and jail overcrowding. So far, no California judges have proposed newspaper ads in exchange for jail time, but Young thinks such a scenario is possible.