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Shame of the Kitty

August 09, 2007|BARRY H. GOTTLIEB | BARRY H. GOTTLIEB is a humor writer based in San Francisco.

Why is it most of us don't live a life of crime? Is it because we had the Ten Commandments drilled into our heads as children, so we now fear having Charlton Heston show up at our door wearing a nightgown and a long fake beard and threatening to burn down all our bushes if we don't straighten up? Or is it that our parents, teachers, nuns -- OK, anyone who came in contact with us during the formative years -- did such a good job of instilling guilt that we're afraid if we do something wrong it will eat away at us like it did to Christian Bale in "The Machinist"?

Both good possibilities, but chances are the main reason is that we're weenies and we're afraid of punishment. Which is, after all, the point of it. As the saying goes, if you do the crime, you should do the time. Unless you're "Scooter" Libby, of course. Even Paris Hilton made good on her probation violation by spending 23 days in jail. Granted it was 22 fewer days than it could have been, but that's because they took time off for good behavior, overwrought and highly entertaining crying in court and a promise to send four platinum mascara brushes to the warden's wife. Jail was, of course, the only way Paris could learn the error of her ways. After all, this is someone who, when told she had to pay her debt to society, whipped out Daddy's credit card.

But jail time and fines aren't the only ways to be punished; shame works well too. More judges are slapping postmodern scarlet letters on people because, well, if it worked for Hester Prynne, why not for John Doe?

A judge in Attalla, Ala., sentenced people convicted of shoplifting at the local Wal-Mart to walk around town wearing sandwich-board signs that say, "I am a thief; I stole from Wal-Mart." It's debatable which part of that sentence is the more embarrassing.

In Massachusetts last year, a man who threw a toga party was arrested for underage drinking, making too much noise and having an unlicensed keg. Part of his punishment was to wear a toga for an hour while standing in front of the police station -- no doubt with extra time being tacked on if he even thought about doing a John Belushi imitation.

Now, the acting chief of the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok announced this week that police officers who are convicted of misdemeanors, such as littering, parking in a prohibited area or showing up late for work, will not only be taken off the street and have to work in the station house, they'll have to wear pink armbands emblazoned with an image of Hello Kitty sitting atop two hearts. Hey, it beats having to tell the world you shop at Wal-Mart.

A second infraction will result in having to wear a Strawberry Shortcake party dress, and if officers don't learn their lesson and are caught a third time, they'll have a My Little Pony tattooed on their forehead. Just kidding. Actually it will be Cassie from "Dragon Tales."

Apparently there's nothing legally wrong with meting out shameful punishments. The 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment -- "and" being the operative word. A punishment can be unusual as long as it's not cruel too. It helps if it in some way fits the crime.

The key is appropriateness. Appropriate punishments are a good thing. If someone steals your identity, you should get to use his for a year. Sure, you're probably not real keen on the idea of adopting a criminal's identity, but think about it. Imagine the things you could do that you never would otherwise, safe in the knowledge that at the end of the year the rap sheet won't follow you around. If someone runs into your car, you should be able to play demolition derby with his. And if a thief breaks into your house and steals something, you should be able to go to his house and take whatever you want.

Of course, the right thing is to not commit a crime in the first place. But if you are going to shoplift, don't take a Hello Kitty armband from Wal-Mart, especially if you're a cop in Bangkok.



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