Public shaming has been a part of the criminal justice system for as long as that system has existed. In Colonial America, punishments could include time in the stocks or pillories in the public square. It was humiliating, as passers-by were free to heap scorn and throw rotten food and garbage, but that humiliation was at least confined to the people of the village.

More recently, public shaming has come in the form of weekly police logs. Those long lists of local people and their alleged crimes are always popular reads, but in the age of paper-only publications, each installment came and went from the public consciousness in a matter of days.

Now, however, whether the logs are published by newspapers or, increasingly, by the police departments themselves, they live forever online, available at the click of a button to a prospective employer, landlord or date – not to mention the legions of social media users who relish spreading other people’s bad news.

That raises questions about how well the punishment actually fits the crime, and whether at a time when the Internet has lengthened everyone’s memory, society needs a different perspective on how we judge each other’s mistakes.

ARRESTS, NOT ACQUITTALS, GET ATTENTION

This issue was raised this week as the South Portland Police Department began posting on its Facebook page the arrest photos of people charged with drunken driving. The photos will be left up for a few days, then taken down, the department said.

That’s not the case for the social media sites of other local departments, such as Westbrook and Scarborough, which post weekly crime reports containing all arrests along with mug shots, and appear to keep them up there indefinitely.

The arrest reports are, of course, public records. Often, the more high-profile crimes are subsequently reported in the media.

But at least with media reports, the story is usually followed through until conviction, so there is a complete record available online.

Police reports, though, come without context and before adjudication, and there is no follow-up. If the charges are later dropped or reduced, or the person is found not guilty, that information will not be easily found, but the initial arrest report and mug shot will. And online, they will be subject to the worst impulses of people too quick to pile on.

The public shaming may make someone less likely to drive drunk, but so do hefty fines, lawyer fees, loss of license and threat of jail. Those latter punishments, which are applied only after conviction, have worked well to reduce the incidence of drunken driving in Maine.

It is unlikely, however, that public shaming has much of an impact on habitual drunken drivers, who are the most dangerous and cause the most harm.

UNEQUAL TREATMENT OF SUSPECTS

There is also an issue of fairness. Police officers typically have discretion when charging a person with operating under the influence. Some people are arrested, taken into custody and photographed. Others – often those who are known to the officer or are part of the community – are summonsed and allowed to go home.

Photos are particularly damning in the public arena, far more so than just a typed line on a report, so it hardly feels right that for the same crime, one person’s punishment – handed out even before trial – includes having their picture sent in shareable form to thousands of neighbors, while for others it does not.

Still, these are public records. Whether through police, the media or an intrepid community member with a website, they could find their way online.

Perhaps, then, we need to look at them for what they are: a snapshot of a person at their worst, but just one small piece of who they are.

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