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Branded for life? Sending the wrong message to young perpetrators of family violence

"Dealing with a serious social problem by giving offenders a scarlet letter isn’t the best way to tackle the issue."

As part of a strategy to eliminate violence against women, an advertising campaign on digital channels, in cinemas and in high foot-traffic areas for young people uses a series of photographs depicting young men who have assaulted their girlfriends.

These men appear with the upper parts of their bodies bare and messages cut into their torsos. One video depicts a young man in a tattoo removal clinic, unsuccessfully trying to have the message ‘She pissed me off so I hit her’ removed from his back. In the background, he anxiously says: ‘I know it won’t come off.’

The video is part of the government-funded campaign ‘You Can’t Undo Violence’. It aims to encourage young people to reject violence and develop healthy and equal relationships. The overt message is good, but the implicit and visually graphic message – that an act of violence brands an offender forever – is troublesome.

Branding wrongdoers

Central to the advertising campaign is the idea that branding perpetrators is a good idea – obviously, not literally (although the video contains graphic imagery of a tattoo and a tattoo removal clinic) – but more generally by conveying the message that violence against a girlfriend is something that irredeemably marks the perpetrator, separating him from others, with no hope of reform or rehabilitation.

Tattooing or branding offenders as a form of punishment has a long history. In ancient China, tattooing offenders with indelible ink on their faces or foreheads was one of the Five Forms of Punishment. In Japan during the Edo period, a ‘tattoo penalty‘ could be imposed for nonviolent crimes.

In England during the 17th and 18th centuries, convicted felons were also sometimes branded. Offenders who successfully pleaded ‘benefit of the clergy’ (the right to be punished in an ecclesiastical rather than criminal court, resulting in a less severe penalty) would receive a brand on their hand. As this benefit could be asserted only once, branding became a way of ensuring that a person did not claim it repeatedly.

For a short period, convicted thieves were branded on their cheeks. This practice was abandoned when it was realised that it increased recidivism by making those punished in this way unemployable.

Indelibly marked, permanently shamed

What is common to these punishments, both real and fictional, is that they indelibly mark offenders, permanently shame and separate them from their fellow citizens. There is no possibility of rehabilitation; the stain on the wrongdoer is literally permanent. It marks them forever as separate from their community, their wrongdoing carried on their body and serving as a warning to others.

Such an approach reverberates with criminal justice principles of punishment and denunciation, which suits a conservative law and order approach to crime.

But this isn’t the best way to tackle the problem of violence against women, nor is it the message we want to send to young men. Offenders – especially those who are young – need to be offered the possibility of reform and rehabilitation.

And empirical research with adolescent offenders shows that such change is possible. Adolescent perpetrators of domestic violence should be given the same opportunities of rehabilitation and reintegration as other young offenders.

People familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter will also recall the fictional case of Hester Prynne. After having committed the crime of adultery, Hester was obliged to wear a scarlet ‘A’ on her clothing as both punishment and warning to all. There was no way Hester could be rehabilitated, no way she could ‘serve a sentence’ as punishment and be reintegrated into her community. The constant visual flagging of her crime to all ensured she was an outcast.

The campaign is just one example of the ways in which contemporary governments are increasingly abandoning the goal of rehabilitation and reverting to ‘branding’ offenders. In the United States, Congress has just passed legislation that requires convicted sex offenders to have a visual designation in a ‘conspicuous location’ on their passports to flag their status.

As usual, the motivation behind the legislation is good – to reduce sex tourism and international human trafficking. But, again, it is a good idea gone wrong. Marking passports in this way gives no indication of the likelihood of the person offending again.

And the ambit of the act is far too broad. ‘Sex offenders’ covered by the legislation include those convicted of consensually sexting as well as statutory rape cases involving a small age disparity between offender and victim and a consensual relationship.

Once again, dealing with a serious social problem by giving offenders a scarlet letter isn’t the best way to tackle the issue.

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