Perp parades

The deceivingly simple story runs as follows

in early June a nationwide campaign to crack down on prostitution was launched. On July 5, the police paraded three handcuffed prostitutes on the streets of Dongguan (Guangdong). Pictures as the one below became instantly popular on the internet.

Responding to the public outcry, the Ministry of Public Security called a halt to this practice.

Some observations.

The prohibition of perp parades is nothing new, and besides it may not work as we expect. The problem lies not in perp parades per se, but in the broader approach to criminal justice

Parades were first prohibited in 1951, and then again in 1986 and in 1988. Death row inmates, convicted offenders (已决犯), criminal suspects (未决犯) and minor offenders (一切违法的人) cannot be paraded. This is what normative documents say. Reality is of course much different, so in the meantime parades and public arrest rallies have become a hallmark of criminal justice.

A public arrest rally was held a couple weeks ago in Loudi, Hunan, drawing an attendance of 6,000.

I wouldn't blame it on the police - public arrest and public sentencing rallies are organized by political-legal committees. While policemen sit in the committees, the committees are political, rather than administrative bodies. I wouldn't blame it on local political-legal committees either.

The reason why these and similar episodes take place lies in the educational and expressive role of punishment.

To put a long story short, the value and status of crime victims need to be reinstated. It must be conveyed to the public that victims are not only avenged by an all-powerful state - they are also superior to offenders. The point has been explained in a very simple way by Wang Shengping, the director of the local public security bureau:

Wang presumably knows how the rehabilitative approach to crime may just be rhetoric. Offenders should be paid back for their deeds. Such a bout of penal populism is not without problems, however.

The Dongguan pictures and the Loudi rally have been criticized on moral and legal grounds. News reports based on the PRC's English press underscore how "The Ministry of Public Security has ordered the police to stop parading suspects in public and has called on local departments to enforce laws in a rational, calm and civilized way".

Issuing a circular prohibiting perp parades is easy. Reverting the current retaliatory and vengeance-oriented approach to crime may take more time and effort.

In the meantime, we may witness a gradual change in the form of expressive punishment.

Sooner or later the sight of half-naked offenders or handcuffed prostitutes may be replaced by more familiar measures, as sex offender registries and/or other retributive practices, or by a less humiliating genre of perp walks.

Ultimately, Wang Shengping argued that suspects have to be somehow transported from detention centres to the rally venue (or the courtroom, I would add) in sight of the public.

How could one condemn such a legitimate action? Doesn't the public have a right to know how the criminal justice system works? Wang's opinion may be an unsophisticated one, yet it has some similarity with the far more articulated reasoning of Caldarola v. County of Westchester (2003), where U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that perp walks undertaken for a legitimate law enforcement purpose did not violate the suspect's rights.