A scarlet letter for sex offenders?

Judge orders man to wear T-shirt decreeing "I am a registered sex offender."

Published November 6, 2006 7:41PM (EST)

Just call him Hester Prynne.

A judge in Delaware has ordered gardener Russell Teeter, 69, to wear a T-shirt to work that says "I am a registered sex offender" in bold letters. For almost two years following the completion of his 60-day jail sentence, Teeter will be required to wear the shirt while on the job, according to the Associated Press.

Teeter, a serial exhibitionist, has never molested a child, but he has been convicted more than 10 times since 1976 of exposing himself to kids. He's been treated for being a compulsive exhibitionist, but claims recently going off his medication for depression caused him to regress. His latest offense was exposing himself to a 10-year-old girl while working at his horticulture business. The state's attorney general said that maybe Teeter's sex-offender couture plus jail time would "teach him to keep his zipper up."

Teeter's defense attorney compared the T-shirt sentence to a "modern day scarlet letter." A grown man exposing himself to a child is not really comparable to Nathaniel Hawthorne's heroine's crime of adultery. Yet, the sex offender T-shirt, like Prynne being forced to wear the scarlet letter "A," is a form of public shaming. As Drewry Fennell of the American Civil Liberties told the AP: "There is no evidence that public shaming is effective in public safety. And there are serious dangers posed to the person wearing the shirt, exposing them to possible violence."

When concocting punishments for sexual crimes, it's easy to get carried away, regardless of whether the punishment actually helps deter future crimes. With California voters poised to usher in tough new restrictions on sex offenders this Tuesday, including tagging them with electronic monitoring devices, just how far will we go in the name of protecting children from predatory older men?

Imagine a popular 2007 or 2008 state ballot proposition requiring all sex offenders to wear T-shirts declaring their status. Or, why stop at a sex offender T-shirt? How about an "SVP" tattoo, standing for "sexually violent predator," etched on each of their foreheads? It seems that prison inmates themselves have a jump on this form of "justice." One inmate in prison recently forcibly tattooed another con, a convicted child molester and murderer, in an act of revenge.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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