If you’re caught stealing in Bradford County, everyone could know.
They won’t find out from just small-town gossip or social media, but from seeing you hold a sign stating your crime.
For about a year, Judge Richard B. Davis from the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Florida has allowed offenders of misdemeanor crimes, like petty theft, the choice of sign duty as a special condition to their probation.
Davis refused to comment on the subject.
Michael Reeves, spokesman for the Eighth Judicial Circuit, wrote in an email that if offenders do not want probation, they can receive jail sentences or fines, but it’s up to the court to decide.
Reeves wrote that Davis has noticed an improvement in the behavior of people convicted of petty crimes and will continue to implement this method if it’s appropriate.
Capt. Brad Smith, spokesman for the Bradford County Sheriff’s Office, said the sign duty is an interesting twist for probation, and an overwhelming number of people in town support it. The people feel offenders need to pay back to society what they stole and show the consequences of committing a misdemeanor crime, he said.
“If you commit a crime in Bradford County, we’re going to hold you to it,” Smith said.
When families drive by sign holders, parents have an opportunity to talk to their children about consequences and that conversation can prevent future theft, he said.
Smith said when he was at lunch recently, the discussion turned to sign duty and how lately, they haven’t seen anyone carrying a sign.
It has tapered off within the last two or three months, probably because it has shown the possible ramifications of committing a crime, he said.
Joy Beck, probation supervisor for Tri-County Probation, listed in an email rules offenders must abide by while holding the signs: Their service must be held during daylight hours, they should dress weather-appropriate and they cannot obscure their identity. Also, they must not have any handheld devices.
Art Forgey, spokesman for Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, said he couldn’t recall a single time an offender in Alachua County has been given a court-ordered option to carry out sign duty as part of their probation.
“It surprises us sometimes what (judges) do,” he said. “It’s not the court’s job to shame someone or belittle them further.”
Jonathan Cohen, a University of Florida professor and expert in alternative dispute resolutions—methods of resolving legal issues without going to court—said the sign holding is a form of public shaming that is unusual in society, but not unheard of.
“For many people, this comes across as dehumanizing to have someone standing like that,” he said. “I expect that the judge was thinking that this will have more of an impression than just going to jail.”
People can go to jail and not experience a lot of shame for what they’ve done, he said. It’s more effective when a person is part of a community they know. Cohen believes some judges would say public shaming would reduce the likelihood someone would repeat committing the same kind of crimes.
But Cohen believes it’s important, especially in public shaming probations, that criminals get reintegrated to society as first-class citizens rather than a stigmatized second-class citizen.