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‘Sex purchasers’ publicly shamed

The Los Angeles Times
| Thursday, November 20, 2014 6:06 p.m
USNEWSJOHNSHAMINGLA
Susan Kang Schroeder, pictured here, says Orange County's decision to post the mug shots of sex purchasers is aimed at curbing sex trafficking by scaring away potential customers. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Mark Gagan, a police captain in Richmond, Calif., thought he’d found an effective crime deterrent this fall when he posted mug shots of the men arrested in prostitution stings on the department’s Facebook page.

But what happened next shocked him. Although police listed the suspects’ names, Facebook users went onto the page to add their home addresses, workplaces, schools they attended and even graduation years.

“It went way beyond what I thought,” Gagan said, “and it gave me pause.”

Within 72 hours, he ordered the whole thing taken down.

Public shaming as a form of punishment goes back to the days of Puritan colonists. In recent years, it’s become a strategy for police departments targeting the sex trade.

In National City, Calif., authorities reportedly funneled the names of suspects to the local newspaper and, if the person was a teacher, a cop or in the military, notified employers. In Stockton, photos of those convicted were shown on a weekly cable “John TV” program.

But Orange County prosecutors are taking the tactic to another level: Asking every police agency in the county to hand over photographs of offenders so that they can be posted on the district attorney’s website under the heading “Sex Purchasers.”

The county’s largest city, Anaheim, home to Disneyland, has joined the effort and will publish the identities of those convicted.

In cities such as Fresno and Oakland, mug shots stay online for two weeks, but in Orange County, the men’s faces will remain posted indefinitely.

The effort is aimed at curbing sex-trafficking by scaring away potential customers, said Susan Schroeder, chief of staff for the district attorney.

“These men have to understand when they purchase a woman like she’s a commodity, they’re probably purchasing someone that has been trafficked,” Schroeder said. “They need to stop doing these things, and this is part of the consequences of the action.”

Orange County’s move is expected to heighten debate over whether public shaming is effective at reducing prostitution and whether it exposes johns to too much scrutiny.

Emma Andersson, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, said in an email that the aim of the criminal justice system should be rehabilitation, rather than “the banishment and isolation of individuals from a community.”

Prosecutors, however, argue that shaming brings a level of transparency to the secretive sex trade.

“All this crime that used to be behind closed doors, dark curtains, we’ve opened up and shed a light on it,” said San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos, whose office started publishing photos of johns in April 2013. “We need to hold these people responsible, and here’s a way to do it. I truly believe it’s working.”

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