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Objects That Matter: Party Plates

Public support for criminal registries has grown despite inconsistent evidence that they reduce crime, which social scientists attribute to a human need to feel a sense of control over threats.
An Ohio license plate.

For Ohioans, the 21st century's scarlet letter is not a crimson character on the chests of adulterers, but rather a yellow license plate reserved for drunk drivers.

Ohio and Minnesota are the only states that currently require offenders to use specialized license plates, but at least 14 other states have introduced similar legislation. Proponents say marked plates—also known as party plates—serve as an effective deterrent against drunk driving and warn anyone sharing the road to be vigilant. Others argue they encourage police profiling. Experts agree on one thing, though: We're likely to see more criminal registries and public notification schemes in the future.

Public shame as punishment goes back centuries; Napoleon, for example, branded convicted criminals with a hot iron, which served both as punishment and as a permanent criminal record. Public criminal registries, which took off in the 1990s to track sex offenders, serve similar purposes today. Now there are registries for drug dealers, animal abusers, even dangerous dogs.

Yet there is little evidence that registries prevent first-time offenses or reduce recidivism. At worst, they can effectively impose lifelong punishments.

With criminal justice reform sweeping the country, politicians looking to cut budgets without appearing soft on crime may swap prison sentences for punishments that leverage social control. As Nathaniel Hawthorne ominously wrote in The Scarlet Letter, "he will be known!"