"I saw your picture in the paper last week," a woman whispered to my friend at a child's birthday party we were attending. "I had to hide it from Aiden so he wouldn't think you're a bad guy."
She was referring to his mugshot, published without his consent by the Gaston Gazette newspaper. It was taken after he was arrested on the über-serious charge of failure to appear for a speeding ticket. It was also published online and in The Slammer, that low-budget specialty paper that sits on your local gas station counter next to synthetic ginseng shots and those little roses in glass tubes I'm told people use as crack pipes.
On average, 36,000 people are arrested, processed and detained every day in America by our overzealous legal system, and the majority of those arrests are for nonviolent crimes. Their faces are thrust upon you in the checkout line, or in your morning paper, both as low-hanging fruit meant for you to ridicule and as examples of what happens when you "misbehave."
Peddling photos of other people's misfortune is a lucrative operation for The Slammer's creator, Isaac Cornetti. Although the Raleigh-based Slammer is privately held and does not publish its earnings, the Christian Science Monitor recently reported it takes in four times the revenue of the average local paper.
Perhaps this is why other local papers have decided to get in on the mugshot-publishing action. While Cornetti freely admits his rag doesn't offer much in the way of journalistic excellence, publications that have won numerous awards for such a thing, like the Charlotte Observer, are now stooping to The Slammer's level.
While the Observer does not put mug shots in print, it does publish them daily online, right smack in the middle of its home page where you can't miss them, most likely in an effort to up their page views.
They've obviously given consideration to how this will affect ad sale rates, but have they thought about how it negatively affects peoples' lives? Have they thought about how many people will ultimately not be convicted of any crime but whose arrest will show up in search engine results every time a potential employer runs a background check?
Has Cornetti ever considered the emotional damage done to children who go to buy a pack of gum at the corner store and see their parent's photo on the front page of his publication? Have readers ever considered the moral implications of perusing through their neighbors' pain for their own personal entertainment?
Mugshots are a matter of public record, so it's legal to publish them, but what's legal and what's right are sometimes different.
Are you having trouble sympathizing with these arrestees — these American citizens whose constitutional rights to due process are getting trampled as they are convicted in the public archives before they're ever given the opportunity to plead their case in court?
Well, consider the case of my friend I mentioned earlier. He was arrested for missing his court date, but his court date had been changed and the order for arrest was issued by mistake, due to a clerical error. His case was dropped, but not before his photo was snapped and published, causing business associates to view him differently and mothers to tell him they worried he would now strike fear in the hearts of their children.
There's also the case of my former co-worker who was arrested and charged with a DWI. As a recovering alcoholic, she hadn't had a drink in years. She'd actually had a stroke while driving and was detained and processed before the authorities got her medical attention. Her colleagues brought the paper containing her mugshot into the office to call for her termination and crack jokes about how she "fell off the wagon," only to find out later she'd be taking an extended leave of absence so she could learn to read and write again.
The Slammer doesn't print retractions when its subjects are found to be innocent. Neither do the local papers. Cornetti has contended that the public has a right to know who's been arrested so they can protect themselves. We might do better to protect ourselves from people like him who capitalize on kicking our neighbors during their darkest hours, and the journalistic outposts that feed into it. Rags like The Slammer tend to be a bigger scourge on our society than most of the people who appear in their pages.