I recently had a discussion with somebody who had read the book "Children of Mother Earth" by the Dutch author Thea Beckman. She claimed that in the book, the idea was proposed to no longer lock up criminals, but mark them in the face instead so that people would recognize their crimes while looking it them.

The story is set in the future Greenland (now called Thule), post Worldwar III, where women lead the world and environment is more important than anything.

Below a (translated) paragraph from Wikipedia

Those who don't comply to the rules, are marked with a stamp right above the beard line. Once the mark is set, you are avoided by every Thuleen (inhabitant of the fictive country). A punishment with better results than imprisonment. The ink is very resistant and, depending on the color, remains visible on the skin for years. A green mark stands for environmental damage and is visible for 6 months, a red one for small crimes like vandalism and violence and is visible for 3 years. Purple is for severe maltreatment, visible for 5 years and black is for murder in the first and second degree and stays visible for 7 years. Most people marked with a black stamp volunteer to work in the mines.

She was convinced that this approach would make for a safe community, whereas I couldn't believe criminals would behave any better in the described world.

What would be the impact of a similar approach? Can you reference similar approaches in real life? How would criminals interact with people surrounding them? And would it really make for a better world?

Edit- As suggested below, I define a different focus for this question. Can you explain why this would be a good idea, e.g. why it would be as safe or safer than locking people up?

  • "Would policy X make the world a better place?" is slightly borderline for this community. Is there any chance I might be able to persuade you to reformulate this slightly to focus on the particularly philosophical/theoretical dimensions of the challenge or problem you're encountering here? In other words: can you ask for an explanation here rather than calling for extended speculation?
    – Joseph Weissman
    May 29, 2012 at 22:52
  • I was in doubt whether or not this belonged here, but I think it was the best option I had (on the stackexchange websites). Of course, feel free to answer the reformulated question. I'm more interested in the debate than in an actual "answer".
    – Honoki
    May 29, 2012 at 23:57
  • 1
    I would encourage you to revise your question along the lines suggested above. Please keep in mind that StackExchange is not a debate forum, but rather a Q&A community focused more around explanations than discussions
    – Joseph Weissman
    May 30, 2012 at 2:47
  • I edited my first post to include the shift of focus.
    – Honoki
    May 30, 2012 at 14:21
  • As long as crimes are rare, I can imagine it working: people can be influenced a lot by social pressure. But it doesn't always work: eg. prison tattoos show there are many places where being known as a criminal isn't a stigma.
    – Jack V.
    May 31, 2012 at 12:58

4 Answers 4


This notion is known as the Badge of Shame, and has been used by various cultures at various times, with various levels of success (for varying definitions of success.) You'll find a fair amount of historical and anthropological literature on the subject. From a theoretical standpoint, I don't think you'll find too many people actually proposing it.

She was convinced that this approach would make for a safe community, whereas I couldn't believe criminals would behave any better in the described world.

This is a false dilemma; there's no reason why both statements cannot be true. The argument could be made that although criminals might not behave any better, they would be easily identifiable by the general population who could then behave differently in order to protect themselves.


In societies like Japan where village mentalities emerge very quickly, I think it could lead to the person being not only avoided, but being actively harassed and bullied. In societies where suicide is already prevalent, again, like Japan, these people may kill themselves as the shame and isolation may become too much to bear.

I can also imagine a situation where like-minded criminals congregate, which defeats the intended isolation. It might even embolden them to continue their crimes, or to begin political/rhetorical campaigns to convince others that they shouldn't be seen as criminals. They might end up having an inordinate amount of influence on politics.

This isn't exactly "real life", but as a crude analog, there's a zombie survival game called Day Z, where the scarcity of resources (water, food, ammunition, tools etc.) and the permanence of your character's death leads to players often killing other players for loot. Those who kill a certain number of players are marked as "bandits", and tend to become targets of vigilante justice. They generally don't survive very long.


I think of a different approach to deal with criminals i don't recommend prison only, while prison is sometimes a good idea to give a person sometime to sit alone, meditate and think alone without being influenced by any ideology or getting programmed by others without knowing. Thinking of your actions and trying to taking responsibility and thinking of the damage you have made to others might be a good approach sometimes.

but many times people don't do that. so i suggest that you take the opposite of the crime and apply it on the criminal. E.g if he damages public property --> i would suggest teach him how to volunteer and help the community if he steals --> i would make him work and feed needy people with his money if he kills (took a life)--> i would make him adopt a child and raise him or if he cant, i would make him responsible about a child who is raised by an Orphanage, by making sure he pays for him and taken to good education etc. the point is if you took a life from someone, give life to someone else, because you cant bring the dead back to life.

Thats what i think of, because i believe people who made mistakes can change and can become better and they should be given chances.

off course this strategy might not work with all criminal sick people, who will need a different approach.

may be the badge of shame that you suggested can work in certain situations, and it should be used as a last resort, because i think the damage it can cause is very bad.

to change the view of the community about a person will take many years to come. so may be prison and a bit of work to transform a person will work....


The goal of the jurisdiction of most democratic states today is the reintegration into society of criminals. Therefore, according to modern standards, a badge of shame would not be considered successful as it would obviously oppose this goal. Of course, in some cases, a reintegration is impossible - but wouldn't it be better to lock these up all their lfie instead of letting them walk around freely? And for all others willing to improve, a badge of shame would be an inappropriate punishment lasting to their death.

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