IT'S WILLIE HORTON time again. President George Bush and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh have recently been pressuring Congress to pass the president's "tough" anti-crime bill that would, among other things, ensure that politicians can execute more criminals at a faster pace. Congress, in a panic over increased homicide rates from around the country, has responded enthusiastically: The House recently gave the president almost every item he wanted in passing a comprehensive crime bill.

Don't be surprised if these tactics prove useless. "Getting tough" on criminals -- hiring more police to arrest them, building more prisons to warehouse them and passing laws that make it easier to execute more of them -- has been tried before and has demonstrably failed to check the upward spiral of crime.

Crime rates in America and most Western countries have been on a steady climb since World War II. This year, according to FBI statistics, an estimated 23,000 people will be murdered in this country -- a new record. Worse yet, it is becoming clear to experts that our conventional theories -- chiefly rehabilitation, incapacitation and deterrence -- have failed miserably. So have many of our familiar assumptions about what causes crime. {See box.}

In the past few years, however, a new theory originating in Australia, that former penal colony, has kindled enthusiasm among scholars and policymakers alike. Based on the concept of public shame, it promises to shed new light on the causes and prevention of crime. A New Old Idea

Over the past decade, John Braithwaite, a professor of social science at the Australian National University in Canberra, has turned from pathfinding studies of corporate crime to the broader question of crime and crime control. His recent works promise to shake the field. He and fellow Australian scholar Philip Pettit argue for a system of "reintegrative shaming."

In this conception, an individual is related to his community by rituals of shame and affirmation: the former provides both a disincentive for antisocial behavior and a means of public atonement; the latter offers the possibility of reintegrating the repentant criminal into the larger society. It is not a new notion. Many so-called "primitive" societies deter and punish crime through rites of ostracization. In ancient Rome, criminals had the doors of their houses burned. In Puritan New England, the stocks had a similar function; Hawthorne's Hester Prynne wore a scarlet letter. In modern-day societies which emphasize collective responsibility -- such as China and Cuba -- citizens publicly denounce wrongdoing as a part of the trial process.

Yet contemporary Western societies have forsaken this venerable apparatus. Our punishments take place out of the public eye, with no method whereby the criminal can express shame and atonement to victims or his community. Conversely, we have no system for restoring a punished criminal's place in his society or for removing the indelible stigma of the convict. Instead, Braithwaite says, we need a system that "sharply terminates disapproval with forgiveness, instead of amplifying deviance by progressively casting the deviant out," a system in which expressions of community disapproval are followed by "gestures of reacceptance into the community of law-abiding citizens."

Such a concept involves rethinking the entire nature of social disapproval and the forms it can take. Ideally, Braithwaite says, reintegrative shaming is a preventive strategy rather then a punitive one, entailing changes at the family, school and community level. Shaming methods can be as informal as frowns, shunning and gossip, or as stylized as public confrontation and humiliation. The important thing is that the opprobrium be intense and visible, followed by the opportunity for future readmission.

"When a parent punishes a child," Braithwaite says, "both parent and child know that afterward they will go on living together as before. The child gets his punishment as a matter of course -- but within a continuum of love, rather than as a distinct and dangerous outsider."

In the larger social family, the theory implies that "punishment need be no more severe than is required to communicate the degree of community disapproval appropriate to the offense." The punishment should be visible and newsworthy "so that consciences can be molded by the unambigious communication of the abhorrence that society extends toward criminal acts."

Braithwaite and his colleagues acknowledge that some criminals will have to be incarcerated. But if shaming and reintegration can truly control crime, then, as Braithwaite puts it, "contemporary imprisonment would seem a terribly misguided institution." Braithwaite and Pettit call for "less criminal law, less police surveillance, less prosecution and less punishment -- until evidence emerges that crime increases as a result." Looking East . . . and West Public shaming is gaining recognition in the United States. Last week, the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved an "adverse publicity" penalty (also known as the "Hester Prynne" sanction) for institutional crimes. Under the proposal, a judge would require a convicted corporation to publicize its conviction in newspapers or on TV. One shipbuilding corporation, convicted of toxic-waste dumping, recently was ordered to run an ad in The Wall Street Journal, and many judges around the nation have already ordered similar sanctions.

Traditionally, however, criminal justice systems in the West have moved to "uncouple" punishment from shaming. "The public visibility of the pillory and the chain-gang were replaced by penal practices to warehouse offenders away from public view," write Braithwaite and Pettit. "Public executions and flogging became private executions and floggings." While Braithwaite and Pettit applaud the demise of public flogging, they argue that "the uncoupling of shame and punishment . . . in many Western countries is an important factor in explaining the rising crime rates in those countries."

In contrast, Japan, which has seen a downward trend in crime rates since World War II, saw a "re-establishment of cultural traditions of shaming wrongdoers, including an effective coupling of shame and punishment." Braithwaite points out that while it is exceptionally rare in the United States for a corporate executive implicated in wrongdoing to publicly adopt a repentant role, in Japan "the public is regularly plied with media coverage of repentant executives pleading public forgiveness and promising corporate rehabilitation."

To be sure, Japanese society is much more rigid and ethnically homogenous than many Westerners could tolerate. "Given the choice between living in Tokyo with its safe streets and its stultification of diversity, and living in New York with its dangerous streets, its high crime rate but its tolerance for diversity and its artistic and intellectual ferment, I would choose New York," says Braithwaite. "But I don't think that's the choice we have to make. We can choose to struggle for a society that is strong on toleration of diversity outside the constraints of the criminal law, but that is also very strong on disapproval of violation of the criminal law -- that's both strong on rights and strong on duties to comply with the criminal law."

But could rituals of public shaming actually work in the United States, with its vastly heterogenous population and wide variety of cultural values?

There is reason to doubt. Sociologist Thomas Scheff, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, says that in our civilization, shame is ignored: "Except under extreme circumstances, we deny its existence." Braithwaite concedes that it would be a mistake to "assume that Japanese cultural traditions of repentance can readily be transplanted to the West."

He cites two examples. In the first, two American servicemen were accused of raping a Japanese woman. They hired a Japanese lawyer who secured private reconcilation with the victim. A letter was presented to the court stating that the victim had been fully compensated and that she absolved the Americans completely. At a subsequent hearing, the judge asked the Americans if they had anything to say. "We are not guilty," the servicemen said. The Japanese lawyer cringed; it had not occurred to him that they would fail to assume the proper repentant role. The judge sentenced both men to a maximum term of imprisonment.

By contrast, the second example involves a Japanese woman who arrived in the United States with a large amount of U.S. dollars which she had not accurately declared on the entry form. It was not a case that would normally have been prosecuted: There was doubt that the woman understood the form; moreover, the law was designed to catch proceeds of illicit activity, and there was no suggestion that that was the case. After leaving the airport, the woman voluntarily wrote to the Customs Service, acknowledged her violation and asked forgiveness. She raised no defense. The Justice Deparment prosecuted the case.

Those considerable cultural differences notwithstanding, Braithwaite believes that a fundamental social consensus can make shaming practices viable even among the most radically dissimilar cultures. After all, in Australia, he writes, "Aboriginals might reject the white man's criminal justice system, might believe that it discriminates viciously against blacks, might have a different view of the punishment appropriate, might view their traditonal justice system as superior, but at least there is general agreement between Aboriginals and whites in Australia that the behavior criminalized by white man's law should be criminalized."

Of course, shaming is no panacea, and Braithwaite is conscious of the broader social forces that affect the crime rate. He acknowledges that societies with more unequal distribution of wealth and power will have greater crime problems at both ends: Inequality causes crimes of poverty motivated by need and crimes of wealth motivated by greed.

This problem is exacerbated by criminal-justice systems which encourage "disintegrative shaming," thus dividing the community by "creating a class of outcasts" and pushing offenders "toward criminal subcultures." The problem becomes particularly acute in societies in which large numbers of people are prone to humiliation. In a recent book, UCLA Sociologist Jack Katz puts forth his view that violence and rage are "livid with the awareness of humiliation." Humiliation directly provokes violence. "It is not by chance that homicides among mates so often spring from complaints about sexual performance and acknowledgments of sexual infidelity," writes Katz, who regards humiliation as a driving force in much violent crime.

Braithwaite incorporates these ideas into his theory by noting that some societies and institutions are structurally more humiliating than others. "For a black, living in South Africa is structurally more humiliating than living in Tanzania. Living in prison is structurally more humiliating than living in a nursing home, and the latter is more humiliating than dwelling in a luxury apartment. Slavery is structurally more humiliating than freedom."

Braithwaite calls Adolph Hitler "the greatest white-collar criminal of our century" and says that "Hitler's appeal was the appeal of humiliated fury." War crimes are in part about "being humiliated, wanting to humiliate and fear of being humiliated on both sides of the conflict." The Fragile Future The post-World War II generation in the United States has known nothing but steadily increasing crime. But crime rates in the United States took a long tumble for a hundred years from the second quarter of the 19th century to the second quarter of the 20th. They only began to shoot up again in the postwar era. Increasing crime is not an inevitability. But it, and much worse, will be our destiny if we continue to make policy through fear, loathing and politicians calling for more prisons and more executions. We need to look to new solutions -- to a community-controlled criminal justice system that publicly shames truly egregious behavior, from personal assault to pollution of the water supply to white-collar looting of financial institutions.

"What is certain is that societies that lack the capacity to exert community control over breaches of duty -- and to exert community control to protect freedoms -- will lose their freedom," Braithwaite writes. "To the extent that moralizing social control collapses, a vacuum is created that will attract the most brutal, repressive and intrusive of police states."

Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the weekly Corporate Crime Reporter and the author of "Corporate Crime and Violence: Big Business Power and the Abuse of the Public Trust."