For a few hours every day last week, a 58-year-old man in Cleveland with a gray goatee, a ratty AC/DC T-shirt, and a backwards hat wore a sign around his neck that clearly labeled him as an idiot. “I apologize to officer Simone & all police officers for being an idiot calling 911 threatening to kill you,” it read. “I’m sorry and it will never happen again.”
The man, Richard Dameron, didn’t wear the sign by choice: It was part of his punishment — along with 180 days in jail — ordered by municipal Judge Pinkey Carr.
The practice is called public shaming, and it’s the kind of creative punishment that is being ordered by judges around the country, from court-mandated dinners at Red Lobster to wearing a chicken suit on the side of a road. And it could actually work to not only cut down on low-level crime, but to help slash ballooning state and local budgets as well.
Jessica Eaglin, the counsel for the justice program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, says that some judges may view public shaming as more forward-looking than retributive punishments. Forward-looking public shaming is more deterrence-based, says Eaglin, and can have an impact on an entire community instead of just one person. For low-level crimes in small towns, “that’s where the public shaming comes in,” Eaglin says. “It’s reflecting on your life, people are watching you, and that’s going to affect your behavior more than just paying a fine.”
Not everyone agrees. “This kind of public shaming has no record of efficacy in turning someone away from crime,” Peggy McGarry, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, said in an e-mail. McGarry thinks this is especially true for small-town, low-level offenders:
In a small town or even a small city, subjecting someone to this might cause them to lose their job or jeopardize their chances for future employment, housing, and/or credit, and subject family members to humiliation.
Public shaming punishments aren’t just about trying to deter future crimes, or embarrassing low-level offenders to the extent that they would never think to relapse. They’re also about the economics of the fiscally broken state and local criminal-justice system.
The state and local prison system in the U.S. is something of a disaster right now, with more than 1.3 million inmates in state prisons in 2012. That has resulted in some tough budgeting for states around the country, and has led some judges to think a bit more with their wallets. As states become increasingly strapped for cash, there’s been greater “enthusiasm” for creative sentencing designed to keep offenders out of prison while addressing underlying problems, says Eaglin.
But putting a sign around Richard Dameron’s neck and making him stand out in public for hours doesn’t necessarily solve any underlying problem. “I don’t perceive it as being a particularly effective approach to deter him from an idiotic action,” says Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. And the context of the sign and the situation is so narrow, La Vigne says, that it’s unlikely to deter others. La Vigne, like McGarry, worries that this kind of public shaming could just demonize low-level offenders who are in difficult personal situations and leave them in an unending cycle of crime and abuse.
The economics of public shaming and alternative sentencing can still be compelling. And there are more ways to shame someone than making him or her dress up like a chicken or don a cardboard sign. La Vigne points to publishing the names of people who solicit prostitution, a type of public shaming that she thinks could be “very effective” in deterring sex crimes. And if you can deter sex crimes, then you can also deter spending money on housing a prisoner. That is an especially big deal for the kind of low-level criminals who are often frequent offenders and wind up in state and local jails on short sentences time after time.
There are fiscally responsible ways of handling repeat offenders aside from just shaming them. Those “chronic misdemeanants” are often drug or alcohol abusers, and many jurisdictions are turning to sobriety centers or supportive housing programs for the chronically homeless, says La Vigne.
Even though the scattered sentences have been reasonably high profile, public shaming is currently not a common practice in the U.S. criminal-justice system. But as state and local governments look to more creative sentencing to get around budget issues, it’s easy to imagine more judges following the path of Cleveland’s Pinkey Carr. The issue now is finding a way to keep low-level offenders both out of the criminal-justice system’s revolving door, and also out of the stocks.