Can Public Shaming Be Good Criminal Punishment?

Shaming sentences grab headlines, but experts question whether they solve problems.

National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Sept. 9, 2013, 2 a.m.

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.

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