The Wednesday Weigh-In: Is public shaming a good alternative to incarceration?

This is definitely a slippery slope. But when I read about Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Pinkey Carr sentencing those found guilty in his courtroom to public shamings I thought to myself: I’d take it. Although I’ve never been sentenced to jail time, I’ve spent more than enough time behind bars (2 days to be exact; college) to know that some time on a corner with a sign is a better option.

There is are definitely some critique of the practices, especially those concerning the safety of those placed on public display after committing crimes that involve other people. Also, understanding that people of color are often disproportionately targeted and policed by law enforcement, this practice could easily become a literal display… of racism. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t perks to this model of criminal justice.

For working class people, who also represent a population that is overrepresented in the United States criminal justice system,being smacked with fines is another way in which they are tied to poverty. For those with families,jail time means time away from their children or other people in their care.  Also, if executed in a way that is safe and practical, these public displays of remorse can be a really effective way to reconnect folks with their communities.

Hearing about this reminds me of the potential for radical alternative justice practices, like peace circles. These are transformative practices are ways to deal with community conflicts and other harmful acts in a way that avoids the institutions that do more harm than good.

So what do you think? Does public shaming have the potential to be an alternative to incarceration or is it perhaps a step too far? If you were convicted of a crime, which punishment would you choose?

Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

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  • Alex Szele

    In principle, I can see it sounding promising. In practice, though, I fear America’s love affair with shaming people for sexual pro… well, shaming people for being sexual would wind up turning this into something terrible.

    There are already citizen shame campaigns run around the country putting people up on billboards for prostitution offenses and the like. Not to mention that this is exactly the kind of tactic that has been used by rabid anti-choice groups (sending photographs of women visiting abortion clinics to family/friends/employers).

    In short, America already loves to publicly shame people, and it usually goes horribly awry. Let’s not encourage it in a court system that has problems simply treating women and people of color with an even hand.

  • ELot

    No no no no no. Public shaming is a TERRIBLE and counterproductive idea.

    Shame constricts. It excruciatingly isolating and literally shuts off parts of the brain that would actually allow one to stay open to and learn from an experience. It is an emotion that, when experienced in the body like all other emotions, the brain reads as a death threat. We have to remember that we are mammals. This means we are social to our core; we literally need each other to survive. Shame cuts us of from any sense of belonging. Without this sense of belonging, we feel we deserve to die. Or we become sociopaths. This is what the explosion of neuroscience within the past decade has told us. The government needs to catch up.

    Shaming produces the following results:
    -defensive aggression
    -staying in hiding/withdrawing

    Remorse, on the other hand, causes movement towards repair and inner change. It’s a feeling of sadness or pain caused by realizing an offense has been committed against someone else. ***This is not possible to feel when we feel shame.*** (Guilt, often confused with shame and remorse, is a self-focused anxiety about a perceived wrong-doing.)

    The ultimate goal of shame is self-protection. This is obviously not helpful for incarcerated people, or the general public. That said, clearly there are layers of shame wrapped up in being incarcerated: the stigma, the so-often-abused-power dynamics, the conditions, etc. The U.S. prison system is most definitely in desperate need of fundamental changes, but public shaming is not the answer.

    • honeybee

      That’s kind of a dangerous position to take. Would you say that rapists shouldn’t be shamed then since it constricts their ability to learn from their actions and re-engage into society? Murderers?

      On one hand actually I think you may be onto something – as horrible as these crimes are it’s better if the offenders actually learn from what they did and try to move forward with their lives in a positive manner rather then being isolated and leading themselves into doing more of the same. On the other a certain period of shaming seems just.

  • QuantumInc

    I’m surprised that nobody has yet mentioned the LOOOOONG history of public shaming being used as punishment for crime. It varied greatly, but one can find examples throughout history. Roman Crucifixions combined public shaming with the death sentence, as well as any public execution to a degree. In that sense even if the transgressor was a lost cause, it provided an example to others, people might pride themselves on being law-abiding citizens and be reminded of the consequences in a visceral way. Though branding a person, forcing them to wear a mark on their clothes, or binding them in a designated public space could do the same thing. A well known specific example was the puritans who forced Adulterers (which included any pre-marital sex) who would wear a red “A” on them for life. Though they were hardly the only ones.

    I guess the question is: “Does it work?” Does it prevent the person themselves from repeating the crime? Would a person who sees the public spectacle avoid committing crimes? Or maybe it just instills a sense of paranoia in people who are law-abiding either way. To even make a real hypothesis you would need a good understanding of what motivates people, i.e. criminal psychology. There’s a lot of articles about this idea, how many include quotes from somebody with the criminal psychology PhD?

    But even with input from the criminal psychology community we can’t be sure this helps. A long term study would be needed. I’m a big fan of the scientific method, but I rarely hear about it being used when it comes to crime and punishment, probably because it presses such emotional hot-buttons for most.

    In theory a sense of shame and/or guilt is what motivates people to avoid crime. In theory being made a spectacle or a highly visible mark would enhance these feelings. But we can’t be sure enough to suddenly revert to ancient practices that many consider barbaric. Personally I always thought that shame came from a time when people died due to the limited resources and time people had to help each other with, and a system of shame allowed people to decide who that should be. Scarlet Letters were fatal if there was a bad harvest and people starved.

    Off hand I would definitely say NO for the reasons cited by others.

  • Marguerite Heyns

    This post reminded me of a really cool public shaming village level judicial model deployed in some parts of Southern Bangladesh. The judicial model was set up my a local feminist NGO and was based on a community level arbitration that collectively determined non-incarceration punishments for offenders. One of the cases they handled was the attempted rape of a local girl by four slightly older boys. The girl managed to escape and was brave enough to report the incident to the community council (made up primarily of women). Normally in Bangladesh rape is dealt with behind closed doors. Often victims don’t come forward, and if they do they are reprimanded instead of their attackers. In this instance, however, the community court held a public display where the boys had to publicly apologize for their actions and wash and kiss the girl’s feet (a huge deal). They also had to pay a fine to the girl’s family and were subsequently held accountable for their actions in the community. Additionally, it served to empower the girl and strip power from her aggressors in a very public way. Obviously this solution wouldn’t work in every case, but it was very successful in this case, and was specifically developed for this case. Moreover, it had a positive impact on the community’s perceptions of sexual assault.

    • ELot

      The example you described is certainly different (by U.S. standards) and a great way to empower the victim and hold the perpetrators accountable. While perhaps the washing and kissing of the girl’s feet hold very different weight in Bangladesh culture, I don’t really see this as an example of public shaming. The boys were not made to feel inherently inferior, defective, or “bad”, which would be shaming; they were instead held accountable for their actions . Very different things.