Shaming Offenders Misses the Point; Rehabilitate Them

By Christopher Zoukis

Over the past several years, a number of criminal justice and social commentators have discussed the idea of shaming or guilting as an alternative sanction for minor criminal wrongdoing.  They have suggested that shaming or guilting is less expensive, more effective, and allows the offender to stay in the community -- thus enabling them to continue to work, take care of their children, and try to make amends for their crimes.  While the ideas of shaming and guilting are an interesting form of social chastisement, they miss the point by simply making the criminal feel bad about their actions, while failing to treat them for what ills them.  This might make us feel better since the lawbreaker is receiving just deserts (retribution for their crimes), but fails to fix the problem in the first place.  And this places Americans in a precarious position: feeling good about the shaming of the offender, but leaving us with a false sense of security since the underlying problem has not been resolved.

Several years back, in a Boston Globe essay entitled "Shame Is Worth a Try," Dan Kahan suggested that offenders should be shamed for their crimes, and that these shamings will change the offender's behavior and make them no longer engage in such activities.  He supported his belief by stating that the "sanctions are much cheaper than jail" and "allow the offender to continue earning an income so he can compensate his victim, meet his child-support obligations, and the like."  Kahan argued that "shame is cheap and effective and frees up scarce prison space for the most serious offenses."

The examples presented by Kahan are colorful and intriguing, particularly for victims of crime.  Employees in Wisconsin who steal from their employers "might be ordered to wear a sandwich board proclaiming [their] offense[s]."  In Florida and Texas, drunk drivers "might be required to place conspicuous 'DUI' bumper stickers on [their] car[s]."  And in Virginia, a person who refuses to "make [] child support payments," might "find that [their] vehicle has been immobilized with an appropriately colored boot (pink if the abandoned child is a girl, blue if a boy)."  For many, such punishments bring a warm sense of retribution for the offender getting what's coming to them.  After all, who doesn't want to see a deadbeat dad held accountable for his failure to pay for his own children or a person convicted of a DUI forced to slap bright orange bumper stickers to their car proclaiming that they are a drunk?

Kahan's theory makes some very good points.  Alternatives to incarceration, such as shaming or guilting, cost much less than terms of imprisonment (it currently costs an average of $32,000 a year to incarcerated a federal offender).  They allow wrongdoers to work through their offenses and keep some semblance of a life together, including their families together.  And they even provide a vehicle through which offenders can learn from their crimes and allow this experience to help them grow socially and morally and not commit such crimes again in the future.  In these lights, crime prevention and punishment tools like these are a very good idea.

Another Boston Globe Commentator, June Tangney, partially supports this idea in her essay, "Condemn the Crime, Not the Person."  Ms. Tangney put her own spin on guilt and shame.  According to her, "shame and guilt are distinct emotions with very different implications for subsequent moral and interpersonal behavior."  She asserted that "shame often makes a bad situation worse" by the shamed individual employing defense mechanisms, some of which can escalate the situation and and actually reify the problem.  Guilt, on the other hand, is "more likely to foster constructive change in future behavior because what is at issue is not a bad, defective self, but a bad, defective behavior."

Tangney presented several examples of how this guilting could be put into practice.  Her ideas align with the restorative justice school of thought.  "Drunk drivers, for example, could be sentenced to help clear sites of road accidents and to assist with campaigns to reduce drunken driving."  Another example is that "Slumlords could be sentenced to assist with nuts and bolts repairs in low-income housing units."  Tangney explains, "In this way, offenders are forced to see, first-hand, the potential or actual destructiveness of their infractions and they become actively involved in constructive solutions."

In the grand scheme of things, these ideas are an improvement upon our incarceration nation theme of corrections.  The problem, though, is that both miss the point of fixing people, instead both, to greater or lesser degrees, focus on creating a deterrent to crime, but don't actually fix the people engaging in the crime.  And they only go so far as to suggest that alternative to incarceration sentencing should be used for the lowest level of nonviolent offenders.  This is a mistake of the greatest degree, albeit one which is perhaps more politically palpable than the concept of us throwing away over $52 to $62 billion annually on a broken criminal justice system that doesn't fix the broken people confined therein.

We as Americans have to face the fact that America's criminal justice system is an overbloated, expensive failure.  It does not fix people, but punishes them and harms their chances for a successful reintegration back into society following their term of imprisonment.  The general public's understanding of this has led to these discussion concerning alternatives to incarceration, alternatives that might actually fix the wrongdoer, not merely lock them away for years or decades on end and then release them without adequate treatment.  But the shaming and guilting discussion don't go far enough.  It's not enough to make crime painful or personally shameful for the offender, we have to treat the offender.  This means drug treatment, sex offender treatment, individual or group therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and even traditional education.  These are the tools to stopping repeat crime, not bumper stickers, sandwich board signs, and pink or blue car boots.

Until the American public supports meaningful treatment protocols for those who violate our nation's laws and mores, recidivism will continue to plague our cities, neighborhoods, and even local streets.  While shaming and guilting offenders is an innovative and somewhat insightful answer to crime, it lacks the behavioral therapy required to actually fix wrongdoers.  And until this rehabilitational component becomes part of the national discussion on crime, we will continue to create deterrents to crime and facilitate the punishment of the criminal, but never resolve the issues that lead to crime in the first place.

Marisha Ray speaks with Allan MacDonell, the Social Justice Editor on TakePart.com, about our commenters strong feelings around prison sentencing.