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Shaming Punishments

A Taxonomy Of Contemporary Shaming Punishments

American courts have fashioned a wide variety of shaming punishments. Although categorizing them risks understating their diversity, these penalties can be grouped into four classes: stigmatizing publicity; literal stigmatization; self-debasement; and contrition.

Stigmatizing publicity is the most straightforward. Penalties in this class attempt to magnify the humiliation inherent in conviction by communicating the offender's status to a wider audience. Some municipalities, for example, publish offenders' names in newspapers or even display them on billboards, a disposition that is especially common for men convicted of soliciting prostitutes. Other jurisdictions broadcast the names of various types of offenders on community-access television channels.

Literal stigmatization is just that—the stamping of an offender with a mark or symbol that invites ridicule. Some judges order petty thieves to wear T-shirts announcing their crimes. Others achieve the same effect with brightly colored bracelets that read "DUI Convict," "I Write Bad Checks," and the like. One judge ordered a woman to wear a sign declaring "I am a convicted child molester."

Less dramatic but even more common are penalties that attach stigmatizing marks to property. Some jurisdictions now require persons guilty of drunk driving to display special license plates or bumper stickers. Courts have also ordered those convicted of sexual assaults and other crimes to post signs at their residences warning others to steer clear.

Self-debasement penalties involve ceremonies or rituals that publicly disgrace the offender. In a contemporary version of the stocks, for example, some communities require offenders simply to stand in public spaces (such as the local courthouse) with signs describing their offenses. More imaginative forms of self-debasement attempt to match the penalty to the character of the offense. A judge in Tennessee orders convicted burglars to permit their victims to enter their homes and remove items of their choosing. In New York, a slumlord was sentenced to house arrest in one of his rat-infested tenements (where tenants greeted him with the banner, "Welcome, You Reptile!"). Hoboken, New Jersey, requires Wall Street brokers (and others) who urinate in public to clean the city's streets. This is only a small sample; self-debasement sanctions are as diverse and particular as the crimes that they are used to punish.

Contrition penalties come in two forms. The first requires offenders to publicize their own convictions, describing their crimes in first-person terms and apologizing for them. These penalties combine stigmatizing publicity with an element of self-debasement; the sincerity of the offenders' remorse seems largely irrelevant.

Another form of contrition is the apology ritual. In Maryland, for example, juvenile offenders must apologize on their hands and knees, and are released from confinement only if their victims and government officials are persuaded that their remorse is sincere. Other jurisdictions use community-based sanctions that include public apologies and appropriate reparations. Because many of these penalties contemplate genuine rapprochement, apology rituals seem to be used primarily in cases in which the offender is connected to the victim by family or close community ties.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawShaming Punishments - Historical Antecedents: Corporal Punishments And Imprisonment, Contemporary Impetus: The Search For An Expressively Appropriate Alternative Sanction