173. "In Praise of Public Humiliation" The Wall Street Journal, (April 2, 1987).


Public humiliation is a surprisingly effective and low-cost way of deterring criminals and expressing the moral order of a community. It is used by a few judges, but much too sparingly. Some jurisdictions publish the names of “Johns” who are caught frequenting prostitutes.

Lincoln County in Oregon will plea-bargain with a criminal only if he first puts an advertisement in a local newspaper, apologizing for his crime. This is limited, in practice, to nonviolent criminals, including some burglars and thieves. The ad includes the criminal’s picture and is paid for by him. Judges in Sarasota, Fla., and in Midwest City, Okla., have required people caught driving while under the influence to display an easy-to-see sticker on their cars: “Convicted of Drunken Driving.”

When I mention public shaming to my social-science colleagues, their first reaction is a mixture of disbelief and horror. Such punishment seems some how to violate people’s rights, to be dehumanizing. But what is the alternative if one grants that criminals ought to be punished?

Nobody denies that jailing is a very poor way of dealing with criminals, especially with first offenders. Rehabilitation is extremely rare: homosexual rapes, drug abuse and crime while in prison are common. People are cut off from their families, which makes their return to the community difficult. Imprisonment costs are high; in effect, higher than attending many a college. Jails and prisons are overcrowded and judges refuse to lock many up because of conditions considered inhumane.

In contrast, public humiliation involves no socializing with other criminals, is swift, and is very low in cost. And according to Steve Remington, executive director of the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the punishment violates no constitutional right, though other civil libertarians may disagree.

Some people respond that such penalties remind them of the stars Jews were made to wear in Nazi Germany. However, the main problem with these insignia was that they were imposed on innocent people, on the basis of creed. Marking those convicted in open court, after due process, seems a legitimate use of such a device.

Possibly people object to “psychological “ punishment as an alternative to imprisonment precisely because it is public and thus highly visible. They may prefer to shut criminals away, out of town, out of sight, rather than face reminders of their own unsavory inclinations. Maybe they feel that if they were caught with a prostitute or driving drunk, they would rather not see their own names in the paper. That is no reason to suggest psychological punishment is a poor public policy.

Is it going to work? Very likely, for victimless crimes (such as possession of marijuana and gambling) and for white collar crimes and tax cheating. It probably would work better for younger people than older people, and for people who are sensitive to their status. Oregon sources report that people are very reluctant to take out the required ads. The imposition of “scarlet letters” on cars evoked a storm of protests, including one from the husband of a judge who imposes them. Very few Johns (or tax cheaters) care to see their names in the newspaper or on the evening news. In short, people mind a lot - i.e., the penalty reaches them.

True, public shaming may work much less well for hardened criminals or in larger cities, where people do not know one another. And if very frequently used, it may lose much of its potency. In short, it is not a cure-all for our severely defective deterrent system. But given the severe strain under which our penal system is laboring, any constitutional device that would reduce the load ought to be given more of a try.

We need more courage and creativity: Should we shave the heads of convicted first-offender teen-agers caught selling hard drugs? (It beats incarceration in “correctional institutions.”) Should we require them to carry placards listing their transgressions and calling on others to desist? Other methods are sure to be found once we look for ways to say “shame on you” to those who committed a crime, and to create opportunities for them to express publicly their shame, penance and regrets.

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