Photo by Jackie Mader / Hechinger Report By Sarah Butrymowicz and Jackie Mader / The Hechinger Report Toney Jennings was illiterate when he was arrested at age 16. In the six months he spent at the Lowndes County Jail in Eastern Mississippi, he says he played basketball, watched TV and “basically just stayed to myself.” A
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?