Public shaming has become somewhat of a national novelty lately, with parents opting to discipline their children through public shaming, and pet owners sharing their dogs’ misdoing on sites like dogshaming.com. Even restaurant owners publicly post the names of people who break reservations. But what happens when the U.S. Justice system starts meting out these types of punishments?
Photo courtesy of: Rob Chandanais
While public shaming sentences are typically upheld by the Supreme Court, they can sometimes bring unforeseen consequences. For example, over the past 23 years, more than 2,000 incarcerated Americans were later found to be innocent. So what happens when we publicly humiliate someone who later turns out to be guilty of nothing more than not having been able to put up an effective defense? Oftentimes when individuals are released or exonerated, there is little public ceremony or effort to clear their name in the eyes of their communities.
Shaming has a long history as a penalty for the accused and a warning to other would-be offenders but its creation was rooted in a time when life was built around small communities. It fell by the wayside when urbanization made it possible for individuals to simply leave the communities that condemned them, but has seen a bit of a revival in recent times; judges require drunk drivers to use luminous license plates, sex offenders are ordered to post yard signs, and cities have published the names of “deadbeat dads” on billboards. TV judge Joe Brown even made his claim to fame by allowing victims of theft to take anything they wanted from an apprehended thief’s house in plain view of the neighbors. One could possibly argue that the rise of social media has revived the fear of being outcast by our community.
Photo courtesy of: Kim Davies
But many of these punishments are just words, do these techniques actually work? For that matter, is this type of punishment constitutional or does it fall under the category of “cruel and unusual punishment”? Superior courts have ruled that shaming is constitutional as long as the goal is primarily deterrence. In the case of a San Francisco mail thief who was ordered to stand outside of a post office for eight hours with a sign reading, “I stole mail. This is my punishment,” an appeals court upheld the sentence, arguing that shaming is unlawful only when imposed solely to humiliate. The problem is that it’s extremely difficult to prove that a judge is ordering a punishment for the sole purpose of humiliation.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of public shaming sentences is that they breed a culture where the accusation is just as bad as being convicted. Imagine trying to find work, or integrate back into society after being publicly “outed” for being a thief, murderer, or child molester – even if you are later found to be innocent, people will most likely remember the public spectacle, not the discrete acquittal or exoneration. With the wrongful conviction rate as disturbingly high as it is, public shaming appears to be a cause for great concern.123rf.com