Public shaming is an effective alternative to prison

by John Anderson

Artwork courtesy of contributor Tammi Kendrick
Artwork courtesy of contributor Tammi Kendrick

You open Facebook and your eyes dart to the top of your news feed. An old high school friend’s DUI mugshot glares back. Shame on you, Trey Parker Blitzin. I don’t know this guy anymore. Click. De-friend.

Public shaming is making a comeback, and the Huntington Beach Police Department is considering this “scarlet letter” approach to punishment to help curb the rampant drunk driving going on in its city.

While tarring and feathering isn’t so common any more, judges all across the U.S. are leaping at alternatives to traditional prison sentences. This shift away from heavy-handed prison sentencing toward more creative forms of exacting justice represents a major improvement in how we deal with crime.

As a country, we love throwing people in prison: The U.S. has the most prisoners per-capita of any country in the world. Our prisons are woefully overcrowded, sparking loud protests from human rights advocacy groups. Recidivism is also atrociously common: More than 67 percent of released offenders are re-arrested within three years.

Alternative punishment takes an enormous amount of strain off the beleaguered U.S. prison system by keeping petty criminals out of prison, and allowing hem to pay their debt to society in other ways. Some form of community service often accompanies public shaming as a punishment, meaning our convicts are out bettering the world instead of cutting deals in the exercise yard to avoid getting shanked.

Keeping people out of prison prevents them falling into the criminal culture pervasive in the Big H ouse. Prison fosters an atmosphere of fear and criminal camaraderie more than one of rehabilitation, which is one reason we see staggering gang affiliation figures in prisons.

The genius of alternative punishment lies in its ability to produce guilt, which is essential to the rehabilitation process. Removing people from their comfort zone and forcing them to interact with those they have harmed creates an atmosphere that inspires contrition. People who have committed crimes need to feel genuine remorse for what they have done if they are ever going to change and be successfully reintroduced to society.

Did your parents ever catch you stealing a candy bar from the checkout line at a grocery store when you were a kid? What was worse, getting grounded or being sent back in to explain what you’d done to the manager?

Obviously, with incarceration numbers as high as they are, we can’t have everyone who steals a candy bar proclaiming his or her guilt from a street corner. What we can do is shift our punishment system toward inspiring reconciliation between the offender and the offended. We can force thieves to return stolen property, facilitate meetings between the robbed and the robber and force the guilty to confront the reality that they are harming other human beings. We can make criminals feel bad for what they’ve done, change perspectives and alter behavior.

So far we’ve focused on crime resolution, but alternative punishment has huge potential to prevent crime as well. The jury is still out in regard to the effect of the controversial Megan’s Law, which requires convicted sex offenders to register into a database accessible to the public.

However, rape and sexual assaults by adults decreased more than 56 percent from 1993 to 2004. A study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy “found a 70 percent reduction in felony sex recidivism” following their implementation of sex offender registry. While the point of the registry is to inform the public about potential dangers in the community, shame is certainly an effective deterrent. That shame clearly corresponds with an encouraging decline in violent sexual crimes.

Can law enforcement and the justice system replicate the success of Megan’s Law with DUI offenses? Shame and embarrassment are incredibly powerful emotions, and are only amplified by the amount and intensity of the relationships they affect.

Consider the following directly from Facebook’s statistics page. There are more than 500 million active Facebook users. The average user has 130 friends and is connected to 80 groups, communities, and events. Groups and communities include schools, employers, religious organizations, clubs, relatives and local neighborhood organizations. Now imagine your mugshot appearing in millions of news feeds. All those people would know that you endangered lives in your community, potentially even their own.

Beyond making that cameo on the head of the Facebook news feed, I’d hope anyone would have the sense to just take the cab ride.

–John Anderson is an International Security and Conflict Resolution Senior.

–This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.
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