In front of a Guilford County courthouse in North Carolina recently stood a man holding a poster with a hand-written message: “This is the face of domestic abuse.” It wasn’t a bizarre publicity stunt but a court-imposed public shaming. In another case, a ferry operator in Massachusetts was found guilty of polluting. On top of a stiff fine, the judge ordered the company to publish an advertisement in the Boston Herald reading: “Our company has discharged human waste directly into coastal Massachusetts waters.”
The 8th Amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment. Are these either one? Or can justice be fairly meted out in something other than years and months behind bars? In 2012, a Ohio judge gave a woman a choice of going to jail or spending two days standing on a street corner with a sign reading: “Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.” The woman chose to hold the sign.
Jessica Eaglin, of the Brennan Center for Justice, says that some judges may view public shaming as more forward-looking than retributive punishments. Forward-looking public shaming is more deterrence-based, says Eaglin, and can have an impact on an entire community instead of just one person. For low-level crimes in small towns, “that’s where the public shaming comes in,” Eaglin says. “It’s reflecting on your life, people are watching you, and that’s going to affect your behavior more than just paying a fine.
Not unexpectedly, not everyone agrees. “This kind of public shaming has no record of efficacy in turning someone away from crime,” Peggy McGarry, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice.
There are times when it is a fine line between being a creative judge and simply being a crazy judge. So…what do you think about shaming as a form of punishment?