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December 27, 2011

Student guest-post asks "Shaming as a punishment… is society too soft to re-embrace it?"

Here is the final "top-flight" guest-post material I received before the holidays.  Though I will not be posting any more guest-posts for extra credit, students can keep earning class participation credit by commenting on this and other posts until the start of classes in January:

We no longer recognize just the first place winner, but also the second, the third, the fourth…well you get the idea.  We have gone soft and part of that softness means we no longer like to shame people for their mistakes.

However, Texas State District Judge Kevin Fine has a different idea.

Daniel Mireles and his wife, Eloise Mireles, stole $250,000 from the Harris County Crime Victim’s fund. They were sentenced to each spend six months in jail—one month a year for six years, pay restitution and 400 hours of community service.

But that was not all.  Judge Fine also decided as part of the sentence that they must both wear signs for five hours every weekend, him on Saturday and her on Sunday, near the Galleria mall in Houston. The sign says: “I am a thief.  I stole $250,000 from the Harris County crime fund. Daniel Mireles” -– here is a link to video

But wait…Judge Fine was still not done with them. They must also post signs outside their residence stating “The occupants of this residence are convicted thieve. They stole $250,000 from the Harris County Crime Victim’s fund.  Signed, Judge Kevin Fine.”

The prosecutor said he will conduct random drive-bys in order to ensure compliance. More story here.

I for one say good job Judge Fine.  I think it is high time that public shaming become a more common form of sentencing alternative.  Obviously this will not work in all cases, but with first time offenders and people who are members of the community it can be more effective than a few weekends in jail, a fine or community service.

Just a couple of the obvious benefits in my opinion:

1) Help reduce prison overcrowding and save money

2) Effectively informs the public about crimes and punishments—general deterrence

3) Creates a greater long-term impact on the offender then a fine or community service—specific deterrence


Is society capable of toughening back up and embrace public shaming or is it for naught in today’s world of no one should be ridiculed in public—no matter how just the cause.

Can public shaming be transferred to the online community where an offender must post a status on Facebook weekly about his crime? Would this be more effective for juvenile and young adult offenders?

Ohio requires in certain circumstances special yellow colored license plates for drivers to display who have been convicted of DUI. Is this OK because it is less personal and likely not even noticed by others, whereas the shaming in Texas might be less tolerable because it is in the public’s face?

December 27, 2011 in Alternatives to imprisonment, Class activities | Permalink


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I totally disagree that this is a question of how "tough" our society is. It's much tougher on criminal to throw them in cages for long periods than to shame them, but I like the idea of shaming as an alternative to incarceration.

Aside from DUI, the most prominent shaming example I can think of in modern practice is for sex offenders. Notices with their name, address, and photo are sent out to neighbors, and they are put in an online database. I wonder how effective these techniques are in reducing recidivism among sex offenders or as a method of general deterrence. Because of the nature of sex offenses, and the fact that the shaming is imposed in addition to other penalties, I think that the punishment is more to satisfy a public desire for information and retribution on the offender than to serve deterrence goals.

Also, it's possible that sex offenders have motivations more similar to disease/mental illness than thieves, and that shaming may have a reduced specific deterrence for them. These are empirical questions, but ones that I think are important to look into if we are considering embracing shaming as an alternative method of punishment.

Posted by: Colin P | Dec 27, 2011 12:06:39 PM

I agree that studying recidivism rates would be a nice empirical way to see how effective a deterrent shaming is and how it compares with incarceration or other forms of punishment. I do appreciate that this judge is willing to consider alternatives to locking people in cages when they aren’t real violent dangers to society, especially considering the prison overcrowding problem and the corresponding costs. My only worry is what the consequences of creative punishments will be. If judges have “the full range of sentencing options, from probation to life in prison,” I wonder which types of sentences might garner too numerous appeals or successful appeals, or, alternatively, what kind of power this gives sentencing judges.

I’m not really sure which is “tougher.” I can imagine that it’s pretty terrible to stand or pace for hours a day wearing a shameful sign for my neighbors to see, but I don’t know what it’s like to spend time in prison. Also, my instinct is also that most people know when they are committing a crime and think they won’t get caught—not that they are weighing the benefits of the crime against their decision that they won’t mind the punishment so much—and so, as far as general deterrence, the difference in punishment might not make much of a difference. I also think that because both incarceration and shaming would be and memorable experiences for an individual, it’s hard to say which creates a greater long-term impact; the same might be said for community service, so this is another empirical question.

To answer the questions, I think alternatives to the often knee-jerk response of incarceration should definitely be considered, and shaming might be effective. The DUI license plate is a good example because it not only seems like it shames/punishes individuals who own the plates, but it might caution others to be careful around certain drivers who have proven to be dangerous in the past. As for the online community, I don’t really think this punishment translates, even though we are now in a digital age. Not everyone has Facebook, and we certainly are not required to have Web sites, so requiring those types of status updates seems too intrusive to me. However, I’m not against shaming in general, as long as it proves to be an effective punishment.

Posted by: Shawna | Dec 28, 2011 2:32:49 PM

I have a few concerns with this post. Although, I am not opposed to public shaming (dui party plates, etc.), this might be another way to create undue disparity in sentencing. Would this be a mandatory form of punishment or an alternative? If mandatory, do all criminals receive public shaming or do only certain crimes warrant this punishment? If an alternative, is it fair to tack public shaming onto someone's sentence when another similarly situated defendant did not receive that as part of his/her sentence? It appears that this judge imposed the public shame portion of the sentence on top of everything else that a typical thieving criminal might receive (jail, fine, community service). This seems unfair. I can rest better knowing that it is mandatory for someone to get dui party plates as a form of public shame after being cited with a certain number of duis, but I am a little wary of granting judges the power to impose yet another form of punishment at his/her own discretion (the severity of the type of shaming is problematic as well).

Additionally, I am concerned about the standard to receive this form of punishment. Just like imprisonment, if it is determined that a defendant has been wrongfully convicted, the damage is already done with a prison sentence as well as public shame. However, I suppose that sex offenders could make this same argument...

Posted by: Crystal M | Dec 29, 2011 10:44:19 AM

I'm all for alternatives to incarceration, but I strongly disagree with the notion that our prison society is not "tough". I don't feel the movement away from public shaming is indicative of a soft society, rather it recognizes that public shaming is inhumane. When looking for alternatives to locking criminals in a cage, I think we should strive for something more. Public shaming may be a return to yesteryear, but just because something is old does not mean it is better or more effective. Public shaming should be reviewed on its own merits, not through nostalgic glasses that long for a time when men were men. Public shaming simply does not meet the level of humanity that society should strive to achieve.

In response to the questions, as stated above, I don't view this issue as one of "societal toughness". Rather, it is a recognition that such punishment is inhumane, and screams of a who cares how we treat criminals attitude. Additionally, if such a method of punishment were explored, social networking seems like too narrow of a web. Also, I think Ohio's party plates are justified by their supposed benefit of public safety. They alert other drivers, as well as law enforcement to the potential proclivity for the driver of that vehicle to do so while intoxicated.

This topic would not be complete without an obligatory Curb Your Enthusiasm, so here it is: http://img1.tvloop.com/img/showpics/19/0f/l34da653e0000_1_31976.jpg

Posted by: Adam C | Dec 29, 2011 1:18:20 PM

I think I agree with everyone here when I say that I don't think our society has gone "soft" on criminals. However, I do think that society may have gone soft on itself. We are most comfortable when we have locked the bad guys away in a federal dungeon in Colorado. I think that many people would feel uncomfortable driving past a guy waving a sign that says "I'm a Criminal". To me, putting that uncomfortable announcement in a public spectacle would be a good reminder about crime in this country.

I agree with the above comments saying that public shaming might be applied differentially. There would clearly have to be a way to enforce similar punishments for similar crimes, but I think that this is an individual judicial decision as well--not everyone cares about how they look in front of strangers. A judge would have to determine which defendant would be mostly likely to be specifically deterred by it, and which defendants would get a kick out of standing on a street corner instead of in a cell with Bubba. I think that the novelty of public shaming will wear off after a while, and it will lose its effect.

We already do things that are similar in principle, like the above-mentioned DUI party plates and making sex offenders inform their neighbors of their sex crime convictions. While there is a public safety element to that, I think we can agree that part of the purpose of those punishments is shame. So, to my mind, this is not an incredibly revolutionary idea, but a rehash of an older one.

Finally, I have to say that most of the value of public shaming is general deterrence to others. Passers-by will see how embarrassing that their punishment was, and think twice before committing theft or other crimes. It will be most effective for low-reward crimes, like purse snatching, candy stealing, or maybe even repeat dangerous drivers.

Posted by: Ethan E | Dec 29, 2011 3:52:38 PM

As long as measures are in place to protect the safety of the person being punished, and public shame as a punishment is used judiciously, I think it could be an effective (and constitutional) deterrent to minor property crimes.

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