Criminal Law

Shame on You: Do "Shaming" Punishments Work?

Where's there's a crime there's a punishment. It's the way things go. Usually, people who commit crimes are fined, given some jail time or maybe probation as a sentence.

Sometimes, though, judges come up with creative ways to punish people. Take shaming punishments, for example. The idea is to teach wrongdoers a lesson through embarrassment or humiliation. The question is, do punishments like this work? We may never know for sure.

Shaming Punishments Aren't Uncommon

Shaming punishments may sound new to you, but they're not. You may recall some examples that got nationwide news coverage. For instance, after a former executive of a pharmaceutical company was convicted of making false statements to regulators, a judge in New York ordered him to write a book about it.

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."

Basic Rights and Freedoms Still Apply

The image of the town stocks still seems to be cruel and unusual punishment, but today's shaming punishments don't include physical restraint and outright public humiliation. But the basic goals are still the same: To stop a criminal from making the same mistake again and to keep others from doing it in the first place.

Looking for a Ripple

Shaming punishments are probably best suited for businesses and companies, especially where it can have a "ripple effect" to stop them and others from harming consumers and the environment. Companies want to steer clear of embarrassing ads like the one taken out by the ferry operator. Negative impacts on customer base and goodwill aren't good for any business.

They're Not Cruel and Unusual

The US Constitution, as well as most state constitutions, bar cruel and unusual punishments. In other words, the punishment should fit the crime. But, as a general rule, humiliation isn't cruelty.

Do Shaming Punishments Work?

We may never know for sure if non-traditional shaming punishments will prevent people from violating the law. Many of these punishments are hard to monitor.

Is there any way to tell if other ferry companies didn't pollute or stopped polluting because of what happened in Massachusetts? Did other executives choose to tell federal regulators the truth because of what happened in New York?

The only true indication of success is the defendants themselves. The punishments worked if the Massachusetts ferry never pollutes again, and the executive never lies to regulators again.

Rehabilitation and prevention are among the different goals of punishing people found guilty of crimes. Restitution - paying victims back for their loss or damage - is another goal. Shaming punishments can serve these goals. With budget crises and jail overcrowding across the US, maybe shaming punishments are an answer.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I be forced to walk along a street wearing a sign stating the crime I was convicted of?
  • Can a judge refuse to give me a shaming punishment simply because I'm under 18?
  • Can I appeal a "shaming sentence?" If so, is enforcement held off during the appeal process?
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