Can public shaming be good criminal punishment?

The state and local prison system in the U.S. is something of a disaster right now, with more than 1.3 million inmates in state prisons in 2012. That has resulted in some tough budgeting for states around the country, and has led some judges to think a bit more with their wallets. As states become increasingly strapped for cash, there’s been greater “enthusiasm” for creative sentencing designed to keep offenders out of prison while addressing underlying problems, says Eaglin.

But putting a sign around Richard Dameron’s neck and making him stand out in public for hours doesn’t necessarily solve any underlying problem. “I don’t perceive it as being a particularly effective approach to deter him from an idiotic action,” says Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. And the context of the sign and the situation is so narrow, La Vigne says, that it’s unlikely to deter others. La Vigne, like McGarry, worries that this kind of public shaming could just demonize low-level offenders who are in difficult personal situations and leave them in an unending cycle of crime and abuse.

The economics of public shaming and alternative sentencing can still be compelling. And there are more ways to shame someone than making him or her dress up like a chicken or don a cardboard sign. La Vigne points to publishing the names of people who solicit prostitution, a type of public shaming that she thinks could be “very effective” in deterring sex crimes. And if you can deter sex crimes, then you can also deter spending money on housing a prisoner. That is an especially big deal for the kind of low-level criminals who are often frequent offenders and wind up in state and local jails on short sentences time after time.