Feb. 29, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 12

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    'Shame on you!'

    According to Dan Kahan, the reintroduction of shaming punishments could mean acceptable alternatives to prison terms Shame is making a comeback in punishment, according to Dan Kahan, Assistant Professor in the Law School, in an article to be published in the spring 1996 issue of the University of Chicago Law Review.

    Recognizing society's need to express condemnation is essential to identifying politically acceptable alternatives to imprisonment, said Kahan.

    "The public is reluctant to accept conventional alternatives such as fines and community service not because those sanctions don't deter as effectively as imprisonment, but because they don't condemn as well," he said. "Shaming penalties do condemn, and should be as effective as conventional alternatives."

    Kahan's research has recently been featured on NBC's "Today Show," on the NBC cable television show "America's Talking" and in George Will's nationally syndicated column.

    Courts are increasingly using shame instead of jail sentences for nonviolent crimes, Kahan said. Some communities, for example, rely on a contemporary version of the stocks, requiring offenders to stand in public spaces such as the local courthouse with signs describing their offenses. Other shaming punishments have included:

    _ Ordering convicted burglars to allow their victims to come into their homes and take anything they wanted.

    _ Requiring offenders to apologize -- in Maryland, for example, on their hands and knees -- for their crimes.

    _ Requiring parents of children who violate the town curfew to place a bumper sticker on their car that proclaims, "My children are not my responsibility. They are yours."

    _ Publishing the names of offenders in newspapers or on billboards listing the names and the offenses -- including the offense of soliciting a prostitute.

    _ Requiring thieves to wear T-shirts or brightly colored bracelets announcing their crimes. One judge ordered a woman to wear a sign that said, "I am a convicted child molester."

    Courts are using shaming penalties for crimes such as drunk driving, petty theft, embezzlement, assault, burglary, perjury, toxic-waste dumping and drug possession. The use of such penalties represents an important opportunity, Kahan said, because the addition of an element of shame can make alternative sentences more acceptable to the public.

    Although studies show that conventional alternative punishments such as community service and fines are just as effective as imprisonment for certain types of crimes, "conventional alternatives are unpopular precisely because they don't impose shame," Kahan said. "They don't satisfy the public's demand to express moral condemnation. But shaming penalties do."

    In his article, Kahan examines why imprisonment has proved a popular punishment throughout our nation's history, connecting its expressive power to the symbolic importance of individual liberty in our culture.

    But imprisonment is an unduly harsh and expensive punishment for many nonviolent crimes, Kahan said. Accordingly, liberal and conservative academics alike have urged the use of alternative sanctions for more than a decade. Yet the public has proved extremely unreceptive to such punishments.

    "Advocates of alternative sanctions must take account of what punishments say and not just what they do," he said. "If alternative sanctions aren't shameful, society won't accept them. The result is that America will continue putting too many people in prisons and spending too many dollars to keep them there."

    -- Catherine Behan