Shaming As An Alternative Sentencing Essay

Length: 4 pages Subject: Literature Type: Essay Paper: #65226422
Excerpt from Essay :

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter explores the method of public shaming as a form of legitimate legal sentencing. In the novel, Hester Prynne has an affair with Reverend Dimmesdale. Even though her husband has practically abandoned her and lives in another country, she is punished for what was in Puritan America considered a crime. The punishment reflects Puritanical values related to female sexuality, and reveals ways a patriarchal society controls women's choices by monitoring and controlling their private lives. Given private and domestic spheres were the only realms women had any degree of power, the control over women's sexuality in The Scarlett Letter shows how patriarchy becomes entrenched and immutable. Moreover, the use of public shaming to sentence Prynne serves an overarching function of social control. Religion, a core theme in The Scarlett Letter, is the vehicle of that social control and the law is also used to enforce and entrench patriarchal values and norms. Whereas the law might have opted for capital punishment, it chooses the scarlet letter because it wants to influence gender norms for current and future generations. Public shaming can be an effective way of shaping social norms. Public shaming also serves some of the same functions as other forms of sentencing, including incarceration. After all, incarceration places its own symbolic scarlet letter on a person because prison is stigmatizing. Just as prison time creates opportunities to join deviant subcultures and become even more criminal than before, an individual wearing a scarlet letter, and who is subsequently shunned by the community, might gravitate toward subversive groups and engage in more deviant and antisocial behavior. Ultimately, the public shaming model symbolizes overarching state control over morality, which is not the goal of the criminal justice system.

Hawthorne shows that the public shaming method is not particularly effective as a means of rehabilitation, either. What the scarlet letter does is to reveal the idiocy of patriarchal control over women's bodies. The more ostracized she is, the more Hester detaches herself from the community. Her dreams of running away with Dimmesdale reflect the extent to which she perceives the community -- and her punishment -- as being illegitimate. Dimmesdale likewise agrees. Although the couple...


Shaming does not achieve justice or rehabilitation. The only thing rehabilitation might do is enable revenge, in the same way capital punishment also enables revenge without offering the opportunity for rehabilitation or real justice.

Still, it can be fruitful to imagine how a scarlet letter model of sentencing might impact the criminal justice system and promote goals like justice, crime reduction, and rehabilitation. If stealing were punishable by scarlet letter it would serve one distinct beneficial function of alerting shopkeepers of a known criminal. Some shopkeepers already use a scarlet letter method already, by posting photographs of shoplifters who were caught on their security cameras and asking the public to be aware of the culprits. The same is true of customers whose checks did not clear and who have effectively stolen. Wearing the scarlet letter prevents a person from going from town to town and committing the same crime and getting away with it. Yet wearing the scarlet letter accomplishes other objectives too. For example, theoretically the wearer of the scarlet letter S. for stealing would internalize the shame and stigma and be less likely to commit the crime again. The experience of social isolation may encourage honest self-awareness and show the person that stealing offers minute short-term gains but long-term pain.

The psychological impact of shaming may be especially true for young people who had tried shoplifting for the first time. The scarlet letter shaming method might show them how shoplifting damages community relationships and social bonding in general. The Scarlet Letter does show how tightly knit communities especially rely on social bonding. Pro-social behavior and the avoidance of crime encourages members of the community to develop compassion and caring for fellow citizens. This would mean that citizens of the community would also be responsible for promoting the reintegration of the S-wearer and ultimately offering forgiveness.

If a person had to wear a letter R. for statutory rape, the shaming would serve a similar function as with the shoplifter. The scarlet letter would warn young people and their parents to avoid forming close relationships, and especially sexual relationships with the person. As with the letter S, the letter R. protects the community. Moreover, the letter would certainly damage the perpetrator's personal life, and for good reason. A person who has committed statutory rape would benefit from shaming to reinforce the knowledge that statutory rape represents a gross abuse of power by an older male against a minor. Wearing the letter and experiencing the social shunning might help the individual become more self-aware and to change his behavior. Also, wearing a scarlet letter R. encourages the perpetrator to develop new habits in a naturalistic setting, rather than in a prison. The same is true for the person who steals. Retraining a person's behavior and encouraging pro-social behavior cannot be accomplished as successfully in the prison environment.

Prison overcrowding is a huge concern in the United States, and part of the reason for the problem is the proliferation of inmates who committed nonviolent drug offenses. The scarlet letter D. would effectively reduce prison overcrowding by replacing incarceration with the gentler sentence of the social stigma. In the case of the letter D, the social stigma is actually less than it is for the S. or the R. Wearing a scarlet letter D. to identify a drug dealer could have the ironic side effect of increasing the dealer's visibility…

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