It is certainly true that recognizing one's harm to others can have a rehabilitative moment, namely, instilling guilt in wrongdoers who lack it. This is something I've written about in a paper on Martha Nussbaum's work. Her claim is that shame can instill guilt in those who lack guilt. This is certainly true (and, as she notes, guilt can shame as well). However, she argues that we should not use shame punishments because of the damage to dignity (amongst other reasons) it causes. I counter this by arguing that shame punishments that did not damage dignity can be a rather good thing on her own count: they would instill a sense of guilt in the remorseless (which she commends) and they honour an important aspect of our humanity---after all, Nussbaum thinks we ought not be Hiding from Humanity.
This paper makes this case by defending U.S. v. Gementera. (I have discussed this case previously.) In this case, Shawn Gementera had committing more serious crimes more frequently. He didn't feel remorse because he believed his crime---stealing mail---was victimless. The judge "sentenced" him to stand in front of a post office in San Francisco with a sign reading "I stole mail. This is my punishment" (picture here). There were a number of safeguards that had to be satisfied:
- The post office was not in his neighbourhood.
- He was to hold his sign outside during the day, not at night.
- He was to have a parole officer ensuring that the dignity of Gementera, the general public, and postal employees were not damaged. The exercise was to end if anyone was damaged. Thus, if a member of the public became distressed, Gementera's punishment was to end even if he was benefitting from it.
- He was to have a security guard present to protect him, the public, and postal employees.
I was relatively impressed with this long list of safeguards. It was the case at the original trial that Gementera did agree to this in exchange for avoiding a prison sentence.
What was the result? Well, Gementera is now in prison. The reason? He went back to stealing post. It seems that this attempt at shaming him failed: he did not feel guilty about his actions. Nor did he seem damaged: he simply went back to what he had been doing. I doubt this tells us shame punishments don't work: it is only one case. Perhaps the safeguards were too strict. My advice will be to continue following these guidelines in future cases. Sometimes they may not work, but they could do much good if they did.