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Getting a second chance: Public support for reintegrative and disintegrative shaming for ex-offenders

Getting a second chance: Public support for reintegrative and disintegrative shaming for ex-offenders

Getting a second chance: Public support for reintegrative and disintegrative shaming for ex-offenders

The public supports rehabilitation efforts for all tested crime scenarios; however, when offense severity is high, the public is less likely to support giving an ex-offender a clean slate following punishment and more likely to demand retribution. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2018, Vol. 24, No. 4, 503–517

Third-Party Support for Retribution, Rehabilitation, and Giving an Offender a Clean Slate


Michael R. Brubacher, University of Johannesburg


When crimes occur, there is third-party support for retributive justice, but is there also support for the idea that punishments should give offenders clean slates? In addition, how might support for rehabilitation compare with support for retribution, and with support for giving a clean slate? Two studies tested how crime severity affected support for the 3 sentencing objectives: retribution, rehabilitation, and giving an offender a clean slate. Further, the studies tested whether anger and compassion toward the offender mediated the relationships between crime severity and the sentencing objectives. Results show that as crime severity increased, support for retribution increased, support for rehabilitation was unaffected (in Study 2), and support for giving a clean slate decreased. In addition, the relationship between severity and retribution, and the relationship between severity and clean slate, were both mediated by anger and compassion. For rehabilitation, there was an indirect effect involving compassion but not anger.


retribution, rehabilitation, clean slate, crime severity, restorative justice

Summary of the Research

“One reason why criminal offenders are punished is to attain retribution. One notion of retribution is that the harm or moral wrongfulness caused by a crime disrupts a moral balance between the offender and the victim, or between the offender and society. When a punishment is issued to the offender, then the balance is reestablished and justice is achieved. The offender therefore needs to suffer for the crime, a suffering which might be achieved in part through the humiliation or degradation that can come from being punished. An additional outcome of retribution, which may accompany the reestablished moral balance and the acquisition of justice, is that the offender has then paid off a debt that was owed to the victim or to society. Such a notion can imply that the offender should be given a clean slate, once the punishment has been completed. […] While third-party support for retribution has received a fair amount of attention in the research literature, support for the idea that punishments should also give offenders clean slates has received less attention.” (p. 503)

“The notion of a clean slate following punishment, and whether it receives third-party support, is relevant to several policy debates concerning exoffenders who have completed their sentences. For example, having a criminal record can interfere with attaining employment, housing, and financial aid for education. […] Additional policy debates related to the notion of a clean slate include felony disenfranchisement and preventing exoffenders from getting professional licenses.” (p. 503)

“Investigating third-party views about sentencing objectives, such as retribution and clean slate, is important for a number of reasons. First, policymakers often consider and accommodate public views in order to maintain the public’s trust in criminal justice institutions. Therefore, should different degrees of public support exist for the sentencing objectives, then this could influence the priorities that are set by policymakers. […] A second reason for investigating third-party views is the social restrictions that exoffenders can experience after completing their criminal sentences (e.g., acquiring employment and housing). Some of these restrictions are called hidden sentences because they inflict harm on exoffenders, they are sanctioned by legislative statutes, but they go beyond the sentences that are issued by criminal courts. […] Investigating the psychological factors that influence third-party support for various sentencing objectives, particularly clean slate, may provide insight as to why hidden sentences occur.” (pp. 503–504)

“The notion of a clean slate may be defined, in part, as removing the shame and stigma that can come from committing a crime. Shame and stigma may be supported by third-parties because they are perceived as ways of managing an offender’s future behavior and protecting the larger social group from potential harm. […] The idea that punishment should achieve retribution but should also give an offender a clean slate is part of the theory of reintegrative shaming. In the process of reintegrative shaming, an offender is issued a punishment that communicates society’s disapproval of the criminal act. When the punishment process is complete, however, the offender no longer needs to experience shame, and is no longer a target of public concern. Rather, the individual is accepted and restored as an equal member of the community. On the other hand, if the offender is not given a clean slate then disintegrative shaming occurs. With disintegrative shaming, the offender is punished but remains stigmatized and set as a social outsider. The theory of reintegrative shaming is part of an overarching theory called restorative justice, which is gaining attention internationally within criminal justice systems as well as academic research” (p. 504)

“Reintegrative shaming is therefore composed of two sentencing objectives: the sentence should (a) achieve retribution and (b) give the offender a clean slate. […] The positive relationship between crime severity and support for retributive punishment has already been established by a number of studies. One reason for the relationship is that as crime severity increases, there is greater support for inflicting some type of suffering on the offender, such as by humiliating or degrading the offender through punishment. […] The proposed negative relationship between crime severity and support for giving the offender a clean slate has not been investigated previously, but has theoretical support. One rationale for the relationship is that crime severity might have an impact on the perceived in-group status of the offender. […] Support for giving the offender a clean slate would decrease as crime severity increases.” (p. 504)

“The present studies tested the effects that crime severity would have on third-party support for achieving retribution and giving the offender a clean slate. The studies also included a third sentencing objective, which was whether the offender should be rehabilitated. […] It was predicted that an increase in crime severity would be related to an increase in support for retribution and a decrease in support for giving an offender a clean slate, thereby moving from a reintegrative shaming orientation toward a disintegrative shaming orientation. In addition, an exploratory approach was taken regarding the effect of severity on support for rehabilitation. As severity increases, and the punishment orientation moves toward disintegrative shaming, would support for rehabilitation decrease, increase, or be unaffected?” (pp. 504–505)

“Along with testing the effects that crime severity might have on the three sentencing objectives (retribution, rehabilitation, and clean slate), the studies also tested whether these effects would be mediated by feelings of anger and compassion toward the offender. […] Two emotions that may be particularly relevant to the three sentencing objectives are anger and compassion. […] Regarding the relationships between crime severity and the two emotions, it was expected that an increase in severity would cause an increase in anger and a decrease in compassion. […] Changes in anger and compassion may subsequently affect the degree to which each sentencing objective is supported. Regarding retribution, it was expected that anger would have a positive effect while compassion would have a negative effect. […] Whether support for giving a clean slate is affected by crime severity, and whether that effect is mediated by anger and compassion, has not been tested. […] It was anticipated that anger would be negatively related to support for giving a clean slate. […] Along with support for giving an offender a clean slate, the studies also included support for rehabilitation, in order to investigate the effects that severity, anger, and compassion might have on this sentencing objective. […] Regarding the relationship between anger and rehabilitation, it was anticipated that anger would either be negatively related to rehabilitation or that anger would have no relationship to rehabilitation.” (p. 505)

“Two studies were conducted to test the hypotheses. In Study 1, participants were randomly presented with one of four crime scenarios and then responded to questions about the severity of the crime, their emotions toward the offender, and their support for the sentencing objectives. Structural equation modeling was then conducted to test the hypotheses. Study 2 was similar to Study 1 except the crime scenarios manipulated crime severity in an experimental manner.” (p. 505)

Study 1: 489 participants recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website; 57% female, ages 18 to 72 (M = 34.43 years, SD = 12.76 years), 84% White, 7% Black, 3% Asian, 2% Latino/a, 4% other race or multiracial.

Study 2: 464 participants recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website; 53% female, ages 18 to 70 (M = 36.08 years, SD = 11.99 years), 78% White, 8% Asian, 7% Black, 5% Latino/a, 2% other race or multiracial. In the Pilot version of Study 2, three scenarios (one assault scenario, one theft scenario, and one drug dealing scenario) were developed for each of the three severity conditions (low, medium, and high). The nine scenarios were then used in the Main Study 2.

“The present studies looked at third-party support for retribution, rehabilitation, and giving offenders clean slates. […] The present studies […] found that retribution and clean slate were two distinct constructs, and support for the two objectives diverged as crime severity increased.” (p. 512)

“There is some evidence that reintegrative shaming processes can reduce crime rates. […] The present studies found that third-party support for reintegrative shaming decreased as the severity of criminal activity increased. One explanation for the transition from support for reintegrative shaming to support for disintegrative shaming comes from the two emotions that were included as mediators. The studies found that as crime severity increased, anger toward the offender also increased while compassion for the offender decreased. Both changes in emotion then led to an increase in support for retribution but a decrease in support for giving offenders clean slates once their punishments had been completed.” (p. 512)

“The studies also looked at how crime severity affected third-party support for offering offenders rehabilitation programs. It was found that support for rehabilitation remained constant as crime severity increased (according to Study 2; support increased in Study 1). Further, support for rehabilitation was constant across different types of crime (i.e., assault, theft, and drug dealing). […] Support for rehabilitating offenders was therefore unaffected by crime severity, which is in contrast to the decrease in support that occurred for giving offenders a clean slate. These two relationships may therefore depict an ambivalence within third-party views of offenders, particularly as crime severity increases: Third parties may support the idea of rehabilitating offenders while still opposing the idea of reintegrating them into society. One reason for the different relationships was that anger toward the offender was negatively related to support for giving a clean slate but was unrelated to support for offering rehabilitation programs. A second potential reason may rest in how the sentencing objectives were perceived. While giving a clean slate may have been seen as primarily benefitting the offender, offering rehabilitation programs may have been seen as benefitting society at large.” (pp. 512–513)

“One of the ongoing challenges of criminal justice systems is to enable released offenders to successfully reintegrate into the social systems of society, while simultaneously addressing the needs of third parties regarding justice and safety. Continued research into third-party views concerning sentencing objectives, and of public preparedness for offender reintegration, could serve to improve the overall effectiveness of criminal justice processes in terms of meeting the needs of the various parties.” (p. 514)

Translating Research into Practice

“The present studies have implications for policy development and also for understanding existing policy. One implication for understanding existing policy stems from the influence that public opinions can have on shaping policy priorities. The studies found that, for the more severe crimes, retribution received the most support, followed by rehabilitation, and then clean slate. This rank order of the objectives, provided by third parties, is mirrored in the mission statement of the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons. According to the statement, the objectives of the bureau are to (a) “protect society by confining offenders” and (b) “provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.” These two statements are related to the objectives of punishment (e.g., retribution) and rehabilitation. However, reference to the clean slate objective (e.g., “allow offenders to pay for their crimes and be reintegrated into society”) is absent, which is consistent with the low level of importance that third parties gave this objective for the more severe crimes.” (p. 513)

“The studies also have implications for adjusting policies, and these pertain to crimes that are less severe. The studies found that third-party support for giving a clean slate was present for minor crimes. Currently, however, even minor crimes can produce a permanent criminal record, which can then lead to collateral consequences for exoffenders who have completed their sentences (e.g., difficulties acquiring employment). […] Since third parties supported the notion of giving clean slates for minor crimes, a policy implication is that minor crimes should not be treated in the same manner as severe crimes in terms of collateral consequences. […] Policies might therefore be developed, or adjusted, to remove collateral consequences for minor offenses (e.g., criminal record expungement, “ban the box”). Providing a clean slate in this manner can improve offender functioning and reduce recidivism rates. The present studies also show that giving a clean slate is consistent with third-party views regarding the objectives that sentences should accomplish.” (p. 513)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“There are several areas of future research that are associated with the present studies. First, future research could continue investigating the factors that influence third-party support for giving offenders a clean slate. […] Future research could also continue to investigate the factors that affect third-party compassion for offenders, as the present studies found that compassion was related to all three sentencing objectives. […] Additional research could also be done on third-party support for rehabilitation. The present studies found that support for rehabilitation did not decrease even as compassion for the offenders decreased. Future research could explore the reasons why rehabilitation received consistent third-party support, particularly when support for giving a clean slate to offenders decreased. […] Another area for future research is to look at the various factors that affect a crime’s perceived severity, and to determine how those unique factors affect emotions toward offenders and support for the different sentencing objectives. […] In addition, studies on support for the sentencing objectives, particularly for giving offenders a clean slate, could be conducted with officials who operate within the criminal justice system. This could be done to test whether the findings from the present studies generalize to that particular population. […] Finally, future research could address a limitation of the present studies, which is that the crime scenarios were not exceptionally high in their severity.” (pp. 513–514)

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