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Impact of Offender Stigma and Discrimination

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2363 words Published: 3rd Jul 2018

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Does stigmatising offenders cause more harm than good? Discuss

In the study of deviant behaviour, sociologists have explored the effects of society’s perceptions on deviants in a school of thought popularly known as ‘Interactionism’. Deviant behaviour, explained from this perspective, is more a result of how society deals with the deviant individual, rather than a result of the individual’s unique characteristics or background. The labelling theory put forth by interactionists, thus argues that an offender’s deviant ways is not due to his or her own deviance but due to the external stigma faced by the individual.

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This essay will argue that stigmatising offenders causes more harm than good for the following reasons. Firstly, stigmatising offenders can lead to re offending. Secondly, stigmatising can affect the self-esteem of an offender. Thirdly, stigmatising can also result in the unintended consequence of causing stress and social isolation for the family of the offenders. Fourthly, this essay will discuss and further refute the idea of stigma acting as deterrent to crime. Lastly, stigma will hinder an offender from re integrating and contributing back to the society.

This essay will highlight society’s influence in the understanding and portrayal of deviance and will discuss the consequence of this on rule- breaking individuals. Furthermore, it will include examples and various sociological theories to justify the impacts of stigmatising offenders. The definition of stigma used in this essay would be that of Goffman’s(1963) who defines stigma as ‘the situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance.’

Merton (1948) introduced the concept of the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. This begins with a false conception of the situation evoking a new behaviour making the original false conception come true. (Merton, 1948) This can be used to explain how society stigmatising offenders can cause more harm than good as the stigma can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy being created by the offenders. Where an individual has committed a deviant act, they will be stigmatised and cut off from ‘participation in more conventional groups’. (Becker 1963). Becker attributes the further development of deviant behaviour to the stigma faced by the individual which thus results in the individual’s inability to lead an ‘ordinary routine life’. The individual is further given an ‘outsider’ status. When this occurs, the individual internalises the idea of him or her being a deviant. This will propel the individual to act deviantly to upkeep society’s stigma of him resulting in secondary deviance. The secondary deviance thus causes more harm than good as it will only result in the reoffending of an offender.

It can thus be derived from the above that self-fulfilling prophecy which originates from stigma will result in re offending, thus causing more harm than good.

This is evident in the UK with regards to the Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs). ASBOs are intended to protect the public from anti-social behaviour that is likely to cause harassment, distress or alarm. In 2013 however, it was found that 73 % of the offenders had breached their orders. A possible explanation for offenders who had breached their orders could have acted in this way to conform to society’s expectations of them by unconsciously adopting the self-fulfilling prophecy. This thus causes more harm than good as it has also resulted in offenders regarding ASBOs as a ‘badge of honour’. (Squires and Stephan, 2005) thus living up to society’s expectations of them.

Stigmatising offenders can also cause more harm than good as it can lead to the ‘dramatization of evil’ (Tannenbaum, 1938). This can have potentially lasting implications on the behaviour in children, thus causing more harm than good. The process of dramatization of evil involves the shift from an act being defined as evil to the individual becoming seen as evil. For example when a child has committed a criminal act he or she will be separated from other children and will then will be tagged. This evil is then further dramatized by treating the individual the way society thinks the individual should be treated. The individual is recognised as being different from others who are considered ‘normal’. Tannenbaum (1938) describes this process one of “tagging, defining, identifying, segregating, describing, emphasizing, making conscious and self-conscious.”

This inaccurate label that stigma can impose on an individual results in the social exclusion of the individual. This cause more harm than good because the offender will now associate himself with other deviants ( Heimer and Matsueda, 1992) and this could further lead to deviance amplification ( Lermert, 1967)

Recently, Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNA) bill was the subject of debate, with the House of Lords rejecting this bill. The intention of the bill was to replace ASBOs. The IPNA in my opinion, is a reflection of ‘dramatisation of evil’ as, it can result in many unassuming juveniles being caught by it which can trigger the possibility of the juveniles seen as delinquent rather than the act alone. This will thus cause more harm than good. It should also not be passed as this could lead to children being considered offenders for petty crimes. This will breed a new generation offenders from such a young age.

Stigmatising offenders can result in a lack of self-esteem in offenders. This is explained by symbolic interactionism. The symbolic interactionist view holds that the stigma faced by offenders would affect the way they perceive themselves and this in turn will affect their future behaviour(Blumer, 1969) , causing more harm than good. Cooley (1922) states that one’s perception is formed through the “looking glass self”.

An individual thus will shape their self-concepts based on their understandings of how they are being perceived. With regards to offenders their self perception and esteem is thus based on what is reflected of them in society. An offender will thus have a low self esteem as what is reflected of them is likely to be poor. This reflects how crucial society’s perceptions of offenders are as it can reduce the offender’s esteem where they are negatively perceived. Having a low self-esteem will result in the failure of the offender to move past his mistakes.

However, it is impossible to completely blame society for an individual’s actions at the end of the day. Deviants are not always ‘thrust’ with the label of offenders. Offenders could have actively seeked the label be joining certain groups. (Ackers, 2007) Also, Lemert (1967) argues that offenders who have committed secondary acts of deviance do not necessarily commit crimes just because of the stigma they face. There are instances where offenders are able to brush off the stigma, and in other instances even become oblivious to the stigma.

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The idea of whether stigma discourages offending behaviour and thus acts as deterrence to crime, has indeed been a contentious issue. (Williams and Hawkins, 1992; Tittle, 1980; Grasmick and Bursik, 1990; Zimring and Hawkins, 1973; Andeneas, 1974; Nagin and Paternoster, 1994). Becker (1955) in his study; Marijuana Use and Social Control; observed that the stigma attached to marijuana users as ‘unproductive criminals’ acts as a deterrent to individuals who intend on using the drug. This is supported by the observations of Cohen, who noted that there are certain roles which people actively resist, such as the label of alcoholic or drug addict. Cohen observes that people would avoid subjective identification with these negative labels even when they have been identified with them, trying to limit the visibility of these roles or to emphasise that these are secondary characteristics of their sense of self. Similarly, stigmatising offenders, can work as a deterrent as potential first time offenders would not want to be labelled or stigmatised. The certainty of stigma derived from punishment of a crime deters an offender more than the severity of the punishment. (Nagin, 1998). From an economic view point, a key advantage of stigma is that it is a deterrent with no cost involved. (Rasmussen, 1996) This could thus reflect the benefits that stigmatising offenders has.

Whilst stigma acts as a deterrent and thus causes more harm than good, it also has some limitations. Firstly, where the stigma is huge, and the offender has no way of hiding it or shedding it, the stigma will be counterproductive to deterrence and will instead amplify the offender’s misconduct. Secondly, research has also shown the stigma might have little effect of already stigmatised ex-convicts, and can possible drive the ex-convict to commit more crimes (Funk, 2004).

Having taken into account the advantages of stigma being a deterrent to crime, and the limits to this, this essay argues that whilst stigmatising offenders is good as it helps to deter potential new offenders from committing crime to avoid the stigma that other offenders already face.

Offenders are not the only ones to face the stigma and the possible effects of it. Stigma also has broad effects on their families who suffer stress from stigma and also possibly social isolation. This especially holds true for the families of offenders in prison, where the stigma is borne by a host of non-offenders as well. (Thompson, 2008) Where the families of prisoners come from areas that are ‘disproportionately victimized by crime’, the stigma they face is a lot greater. Children of serious offenders suffer secondary stigma, which is related to the idea of ‘contamination’. (Condry, R. and Boswell and Wedge) Condry states that this stigma could be long lasting and serious. 3

It has been established that the stigma society holds of offenders have a significant impact on their livelihood and their abilities to re integrate into society. This is proven by the failure of ‘disintegrative shaming’ which is adopted by many countries which will make an offender still feel like a criminal, and prevent him from re integrating into society. Mc Alinden (2005, 2007) argues that disintegrative shaming stigmatises offenders which thus results in the ostracism from their respective communities. This in turn may result in violence directed towards the offenders. This was evident in the brutal slayings of two sex offenders in Maine in 2006, where the addresses were obtained via the sex registry. This sparked debate in the US as to whether an online sex registry (and thus shaming the sex offender) was necessary. Furthermore, this form of disintegrative shaming will hinder an offender’s employment opportunities and re-entry into the community.

This knowledge has contributed to an alternative method of combating certain deviant behaviour, such as juvenile delinquency, known as ‘Reintegrative Shaming’. This method has been analysed by Braithwaite and Mugford. Central to this process is the condemnation of the deviant act, while reintegrating the individual into regular society. A conference is conducted between the deviant, the victim and the deviant’s family, with a neutral coordinator. The deviant is forced to hear the victim’s side of the story, and is shamed in front of his family. He is given the opportunity to apologise and is in turn forgiven, hence reintegrated into society.(McAlinded, 2005 , Makkai and Braithwaite 1994). Braithwaite notes that the most important elements for this method to work are that the actor and the act must be decoupled, so that it is the act which is criticized, not the actor. Petrunik (2002 : 56) that re integrative shaming allows a sex offender to ‘redeem’ himself/ herself whilst under the scrutiny of the community concerned. Braithwaite identifies Japan as a country with much lower crime rates because the communitarian values that are upheld in Japan enable re integrative shaming to be successfully applied. Further examples of successful re integrative shaming would include New Zealand where juvenile delinquency is dealt with by family group conferencing. Re integrative shaming will also allow the offender to contribute to society, (Braithwaite, 1989, McAlinden 2005).

It must be noted that re integrative shaming should not be seen as a softer option to conventional punishments as it can also be degrading and hurtful.

There are however certain shortcomings to re integrative shaming. They are that both the victim and the offenders have to be present. McAliden finds that where the participation of offenders is forced upon them, the programme is futile. Where offenders voluntarily involve themselves, the programme is more effective. (McIvor 1992; McLaren 1992; McGuire 1995). Furthermore, forcing victims to participate could lead to victimization and disempowerment. Moreover, the process is often met with controversy, particularly with ‘gendered and sexualised violence’. (Hudson, 2002).

“Disintegrative shaming” on the other hand, labels and stigmatises offenders, ostracises them from the local community and may result in violence directed towards offenders. Mc Alinden (2005, pg 380), in support of Braithwaite’s disintegrative shaming practices in the form of coercive criminal justice responses will not deter offenders, protect victims or make significant reductions in recidivism levels except in the short term. The difference between reintegrative and disintegrative shaming is not in the quality of the shaming, but in its aim and in the processes that follow.

However, my view is that such a process shows the deviant that he is no longer ostracised by other members of society. After the apology, he is forgiven by all, including the victim. This eliminates the sense of alienation which was identified earlier as the central cause for amplification of the deviant behaviour. However this process may not work well for perpetrators of serious crimes or for adults, who may not be as open to such a process as juveniles.


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