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Observations of Reintegrative Shaming in a Mental Health Court

by Bradley Ray, Cindy Brooks Dollar, and Kelly M. Thames (2011). "Observations of Reintegrative Shaming in a Mental Health Court." International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 34(1): 49-55.

Mental health courts use principles of therapeutic jurisprudence to reduce criminal recidivism, improve the quality of life for mentally ill persons, and perhaps reduce the use of incarceration.  At the core of mental health court interactions is the provision of more meaningful services directed at mentally ill defendants. Within this context, different innovative approaches, including reintegrative shaming, can be taken to reach standard mental health court goals. Reintegrative shaming, according to John Braithwaite in his seminal book, Crime, Shame, and Reintegration (Cambridge University Press, 1989), criminal behavior is more likely reduced with disapproval that is reintegrative rather than stigmatizing. As North Carolina State University sociologists Bradley Ray, Cindy Brooks Dollar, and Kelly M. Thames restate it, "Reintegrative shame is a type of disapproval that is communicated in a respectful manner in which there is an effort to avert stigmatization by offering words or gestures of forgiveness to the offender. The theory posits that stigmatizing shame, commonly found in criminal processing, increases subsequent criminal behavior; reintegrative shame, in contrast, reduces subsequent criminal behavior."

According to the authors, previous research found that drug courts fail when the defendant is stigmatized. For this study, they observed comparative misdemeanor proceedings in a traditional criminal court and a mental health court in a county court in the southeastern United States. "Like most mental health courts," the authors note, "the court team utilizes court proceedings to achieve defendant's compliance with treatment and court mandates. The judge speaks directly to defendants and any family members, friends, or treatment team members who may accompany them, asking questions about their behavior, well-being, compliance, and progress. Defendants are given the opportunity - and are often encouraged by the judge - to address the court. The judge gives encouragement and praise for efforts and improvements. If a defendant is non-compliant, the judge may express disappointment, ask about reasons for non-compliance, place the defendant in jail or order the defendant be returned to traditional criminal court. If non-compliance continues, the team may determine that the defendant is unsuitable for mental health court and reassign him or her to traditional criminal court."

Data collection for this study involved observational field notes and the use an 8-point, 11-scale adaptation of the Global Observational Rating Instrument developed in the late 1990s for the Australian Reintegrative Shaming Experiments. The researchers completed this modified instrument through their recording of activities and statements made during mental health court proceedings, including such matters as attendance by defendants' family members, friends, and others; verbal exchanges between judges, attorneys, and defendants; and the non-verbal behavior of mental health court team members, participants, and other persons accompanying them. Matters recorded in these observations included the communication or expression of reintegrative or stigmatizing shame, respect for the offender, disapproval of the offender, and forgiveness of the offender. In all, the sample for this study, which was conducted over a six-month period between October 2009 and March 2010, consisted of 178 separate observations (87 in the traditional criminal court and 91 in the mental health court). Five judges were involved with these court proceeding (two in both courts and three only in the traditional criminal court).

The main finding of this study was not only that the mental health court maintained "a high level of reintegrative shaming," but also that the traditional criminal court was "not as stigmatizing" as the researchers expected. Other findings included the following:

  • Judges differed significantly from one another;
  • Organizational processes differed from one another;
  • Defendants are treated differently in each court;
  • Mental illness is treated differently in each court;
  • Behavioral or moral differences between defendants and others were minimized;
  • Judges threaten punitive sanctions less in mental health court than in traditional criminal court;
  • Judges accepted "failure" more easily in mental health court than in traditional criminal court, although mental health court judges added charges when new arrests occurred between defendant appearances; and
  • Graduation ceremonies are important not only because they affirm that defendants completed their requirements, but also because they signifiy "the termination of shame and the decertification from deviance."

These findings suggest a number of implications. The mental health or traditional criminal court setting may affect proceedings, and perhaps outcomes. As the researchers note, the mental health court process "facilitates reintegrating shaming over stigmatizing shame." A critical factor may involve how judges use their discretion. The researchers observe, "Use of judicial discretion by the mental health court judge gives the mental health court team the ability to forgive and work with those defendants whom they see as making progress." In particular, the ability of judges to directly interact with defendants in mental health court allows them to more effectively communicate respect. Moreover, the structure of mental health court operations may enhance its ability to reintegrate rather than shame. As the researchers also observe, compliance in mental health court is determined "through discussions in monthly pre-court team meetings." Consequently, judges are able to focus more on individual mental health needs than simply on individual non-compliant or even criminal actions. Finally, the researchers suggest that the traditional criminal court proceedings were less stigmatizing than expected simply because they were started and completed quickly, often in only five minutes, so "effective case management" may reduce opportunities for stigmatization.

For further information, contact Bradley Ray, Ph.D., North Carolina State University, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, 344 1911 Building, Campus Box 8107, Raleigh, NC 27695-8107, (e-mail)

Posted Fri, Aug 26 2011 2:18 PM by Tracey Vessels


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