Is flogging less cruel than jail time?

An ex-beat cop says the U.S. penal system is immoral and ineffective

 Is flogging less cruel than jail time?

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Peter Moskos is an American criminologist whose experiences and research, first as a Baltimore beat cop and later as a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, have shown him just how immorally counterproductive, ruinously expensive and profoundly stupid his country’s prison system is. He’s also discovered that he can tell his fellow Americans this, and even convince many, but it doesn’t really matter: they just want criminals punished. Very well, Moskos decided, consider this, meaning the startling suggestion in the title of his elegant polemic, In Defense of Flogging. Like 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift, whose Modest Proposal offered a tidy if savage solution to chronic hunger in Ireland—have the rich eat the starving children of the poor—Moskos aimed “to shake up people,” as he says in an interview, “alter their thinking.” With one key difference: Swift never really thought eating babies was a good idea, but by the end of In Defense of Flogging, Moskos had convinced himself of the benefits of flogging.

His argument has two pillars. The first is how awful the current punishment regime is, mostly as a result of the abject failure of the war on drugs: “These 2.3 million prisoners we have, more than one per cent of the adult population, more prisoners than soldiers, more prisoners than China, seven times the incarceration rate of Canada? Somehow we’ve convinced ourselves this is normal and rational.” (References to Canada pepper his book as well, with Moskos pointing northward to what he considers a land of rational incarceration policies. He is discouraged, to put it mildly, to hear that Canada now seems set to take some steps, at least, down the American penal road, embarking on an expensive prison expansion program and increasing mandatory minimum sentences.)

Moskos, no bleeding heart, has no quarrel at all with his countrymen’s demand that criminals be punished—he merely despises the way the U.S. currently goes about it.

While there are offenders he would imprison for years, partly as punishment and mostly for public safety, far too many Americans are in jail for no good reason. “Lock up an active pedophile and there are fewer raped children, yes, but locking up a drug dealer just creates a job opening.” Incarcerate thousands of the latter at a cost of billions, and thousands more will take their places.

If prison is ineffective as a deterrent, it certainly does punish, but not in a way good for either prisoners or society: many cons, especially those in prolonged solitary, emerge psychologically damaged; even more come out well-schooled by fellow inmates in advanced criminal techniques; and all of them are released to minimal job prospects. (Some 47 million Americans have criminal records.) Now that virtually no one speaks any longer of prison’s rehabilitative function—the original impulse behind the prison system when it took root 200 years ago—Moskos scathingly notes prison defenders are increasingly driven to economic, as opposed to moral, arguments, including the way “the prison-industrial complex” is used to provide a crude form of regional equalization: “We spend billions to pay poor rural whites to guard poor urban blacks.”

That brings Moskos to his second pillar. Knowing what you know about prison, dear reader, he writes, which would be your choice (should you ever be convicted of a felony) between the options he proposes for non-violent criminals: either serve your time or accept two flesh-lacerating, Singapore-style blows from a rattan cane per year of your sentence? And if you would take the lashes for yourself—and Moskos knows he would—how can you deny it to others? Two reasons, he reckons. First, it’s not harsh enough, as deterrent or as punishment, to which he replies that nothing short of decriminalization will deter the drug trade, but that he’s open to debating the number of strokes.

But the main objection, of course, is moral. Prison, for all its manifest evils, is familiar, accepted, seemingly inevitable—that’s why we joke about prison rape—while flogging is…barbaric. “I have a friend who hates this book. She does death penalty mitigation cases, she fights the good fight, you know,” says Moskos. “But she can’t get past the idea that flogging is wrong. And I find it so weird that people who claim to speak for prisoners want to keep them in cages, and then fight for better prison libraries or whatever. It’s like they’re missing the big picture.”




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Is flogging less cruel than jail time?

  1. Sorry but flogging is just cruel -  However a good number of teenage offenders would be well served by time in the public stocks or other such punishment that would bring embarassment and censure from their friends and family.  Print their names in the paper and let Dad and Mom have to face the public.

    • I agree that anonymity should be done away with (once convicted) for more serious offences committed by young offenders - in part so society knows who these offenders are, and can thus be forewarned. I too have advocated the use of stocks and public shaming for some. Part of me wonders, though: given how some youth seem to think a criminal record is a badge of honour, would they see public punishment as shameful or as proof of what bada**es they are?

    • Shaming merely reinforces the segregation of individuals and ensures that they continue to self-identify with criminal sub-culture. If we’re truly serious about rehabilitation and reintegration, this is the last thing we should be doing.

      What we want to encourage is people taking responsibility for their actions, not give them excuses to blame society or reinforce their anti-social world views.

      When you give people a clear means to meet their responsibilities and clear expectations, most will rise to them.

      When you leave them to rot and otherwise demonstrate your hatred for them, they will meet those expectations as well.

    • There must be consequences for crime. 
      There are only two types of corrective punishment; emotional pain,
      and physical pain. Physical pain can scar the individual, but
      emotional pain will always scar the individual in ways very poorly understood. Your proposal to
      bring shame to the families in order to get away from the physical
      pain of corporal punishment is choosing the greater of two evils.

  2. The only problem is that flogging scars you. Read a bit on how it’s done in Singapore, and you’ll come away convinced it’s tantamount to torture and to branding. The lashes are given with such strength it tears the flesh away, and leaves you with nasty scars for the rest of your life, without mentioning the absolutely horrible pain on the moment. I for one wouldn’t like being wrongly accused of something and then sent to be flogged, knowing what comes.

    A good solution is likely to be found in reducing sentences, as unpolitical as it may sound, or changing prison sentences to community ones. We should, too, look more into initiatives like community courts, amiable deals, and other such “non-conventional” forms of keeping people on the straight path. Something like what I mean already exists for veterans as a pilot project in the US (http://www.economist.com/node/18775315).

    • Re the wrongly accused bit: Moskos is advocating the flogging as a choice to be made by the convict - either flogging or incarceration. Presumably, someone wrongly convicted would choose incarceration and appeals to clear his/her name.

      • Don’t worry, I can read. But in Singapore, or Malaysia too, it’s not a choice. I’ll give you that: I wasn’t addressing the exact option he had presented. However, what I describe does exist and to be sure, an implementation of corporal punishments would likely lead to it sooner or later.

  3. Why are these extremes always presented?  Why not make prisoners WORK at useful labor?  Only in that way would they really be paying at least part of their debt to society while possibly learning better habits, not incurring additional debt for room and board.  Don’t let the libs derail the issue with their lurid chain gang Cool Hand Luke scenarios.  We have lots of minimum security jails in Canada where prisoners could walk out any time and laze away their time on the computer, reading, working out at the gym and I kid you not golfing in some places.  These activities should be available only after an honest day’s work, just like the rest of us.  The more serious cases must work within serious jails using the carrot of privileges.  No university courses, computer access etc. until they’ve earned them with work the way the rest of us do.  With a little bit of ingenuity, something productive could be found for everyone to do 5 days a week, even solitary, licking envelopes.

    • Don’t let the libs derail the issue with their lurid chain gang Cool Hand Luke scenarios.

      Does it really matter which group of people the “Cool Hand Luke scenario” believers belong to?

  4. Our obsession with revenge has not done society at large any favours. I’m not really sure how the concept is supposed to align with our values as a people, whether you’re talking about modern 21st century ideals or even the ancient ideals of our churches. It just doesn’t mesh. Justice shouldn’t be about revenge, it should be about protecting people and communities.

    Now I think it’s fairly easy for us all to agree that violent offenders have to be segregated from society, and yet we don’t even do that very well. Pedophiles have a 99% recidivism rate. Murderers, rapists and other habitually violent people aren’t much better. So why do we even have release dates for these people? We don’t need to be cruel to understand they need to stay segregated more or less idefinitely.

    On the otherhand, locking up petty criminals doesn’t really help much at all. The point should be to make these people take responsibility for their crimes, but locking them up does the opposite and increases recidivism. Tag’em with a GPS so you can keep an eye on them, help them find work and make them pay their way. Decades of psychological study shows that if people have a job and a sense of autonomy, they generally opt for that over crime. Crime at this level is almost always a reflection of a perceived lack of choice.

    On top of this are the cases where we make silly laws that only exasperate the problem. Studies show that young people find it far more difficult to obtain alcohol and cigarettes than drugs. Shouldn’t this tell us something about our approach?

    There are so many things wrong with trying to solve society’s crime dilemna through revenge I’m still continually surprised when people advocate for it. It just makes things worse for everyone, since afterall, we’re all stuck here together until we die.

  5. While there are offenders he would imprison for years, partly as punishment and mostly for public safety, far too many Americans are in jail for no good reason. “Lock up an active pedophile and there are fewer raped children, yes, but locking up a drug dealer just creates a job opening.” Incarcerate thousands of the latter at a cost of billions, and thousands more will take their places.

    Which is not to say we shouldn’t try to limit access to drugs, particularly by children – we should.  We just need to do that the same way we limit access to alcohol – legalize, regulate and tax.

  6. do not worry, Canada’s rate of incarceration of 7x less will soon leapfrog over the US. mr law and order, incarcerate then, hire more prison guards with his kid brother chain gang king and side kick”s increase # of  police and their salaries will make Canada # 1 soon

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