Instead of prison time, let’s bring back the lash By PETER MOSKOS

Posted: June 25, 2011 in News and politics

Instead of prison time, let’s bring back the lash

Suggest adding the whipping post to America’s system of criminal justice and
most people recoil in horror. But offer a choice between five years in prison or
10 lashes and almost everybody picks the lash. What does that say about
prison?

America has a prison problem. Never in the history of the world has a country
locked up so many of its people. We have more prisons than China, and it has a
billion more people than we do. Forty years ago America had 338,000 people
behind bars. Today 2.3 million are incarcerated. We have more prisoners than
soldiers. Something has gone terribly wrong.

The problem — mostly due to longer and mandatory sentences combined with an
idiotic war on drugs — is so abysmal that the Supreme Court recently ordered
33,000 prisoners in California to be housed elsewhere or released. If California
could simply return to its 1970 level of incarceration, the savings from its $9
billion prison budget would cut the state’s budget deficit in half. But doing so
would require the release of 125,000 inmates, and not even the most progressive
reformer has a plan to reduce the prison population by 85 percent.

I do: Bring back the lash. Give convicts the choice of flogging in lieu of
incarceration.

Ironically, when the penitentiary was invented in post-revolutionary
Philadelphia, it was designed to replace the very punishment I propose. Corporal
punishment, said one early advocate of prisons, was a relic of “barbarous”
British imperialism ill-suited to “a new country, simple manners, and a popular
form of government.” State by state, starting with Pennsylvania in 1790 and
ending with Delaware in 1972 (20 years after the last flogging), corporal
punishment was struck from the criminal code.

The idea was that penitentiaries would heal the criminally ill just as
hospitals cured the physically sick. It didn’t work. Yet despite — or perhaps
because of — the failures of the first prisons, states authorized more and
larger prisons. With flogging banned and crime not cured, there was simply no
alternative. We tried rehabilitation and ended up with supermax. We tried to be
humane and ended up with more prisoners than Stalin had at the height of the
Soviet Gulag. Somewhere in the process, we lost the concept of justice and
punishment in a free society.

Today, the prison-industrial complex has become little more than a massive
government-run make-work program that profits from human bondage. To
oversimplify — just a bit — we pay poor, unemployed rural whites to guard poor,
unemployed urban blacks.

Of course some people are simply too dangerous to release — pedophiles,
terrorists and the truly psychopathic, for instance. But they’re relatively few
in number. And we keep these people behind bars because we’re afraid of them.

As to the other 2 million common criminals, the 2 million more than we had in
1970, we can’t and won’t keep them locked up forever. Ninety-five percent of
prisoners are eventually released. The question is not if but when and how.

Incarceration not only fails to deter crime but in many ways can increase it.
For crime driven by economic demand, such as drug dealing, arresting one seller
creates a job opening for others, who might fight over the vacant position.

Incarceration destroys families and jobs, exactly what people need to have to
stay away from crime. Incarcerated criminals are more likely to reoffend than
similar people given alternative sentences. To break the cycle of crime, people
need help. And they would need less help if they were never incarcerated in the
first place.

Flogging, as practiced in Singapore or Malaysia, is honest, cheap and,
compared to prison, humane. Caning succeeds in part simply because it is not
incarceration. Along with saving tens of billions of dollars a year, corporal
punishment avoids all the hogwash about prisons somehow being good for the
soul.

Some would argue that flogging isn’t harsh enough. While this moves beyond
the facile belief that flogging is too cruel to consider, if flogging shouldn’t
be offered because it’s too soft — if we need to keep people locked up precisely
because overcrowded jails and prisons are so unbelievably horrific — then
perhaps we need to question our humanity.

If it takes a defense of flogging to make us face the truth about prison and
punishment, I say bring on the lash.

 


www2.tbo.com © Copyright 2011 Media General Communications Holdings,
LLC. A Media General company.

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