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Judicial CP - March 1994

Corpun file 06971

Houston Chronicle, Texas, 10 March 1994

Some swift corporal punishment for criminals

By Rabbi Avi Shafran

THE pressing social issue of the day is undoubtedly crime.

Most of us middle-aged folk vividly and lovingly remember bygone days of friendly strangers and unlocked doors, nights when a leisurely walk on a city street was synonymous with sublime pleasure, not with living dangerously.

But then we take our leave of our reveries, return to the present and gaze again in disbelief at the surrealistic world that has come to envelop us.

Even among the younger generation, many can't help but sense that something is terribly amiss in a world where muggings and even murders are barely newsworthy, where burglar alarms have become as de rigueur -- and utilitarian -- as welcome mats.

Our prisons are infamously ineffective, and overflowing to boot; our judges, understandably reluctant to add to the mess. Is there anything left to try?

Well, here's some food for thought -- but, for all its possible nutritional value, it's pretty hard stuff to swallow.

First, some blame: A lot of it is George Orwell's fault. He effectively emasculated modern society by inadvertently tarring every decisive effort at true criminal deterrence with the brush of immoral social engineering.

No one, after all, wants "Big Brother" on his resume. But let's face something: We're a full decade past 1984, approaching five since Orwell's warning was actually penned, and yet crime, not authority, has become modern Western society's bane.

Orwell, in fact, did so effective a job frightening us with his nightmare that today the specter of totalitarianism -- at least in the civilized world -- has receded into the shadows, and today spooks no one but the American Civil Liberties Union. The bulk of our problems have more to do with lawlessness than with authoritarianism.

So perhaps it is time to consider the unconsiderable, to think the unthinkable, to imagine and consider a truly radical but just possibly useful approach to penology:

Punishment. Specifically, corporal punishment.

There, it's said. It's not a pretty phrase, nor does it evoke a pretty image, but it might just be an idea whose time, regrettably, has come. Other cultures, of course, practice it routinely, if primitively. And even responsible, loving parents in our own society occasionally employ one or another version of it with their younger children. Now criminals, to be sure, are generally not children. But the moral imbalance that motivates them is not entirely unrelated to the essence of childhood misbehavior: the reluctance to subvert the self, the refusal to empathize with a larger world.

So, while one group may be detestable and the other sublime, criminals and children do indeed share something in common: should society, perhaps, start thinking of the former as an ingrown, oversized form of the latter -- and start treating them accordingly?

Why is behavior modification off-limits in the discouragement of violent crime? We have, in fact -- at least most of us -- already come to terms with corporal punishment's most extreme and irreversible form -- capital punishment.

We kill some criminals, and still manage to sleep at night. Why, then, are physical punishment's more moderate flavors so horribly unpalatable to us?

And an even more disturbing bit of reality: Is our present, and clearly ineffective, penal system, based as it is on forcible confinement, really qualitatively different from more immediately painful punishment ? Might not a clearer, unmistakably unpleasant result of a crime make a more meaningful and lasting impression on a serious criminal? Might it not be more effective both as a deterrent and a rehabilitative strategy?

Now we're obviously not talking about flogging traffic violators here. Corporal punishment, even should civilized society ever deem it an option, is certainly nothing to take lightly. The point, though, that we seem too cowed to consider is simply that true punishment might just have a legitimate place in the modern world, as it was deemed to have in the ancient.

If potential perpetrators of societal violence -- muggings, rapes, child-abuse and the like -- knew that acting on their whims could easily result in something more than a simple state-sponsored stay in a warm penitentiary (all too many of which are, in effect, mere graduate schools for thugs), might they perhaps think twice about proceeding? And might those who have paid for previous crimes with immediate pain perhaps hesitate before risking more of the same?

What sort of corporal punishment? Well, yes, that's a hard one.

Perhaps we Americans might do well to begin a debate of the idea of subjecting violent criminals to a fairly short period of discomfort, just long and intense enough to register on the recipient society's outrage over his acts, to impress on him the wisdom of pursuing a different line of work.

Prison, to be blunt, is slow torture. Corporal punishment is swifter, more focused torture.

The former has proved largely ineffective, not to mention increasingly difficult to sustain.

Might the latter, in some form or another, be worthy of our consideration?

Away, Orwell. We need to think.

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