Volume 82, Number 44 Friday, October 18, 1996

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Last Word

Public paddling beats prison

Jeff Howard

The other night, my girlfriend and I had an interesting debate about corporal punishment. It started out over the public caning of the then 18-year-old Michael Fay in Singapore a couple of years ago. Fay was an American living in Singapore with his mother and got arrested for spray painting several Mercedes-Benz automobiles. Big deal, right? Well, in Singapore it was. In fact, Fay was the first person ever to be punished under the country's Vandalism Act.

Fay's punishment consisted of six powerful lashes on his bare ass with a sopping-wet bamboo shaft. By all accounts, this was a fairly severe punishment. Some have argued that it was politically motivated. And it may have been, but that does not change the fact that Fay committed a crime in a country where it was very likely that were he caught, he would get his tail flayed.

My girlfriend lamented that Fay's punishment simply didn't fit his crime; it was entirely too severe, and anyway, he was an American! I don't know if it is her maternal instinct popping out or her training in social work or simply some cognitive difference between men and women, but I don't see anything wrong with Fay's punishment, given the cultural differences between Singapore and the United States.

Surprisingly, the low crime rate in cane-wielding Singapore is virtually the same as that of Hong Kong, where corporal punishment is not practiced. The evidence suggests that demographic and cultural similarities between the two city-states best explains their lack of crime and not the threat of caning.

Here in the United States, however, we lack the crime-preventing demographic and cultural conditions present in Singapore and Hong Kong -- like a homogeneous population, highly restrictive immigration policies, strong family units and social pressure to conform. Given our tenacious belief in individuality and rampant crime rate, corporal punishment might have greater efficacy here than in Singapore.

One of the problems with petty crime in the United States is there is very little that is punitive about punishment. Once convicted of a petty crime, sentences range from supervision and public service to short stays in jail. The parents of suburban kids often can afford decent lawyers who can plea bargain with state's attorneys for lesser charges, and judges tend to be lenient on first-time offenders with white faces and well-dressed family members by their side.

On the other side of the tracks, the oppressively poor and those without opportunity find a stint in jail almost refreshing. Three square meals a day, clean clothes, a bed, sanitary showers and toilets, a weight room, TV and videos and people to hang out with make for an attractive retreat from the brutish realities of surviving on the street.

In either case, the disincentive for committing crime is absent; people are simply not held responsible for their actions. And while I completely agree with those who advocate improved education, vocational training, counseling and outward-bound programs for troubled teens and young adults, I also think that if they break the law, they should publicly have their asses paddled.

The upshot of having public paddling for minor crimes is that offenders actually will be punished for their actions, and the enormous cost of maintaining juvenile detention centers and minimum security prisons -- and the inmates themselves -- will be significantly reduced. The savings could be spent on improving education, parenting skills and programs to thwart criminal activity. While social workers and psychologists may disagree with the use of corporal punishment, they cannot disagree with our crime problem. And building more prisons just doesn't seem to be the solution.

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