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Flogging: Jeff Jacoby’s Modest Proposal

| July 25, 2011

Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe wrote a column fifteen years ago that called for the revival of corporal punishment for criminals.  He advocated such measures because he believed they would save dollars and potentially be more humane than long prison sentences.  Now, as skyrocketing rates of incarceration have become a major national issue (and a major national fiscal concern), Jacoby returns to his idea in a new article in The Boston Globe.

Modern society tends to abhor the idea of public whippings, but Jacoby asks, “is [corporal punishment] really less civilized than a criminal-justice system that relies almost exclusively on caging human beings?”

The idea is also the subject of a new book by Peter Moskos, a criminologist at the City University of New York and a former police officer.  He argues that rather than putting non-violent criminals into our broken prison system, we ought to give them a choice: five years in prison or five minutes against a rattan cane.

This idea is hard to endorse – and it is not endorsed by Right On Crime – but it makes for an interesting thought experiment.  A flogging would be painful, shameful, and horrific, but over in minutes.  Meanwhile, a prison sentence could take several months of a person’s life.

Jacoby insists that Moskos’s book is not necessarily a defense of flogging, but rather a call for reform in the broken American prison system.  He mentions that prisons are good for keeping violent criminals off the streets, but they may be counterproductive as tools for punishing and rehabilitating non-violent criminals.  The problem, as Jacoby sees it, is that we are a single-punishment society that too often offers only imprisonment.

Historically, criminal justice systems serve four basic requirements: punishment, deterrence, retribution, and rehabilitation.  A public flogging would certainly serve the goals of punishment and, possibly, deterrence.  However, flogging may fall short of retributive goals.  Unless a victim gets to administer the punishment (several Americans would probably love to take a shot at Bernie Madoff), or draws some sort of peace from the suffering of a perpetrator, the goals of retribution are not satisfied.

Floggings may fall short in rehabilitation as well.  While a public beating will certainly harm and probably embarrass an offender, would it genuinely serve to rehabilitate the person so they may become a productive member of society?  Jacoby might respond that the same argument could be made against the current prison system, which, in an era of tough-on-crime policies, has often ignored rehabilitative goals also.  This point, however, just means that flogging and incarceration are both imperfect responses to non-violent crime.

If nothing else, Jacoby’s suggestion is an interesting commentary on our current criminal justice system.  If our methods are so broken that the idea of public beatings can be seriously suggested as an alternative, then change is undeniably necessary.


RIGHT ON CRIME is a national campaign to promote successful, conservative solutions on American criminal justice policy—reforming the system to ensure public safety, shrink government, and save taxpayers money. By sharing research and policy ideas and mobilizing strong conservative voices, we work to raise awareness of the growing support for effective reforms within the conservative movement. We are transforming the debate on criminal justice in America.