Flogging, Modestly Proposed

It’s time we tried a bad idea to solve our public safety funding issues. All the good ideas have been taken and tried. We’ve adapted police training toward prevention, we’ve swapped budget items between jurisdictions, we’ve searched for every hidden inefficiency, we’ve floated assorted tax increases. All the while, the problem has steadily worsened.

We replay our arguments over and over, altering the outcomes by less and less. A bad idea can reset the field of alternatives under consideration. Ridiculously bad ideas often are suppressed, because few are willing to invite the appropriate ridicule.

Fortunately in our case, I’ve located an East Coast academic. If you want to shoot the messenger, he’s thousands of miles away. And accustomed to being shot at.

Peter Moskos authored “In Defense of Flogging” in 2011. About the firestorm his book provoked, Moskos wrote, “Flogging may be distasteful, but surely there’s little harm in offering the choice. If it takes a defense of flogging to make us face the truth about prison and punishment, I say bring on the lash.”

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber wants to slow prison construction and the growth of Oregon’s inmate population. He has enlisted his predecessor/successor governor Ted Kulongoski and former Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul De Muniz and others to give him a blueprint to accomplish that.

Lane County’s Board of Commissioners continues to wrestle its budget shortfalls without increasing what the jail refers to as “capacity-based releases.” Last week, Christopher Weaver became an instant celebrity in Track Town USA, for allegedly breaking the local speed record for recidivism.

Weaver and 29 others were released from the Lane County jail at 11:00 a.m. In less time than you take to eat lunch, Mr. Weaver was picked up for robbing a downtown bank. He was returned to his cell before staff had time to change the bed linens.

Our current program so resembles catch-and-release, we should give our cops waders.

We know what reduces recidivism: swift and certain consequences, a job and a healthy social network abetting their re-entry into society, the support of parole and probation officers who aren’t overburdened with unreasonable caseloads. We’re doing less of what works and more of what doesn’t.

Penitentiaries first replaced flogging in Philadelphia in 1790. The last state to give up corporal punishment was Delaware in 1970. We congratulate ourselves for disavowing such a backward practice, but we don’t really consider what we’re doing instead.

Until Oregon again outlaws the death penalty, it will be difficult to claim high moral ground against flogging. Warehousing humans can hardly be considered humane.

We think of a prison sentence as some amped-up version of a disciplinary time out for a toddler. That comparison might be useful if you put your little bundle of joy into a cage, where he or she was fed by strangers carrying guns. There’s a reason convicts refer to their time served as “time in.” “Time out” couldn’t be more wrong.

What we have refused to admit is that “time served” is costly — for them and for us. Each day an inmate is behind bars is a day he or she cannot be building healthy relationships, valuable work experience, and the esteem that comes from being effectively corrected and welcomed back into society.

If you were caught shoplifting and given a choice between ten lashes or ten days in jail, which would you choose? Which punishment could be delivered quickly and in full measure? Which would deny you the opportunity to learn better shoplifting techniques from more seasoned criminals? Which would be cheaper for government to administer?

If corporal punishment is beyond the pale, how about allowing judges to assign outcome-defined sentences in certain circumstances? This would be more certain than the amorphous “time off for good behavior” and may be more swift as well. Swifter is also cheaper.

A judge could order the guilty to remain behind bars until they get a GED, or lose 20 pounds, or write a research paper on what reduces recidivism — anything where discipline diminishes duration. If an inmate shortens his or her sentence, whatever comes next is more likely to build on that short habit of success.


Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.