ABOUT 15 YEARS AGO, I wrote a column -- "Bring back flogging" -- that called for reviving corporal punishment for convicted criminals. Rather than continuing to lock up millions of offenders, many of them nonviolent, in crowded and brutal prisons, I suggested, it would be more humane to punish at least some of them with a straightforward whipping and let them get on with their lives. Americans have been taught to think of flogging as hopelessly barbaric and primitive. But is corporal punishment really less civilized than a criminal-justice system that relies almost exclusively on caging human beings?
It was a pretty good column, and I always had a hunch it would make an even better book. Now it has, and I only wish I had written it.
Peter Moskos, a criminologist at the City University of New York and a former Baltimore police officer, has just published In Defense of Flogging, a serious if startling proposal to drastically shrink America's "massive and horrible system of incarceration" by letting most convicted criminals choose between going to prison and a semipublic flogging with a rattan cane. An absurd thesis? Don't reject it out of hand, Moskos says, before considering what you would want for yourself. "Given the choice between five years in prison and 10 brutal lashes, which would you choose?" A flogging would be intensely painful and bloody, but it would be over in a few minutes. Prison would mean losing years of your life, being locked away from everything and everyone you care about.
Offered those alternatives -- hard time or the lash -- most people would choose the lash. Better the short, sharp humiliation of a flogging than the prolonged emotional torture of being shut in a cage. Better to be punished and be done with it.
Its title notwithstanding, In Defense of Flogging is less a brief for the resumption of corporal punishment than an indictment of America's appalling system of mass imprisonment.