Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Crime and Punishment, Part 1

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime;
And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment!
Of innocent merriment!

Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado, Act 2

According to the Jan. 14 Atlanta Journal-Constitution, US Representative Hank Johnson claimed that the United States imprisons a greater percentage of its population than any other nation. Since Johnson is not known for getting his facts straight , the intrepid AJC fact-checkers checked and--guess what?--Johnson was almost right

Johnson wants fewer people imprisoned, since felons make up a goodly part of his (and Obama's) constituency, but there are actual humanitarian and practical reasons to reduce the numbers of the incarcerated. Our jails and prisons are overcrowded, putting the (mostly nonviolent) convicts at the mercy of the most brutal inmates. Controlling prison gangs is virtually impossible. Convicts plan and supervise their collaborators' crimes from behind bars using easily smuggled cell phones. Guards, too often corrupt, cannot in any case adequately control the population. Jails and prisons are expensive, too; so much so that, for example, Fulton County GA cannot afford to put working locks on its cells in a timely fashion. Until they do, prisoners can apparently stroll around at will.

These problems lead to others, for instance early release and parole. Many relatively petty criminals are sentenced to probation--no punishment at all. Some are fined, the money going to the local, state or Federal government, guaranteeing that it will be largely wasted. Other than turning the United States into one huge prison, either maximum-security (the North Korean option) or minimum-security (the recent Communist Chinese innovation, at least if you're not Tibetan). What can be done?

I propose bringing back corporal punishment. Today's essay will deal with relatively minor crimes and misdemeanors, those causing minimal to no direct harm but which reduce other people's quality of life or present a potential danger. These would normally be punished by fines or short jail terms. Examples, in no particular order, are public intoxication, soliciting for (adult) prostitution, reckless or impaired driving, vandalism, public disturbance, indecent exposure or lewd conduct (not involving children), possession and sale of small amounts of drugs, aggressive panhandling and so forth.*

To be effective, punishment must be quick, consistent and certain. It should prevent recidivism, at least statistically, but not be so severe as to cause permanent harm (as, for instance, being raped and brutalized by violent inmates would). It should be inexpensive. To have a deterrent effect it should be public, and vivid enough to come readily to mind when someone thinks of performing an illegal action.

I propose reintroducing the stocks and the pillory to the public square. The former holds prisoners by the ankles, seated, while the latter holds the neck and hands, standing. Convicts are required to spend a number of hours or days so confined, exposed in a public
place where they are subject to abuse and taunts from passers-by. In deference to modern sensibilities I would not have convicts exposed at night or during severe weather, and would have guards present to prevent their injury. Prisoners would be supplied with water during hot weather and appropriate clothing in winter. The public would be kept at a reasonable distance. 

As in historical times, however, the public would be permitted to taunt and insult the convicts. They would also be allowed to to pelt them with rotten eggs, spoiled fruit and vegetables, and other non-injurious missiles (e.g. snowballs.) Prisoners would be supplied with goggles to avoid eye injury, but would be unprotected otherwise. Guards would be responsible for wiping or hosing away residue from time to time and otherwise assuring sanitation.

I believe public humiliation and discomfort would accomplish what our criminal justice and failed "rehabilitation" programs do not, at a remarkably lower cost. There may also be some direct economic and social benefit to bringing people downtown to amuse themselves at the convicts' expense. Besides selling otherwise useless spoiled foods for the amusement of the crowds, retailers of all sorts would have more potential customers, encouraging entrepreneurship. Children would have healthy exercise running and throwing things at their deserving targets. This would be a welcome change from video games, and less violent. The convicts themselves would serve a much shorter sentence, freeing jail space and corrections officers to handle the serious and violent offenders. And, at the very least, it would make good reality TV.

* Whether some of these should be crimes at all is another question. 

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