On Flogging

A criminal justice professor thinks “penitentiaries” don’t work–and has an alternative solution to jail time.

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Last year, I wrote an article called “Prison Break,” in which I argued that prisons don’t work at what Americans have long considered to be their main objective–rehabilitating criminals. (Over 60% of people released from jail are back in it within two years.) I suggested that we needed to take a more varied approach to the punishment of crime, and stop trying to blur punishment and reform.

As of May, my suggestion has some academic support. Peter Moskos, assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has published a book called “In Defense of Flogging,” in which he argues that we should give nonviolent offenders a choice between prison and corporal punishment. I’m sure he realizes the visceral reaction most people will have for or against this idea, but he takes a good step toward getting a conversation started about whether our prison problem is one of the approach or the execution.

An excerpt from an interview with Moskos (who was also recently profiled in The Atlantic):

“Prisons are a blight on our society,” says Moskos, an assistant professor of law, police science, and criminal justice at John Jay College who spent a year serving as a police officer in Baltimore and wrote a book about the experience. In his sardonic but serious new book, Moskos evaluates America’s penal system. When he was a cop, it became clear to Moskos that the entire system was flawed. He believes that America ought to consider an alternative: flogging, carried out with the prisoner’s consent.

“Prisons have failed at pretty much everything they were designed to do except prevent escapes. They certainly don’t ‘cure’ the criminal in the way it was intended,” says Moskos, who details the failings in his book. Between the fear, violence, isolation, and sexual assault that prisoners experience, prison destroys — not rehabilitates — a person, he insists. Nor does it prevent further crime, he argues: For an inmate released without job prospects and severed family ties, there is almost no alternative but to return to a life of crime. He notes in his book that out of the 700,000 prisoners released annually, two-thirds are rearrested within three years.

Moskos’ goal with this new alternative option of punishment, as he told Harper’s in July, is to be more humane and reduce the heavy cost of prisons on American society. He sees flogging as the “lesser of two evils.” “Because flogging would happen only with the consent of the flogged, it would be hard to argue that it’s too cruel to consider,” he told the magazine. “If the choice were so bad, nobody would choose it.” And yet Moskos believes most people, given the choice, would choose the lash. “Harsh as it may be, flogging is more humane, less destructive, and much cheaper than the form of punishment we have now,” he says.

Moskos also rebuts the most common argument for incarceration — that taking criminals off the street will decrease the number of crimes committed. He maintains that there is little, if any, correlation between the number of prisoners and a city’s crime rate and that “prisons cause criminality,” because inmates are likely to learn new criminal behavior and join gangs while in prison.

“Families, jobs, and police can all prevent crime. Prisons do not,” Moskos says. “We know that prisons are not the answer.” While some people might see flogging as too cruel to consider — and Moskos realizes that it probably won’t be reinstated anytime soon — he hopes that this radical idea will open a serious dialogue about alternatives to prison and set real change in motion. “Merely presenting the choice helps us question the purpose of prison,” he says, “and suggests how destructive incarceration is for the individual and society.”

Click below to read my original post on this subject, which covers the history of American approaches to the punishment of crime and some of the evidence the current approach isn’t working.

1 Comment

  • […] integrity. Brian Brown has written before about alternative approaches to criminal justice, highlighting the work of scholar Peter Moskos and proposing some of his own solutions. I think this is an area ripe for creative work on the part […]