- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2011


By Peter Moskos
Basic Books, $20, 183 pages

Imagine being mugged. Imagine a few weeks later, standing in a courtroom watching as your assailant is tied to a post, stripped from the buttocks down and struck with a cane - half an inch thick; four feet long - 10 times. Over the course of five minutes, the criminal’s skin on his buttocks splits open, oozing blood and creating life-long scars. When complete, your thief receives medical treatment and is released. No time in prison. No parole hearings. Do you feel justice was served? Equally important: Does the thief rob again or do his scars sway him otherwise?

Such is the essence of Peter Moskos‘ book “In Defense of Flogging.” As a former Baltimore City police officer, assistant professor of law, police science and criminal justice administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Mr. Moskos is not unfamiliar with the legal or criminal aspects of justice. He readily employs this background to describe the ills of today’s criminal justice system and his radical alternative.

For nearly two-thirds of “Flogging,” which has no chapter titles or breaks - odd for a book of 150 pages - Mr. Moskos‘ volume reads more like an endless treatise against incarceration, a vendetta against prisons, than a vindication of flogging. Philosophically, prisons don’t make sense: They are misused; rather than enforcing punishment and being an effective deterrent, they are drug treatment centers, juvenile penitentiaries and housing for the mentally ill. Practically, they’re useless too: From the cost per prisoner to the conditions inside (including sexual and physical assault), Mr. Moskos cites the many ills of the prison system and the subsequent need for reform.

Mr. Moskos‘ argument contains holes. He’s as concerned with what goes on after a criminal is released as he is while he’s incarcerated. “Of the more than seven hundred thousand prisoners released each other, two-thirds are rearrested within three years, and half end up back in prison. … Whatever circumstances led somebody to commit a crime probably haven’t changed by the time they’re freed.” Assuming this sad statement is true, Mr. Moskos fails to persuade how flogging would serve as a more effective deterrent.

Later Mr. Moskos writes, “Why incapacitate criminals in a nonrehabilitative environment never meant for punishment? This is more torturous than flogging could ever be.” If a prisoner is incarcerated for multiple years, endures abuse the entire time, then is released and returns to a life of crime, how would a five- or even 10-minute flogging (or, Mr. Moskos argues, 30 lashes would be the maximum amount of flogging a criminal should endure) deter such a determined criminal? Further, how do 15 lashes guarantee punishment and rehabilitation?

Mr. Moskos claims the benefits of flogging would cancel out the errors of the prison system. He prefers the Malaysian and Singapore flogging models which are efficient and orderly; also criminals should only be flogged after consenting to it (if they decline, they head to prison). Upon consenting, they would receive two lashes per year of incarceration, thus shrinking the size of the prison population and eventually saving money.

The intense, physical pain and violent nature of the lashing, combined with the twinge of public shame would not only adequately offer punishment, which the current system fails to do, the memory of the lash would deter future crimes.

While Mr. Moskos admits “Flogging” presents a philosophical argument rather than a how-to guide, practical questions still arise regarding certain types of criminals and crimes. Are 10, 20, even 30 lashes enough for say, the abduction, rape and murder of a child? While some crimes and their lashing-equivalent aren’t mentioned, Mr. Moskos does argue that prison is appropriate for really bad criminals - the Jeffrey Dahmers, the Khalid Shaikh Mohammeds - because it literally bars them from the public. Lashing is reserved for mediocre people who make bad choices.

“Flogging” is intriguing, even in - or because of - its shocking premise. As a case against prisons, Mr. Moskos‘ is airtight; as for the case for flogging, it’s as limp as it is dubious.

Nicole Russell has written for TheAtlantic.com, Politico, National Review Online and the American Spectator.

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