Imprisonment and the Lash

OB-OD534_0602fl_G_20110602121552 Peter Moskos in the WSJ (via Crooked Timber):

Not too long ago, in 1970, America had 380,000 incarcerated people. That was considered normal. Today, thanks in large part to a misguided war on drugs and get-tough sentencing laws, there are 2.3 million Americans behind bars. Something has gone terribly wrong. Never in the history of the world has a country locked up so many of its people. We have more prisoners than soldiers. We have more prisons than China, and they have a billion more people than we do.

The problem is so abysmal in California that the Supreme Court ordered 33,000 prisoners to be housed elsewhere or released. But even this is a drop in the bucket, compared to what is needed to bring our levels of incarceration back to what is acceptable for a free and civilized republic. Were California to return to its 1970s rate of incarceration, it would have to release more than 120,000 criminals.

Today’s prison reformers—and I wish them well—tinker with the machinery of incarceration while being dismissed too readily as soft on criminals. And even the most progressive reformer has no plan to reduce our prison population by 85%. I do: let’s bring back the lash.

If you think flogging is too cruel to even consider, what would you do if given the choice between five years in prison and 10 brutal lashes? You’d probably choose the lash. Wouldn’t we all? What does that say about prison?

We should offer criminals the choice between the status quo of prison and being caned, Singapore-style. If flogging were really so horrible, nobody would choose it. But of course most people would. And that’s my point. I defend flogging because something radical is needed to reduce the cruelty of incarceration.