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Should flogging replace prison time?
One academic wants to empty America's prisons by resurrecting an old and controversial way of punishing convicts
It was Elvis' fictionalized punishment in "Jailhouse Rock," but flogging could actually be a solution to our crowded prisons, says one academic.
It was Elvis' fictionalized punishment in "Jailhouse Rock," but flogging could actually be a solution to our crowded prisons, says one academic.
Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS
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ot sure you want to do those five years in prison? How about 10 lashes, instead? That's the tradeoff a U.S. academic suggests in his subtly titled new book, In Defense of Flogging. Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, argues that our prison system is not only overcrowded and violent, but that it is completely ineffective. "I can't think of another institution that has failed as mightily as the prison has," he writes. As an alternative, he says, the least dangerous convicts should be given a choice — jail time, or two lashes for every year of their sentence. Moskos predicts the prison population would see a massive decline, freeing up billions of dollars for more useful purposes. Others suggest government-sanctioned violence would do nothing to reduce crime, and might even increase criminals' violent tendencies. Is flogging really our best option?

This would be a huge step backward for society: Bringing back this "correctional quackery of the past" would be really unfortunate, says David Bornus at the Star Tribune. Yes, we have a prison problem, but Moskos assumes that prisons are just violent holding cells, a theory that "has been thoroughly discredited." Unlike the "judicial brutality" he proposes, correctional facilities "expend resources for 24/7 custody, care, rehabilitation and retraining" to help criminals come back to society. Flogging would only increase their violent, angry tendencies. 
"Intervention, not retribution, for criminals"

But people might actually support it: This academic's argument is "a bit startling," says Adam Cohen at TIME, but it could win a "surprising amount of grass-roots support." In 1994, an American teenager was convicted of a crime in Singapore, and received four lashes as punishment. As Moskos points out, respondents in a newspaper poll in Dayton, Ohio, supported his punishment by a 2-1 margin.
"Should flogging be an alternative to prison?"

We're missing the point: Even if you don't agree with flogging, the "deeper argument is still compelling," says Josh Rothman at The Boston Globe. He really "puts today's prisons in historical perspective," noting that in the past, the conditions of imprisonment weren't as punishing as they are today. Now, prisons have become "state-run torture chambers." Moskos is right: If we're serious about "enumerating the horrors of prison," we have to ask "hard questions about the value and meaning of punishment."
"Five years, or five lashes?"

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