I recently read the book In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos. I found it to be a rather interesting book that presented some interesting ideas. So, I decided to write a book review about it. It started to turn a bit long, so I turned it into a two-parter. The first part (this part) is more a review of what’s in the book. The second part is more infused with some of my own ideas, where I look at some of the assumptions that the book makes.
For starters, it’s a quite attractively packaged book. It’s fairly short; it could be read fairly easily in an afternoon if you’re up to it. It’s also well-written and the author gets his point across pretty well.
The author starts off through a description of the prison situation in the United States, where imprisonment is quite a popular punishment for crime. So popular, in fact, that there are now 2.3 million people currently in prison. That is an incredible amount of human potential that is being wasted right now. When you add to that the enormous human and financial resources required to guard the prisoners, house them, feed them, and so on, this imprisonment can be seen to be a significant drain on society.
Why are these people all there? Putting people in prison for committing crimes (or meting out other penalties for crimes) serves several purposes. The problem is that incarceration often doesn’t serve these purposes too well.
One purpose of incarceration is as a deterrent. The idea is that knowing that you’re going to sit in jail a long time for killing someone will deter you from doing so. Face it, if the penalty for murder were, say, five minutes in jail, there would be a lot more murders, because it would turn murder into an inexpensive solution for various problems. Obviously, increasing sentences from “short” to “long” will deter people who are thinking in terms of costs and benefits, but a more relevant question is whether increasing sentences from “long” to “very long” deters crime, and the available evidence suggests that it doesn’t have much, if any, effect. People have been experimenting with all kinds of penalties for crimes for years, and they’ve always found that some people will continue to break the law regardless. Why? Most people who commit crimes are either caught up in the moment and aren’t thinking about jail, or they’re planning to cover their tracks so well that they believe they will never get caught. I would think that the thought of five years behind bars would deter me, and probably everyone else thinking rationally about it, from committing virtually any crime (with the possible exception of crimes like drug trafficking or fraud, where you get to live the high life until you get caught), but the fact that people still commit crimes would suggest that people aren’t thinking rationally when they commit them.
Another purpose is incapacitation, the prevention of further crimes by segregating dangerous criminals from society. And let’s face it, locking people up is a good way of preventing them from committing crimes, at least until you release them. The only issue here is that some criminals are at no risk of reoffending. Take, for example, Bernie Madoff, who was sentenced to 150 years in prison for running the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Why does he need to be incarcerated for so long? He won’t be committing any more crimes; no-one’s going to trust him with their money anymore. Or take the mother or father who killed their children. The entire pool of their potential victims is (sadly) now empty, so they are no longer a threat. Should these be treated in the same manner as people who are a legitimate risk to society?
A third purpose is rehabilitation. This, supposedly, is the actual purpose of prison, turning the prisoners into better citizens. But let’s face it, a prison environment has got to be the worst place to rehabilitate someone (and the book puts a lot of effort into describing the many problems with the prison environment); prisoners are constantly exposed to the worst of criminals daily and will no doubt pick up everyone else’s bad habits before too long.
A fourth purpose is restitution—making it up to the victims. It doesn’t seem to me that incarceration is a good way of serving this purpose. While prisoners might help the state by making licence plates or picking up garbage on the side of the highway, it seems unlikely that these services will ever come close to meeting the bill that the state pays to incarcerate the criminal.
This brings me to the final purpose, one that is at the heart of the book. This purpose is punishment. The idea here is that humans have this idea hardwired into them that, if someone does something wrong, that they need to be punished for it. Never mind whether punishing people actually helps anyone at all or not. So, if we’re locking people up for incredible periods of time, and it doesn’t serve any of the purposes listed above, it must mean that we’re doing it to punish them. And incarceration does work pretty well as punishment (Moskos does go to great lengths to describe thefor most offenders many punishing features of prison).
However, as previously mentioned above, incarceration is a pretty expensive method of doing so. Moskos suggests that criminals could be given the option to exchange the long-term mental torture of imprisonment for the short-term physical torture of flogging. It would probably be a lot kinder to people than leaving them behind bars for ages, and it would save a lot of money and other resources. And it would satisfy people’s desire that criminals be punished. What could be better? It’s important to emphasise that Moskos suggests giving criminals the option of being flogged, so if they think flogging is cruel and unusual, they can serve more traditional punishments.
Is this the best that we can do as a society? I’ll have more to write about this next week.