Intervention, not retribution, for criminals

  • Article by: DAVID BORNUS
  • Updated: June 26, 2011 - 7:31 PM

A writer floated flogging but wished for a third way. Well, there is one.

Counterpoint

Peter Moskos' "America's overtaxed prisons: A system that's cruel to be kind" (June 17), advocating flogging for criminals, is a disturbing retrograde movement against modern evidence-based criminal justice practice. As a professor of law and police science at an American university, Moskos should know better.

Moskos correctly says that the United States "has a prison problem" and that incarceration alone not only fails to deter crime, but often increases it, by keeping violent, antisocial individuals in a place where they have little to do but become even more violent and antisocial.

The flaw in Moskos' thinking is his apparent assumption that incarceration alone is all that happens, or can happen, in the penal system. If that were true, then indeed it would perhaps be less expensive to "flog and release" rather than expend resources for 24/7 custody, care, rehabilitation and retraining.

Research shows that many crimes are not premeditated, rational cost-benefit decisions but rather impulsive acts of anger or desperation often fueled by intoxication. Does Moskos believe flogging would do anything to curb this?

Can he cite any research evidence to support the effectiveness of such an intervention? Or is it more likely that such judicial brutality only increases violent, angry tendencies?

What do people learn from such an experience other than that those with power may inflict violence? They already know that.

Such interventions hark back to the Civil War, when recalcitrant troops were also flogged and many battlefield wounds were treated by amputation. Though it is quicker and cheaper than months of physical therapy and rehabilitation, should we also readopt that intervention for modern troops?

Moskos asks: "Is there a third way, something better than both flogging and prison? I hope so." In reality there is, articulated in a large and growing body of research establishing widely accepted principles of effective correctional intervention. Such principles reduce recidivism.

Modern prison overcrowding, decried by Moskos, is primarily a legacy of the 1970s "nothing works" doctrine. This contention that no correctional interventions reliably demonstrate effectiveness has been thoroughly discredited by subsequent scholars.

However, in the 1980s and 1990s, this doctrine justified political adoption of simplistic "tough on crime" policies relying on incapacitation through incarceration, yielding the overcrowded penal system we face today.

Such a system, if it simply warehouses individuals without use of evidence-based interventions, is just a "gladiator school" disgorging predators back into society.

When the system does utilize evidence-based interventions, recidivism drops, as noted by recent articles ("Experts are confounded by drop in violent crime across U.S.," May 23; "3,000 Minnesota jail cells sit empty," June 6). Such data are encouraging evidence that we do indeed have a better "third way," that it is working and that we should intensify our commitment to it.

Returning to retributive approaches such as flogging goes backward. History shows that such punishment (along with hanging, beheading, burning at the stake, crucifixion, or lions in the arena) were eventually abandoned as civilization developed. In Minnesota, the death penalty was abolished in the early 1900s due to increasing revulsion with gruesome public executions.

Retributive practices appear abstractly appealing, but when confronted with real instances (such as photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib), we are appropriately disgusted. Winston Churchill said: "The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the unfailing tests of the civilization of a country."

In each era, our criminal justice system stands as the codified and articulated expression of our desire that justice be done and that society be protected. With such a modern array of evidence before us illustrating the capability of research-validated correctional interventions, it would be unfortunate if we moved backward toward already abandoned "correctional quackery" of the past.

David Bornus is policy and compliance director for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

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