When it comes to punishing scofflaws from graffiti artists to petty thieves, some lawmakers think the best idea is a good oldfashioned spanking.
Of several states that have considered the idea, Mississippi has gone the furthest. The state House adopted a bill Monday that would allow judges to order paddlings instead of prison sentences.
The legislation does not spell out how, when, where or by whom the punishment would be administered. It would not apply to the most serious crimes, such as murder or rape.
“We have been packing them in the (prisons) by the thousands, and still there’s no end,” said Rep. Steve Holland, a Democrat who pushed the proposal through. “I think this is a strong policy statement against crime.”
But opponents believe it is more: unconstitutionally cruel, humiliating and uncomfortably reminiscent of the whippings doled out to slaves and the beatings endured by civil rights demonstrators.
“I lost three teeth to the stick of a police officer. And that was after … I had my law degree, when I was out trying to get something for my people,” said Rep. Ed Blackmon Jr., a Democrat and one of 32 blacks in the 122-member House.
The last state to whip a criminal was Delaware, which flogged a man who had beaten a woman in 1952. It abolished the punishment 20 years later. In 1989, a state senator proposed whipping drug dealers, but the bill never came to a vote.
The idea took hold again after American teenager Michael Fay was flogged in Singapore last May for vandalism.
In New York, a Republican state senator proposed last month that judges be given the option to sentence graffiti artists ages 13 to 18 to as many as 10 strikes on the clothed backside from a three-quarter inch hardwood paddle.
“What we’re looking to do is embarrass him. He’s going to be spanked like a child,” said state Sen. Serphin Maltese.
There has been no action on the bill, which says the paddling would be done in the judge’s chambers by the youth’s parent, or a court bailiff if the parent refuses.
In Tennessee, two Republican legislators proposed punishing vandals and burglars by public caning on courthouse steps. In addition to existing penalties, local sheriffs would administer one to four lashes for misdemeanor offenders and more for felons.
Proposals elsewhere have had little success. Last year, the Sacramento, Calif., and St. Louis city governments rejected paddling legislation, and a proposal was defeated in committee in the California Legislature.
California is considering two bills introduced this session; neither has been heard in committee yet.
A bill that would have punished graffiti vandals with caning was shelved Monday by the New Mexico Senate Judiciary Committee in favor of legislation that mandates restitution and community service.
In Louisiana, the state House defeated a bill that, like the New York measure being considered, would have allowed the spanking of juvenile delinquents by a parent or a corrections officer if the parent refused.
Critics in Mississippi say the legislation would further stain the state’s historically tarnished image.
“As hard as some of us work to try to improve or enhance the image of this state, there is another group working just as hard to make it the way it used to be,” said Bea Branch, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Others said spanking just won’t have any effect on criminals.
“Some criminal lawyers have even suggested that with some of their tougher clients, (paddling) will be seen as a badge of honor, further proof of their manhood,” said David Ingebretsen, state director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
He said such “bizarre things” slip through during floor debate because “everybody wants to go home and say they’ve been tough on crime. But in the quiet atmosphere of a Senate committee, I certainly hope it will die.”