Sociologist Peter Moskos’ Impassioned Case for Whipping Criminals

FROM MY BOOKSHELF – A recurring column of literary reviews

Peter Moskos, In Defense of Flogging, New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011. (183 pp)

A couple of months ago we interviewed Peter Moskos, a former police officer and current Professor at the nationally-acclaimed John Jay College of Criminal Justice, on the occasion of the third edition of Greek-Americans – Struggle and Success, a book first published in 1980 by his late father, Charles C. Moskos (“New Edition of Greek-Ams. Book by Moskos,” Jul. 19). It was shortly before the interview that I learned of an earlier book the younger Moskos had written, In Defense of Flogging.
As an attorney and former dean of criminal justice myself, I found the subject matter utterly compelling: that someone in this day and age – a criminal justice professor, no less – would make the case for flogging – i.e., whipping – criminals.
Accordingly, I contacted him requesting a copy, and he was kind enough to send me one with the following inscription: “To Dino: it’s not as crazy as it sounds! All the best, Peter Moskos.” It sure sounded crazy to me, but my hunch told me it was worth the read. The short review on the book’s back cover, by the author of the New York Times column “The Ethicist,” Randy Cohen, confirmed it. “He compels us to think,” wrote Cohen of Moskos. And indeed, he does.
The essence of Moskos’ argument is choice. He writes: “given the choice between five years in prison and ten brutal lashes, which would you choose?”
Certainly, neither option is pleasant, but it seems almost unfathomable that as excruciating as ten lashes with a whip might sound, it is a walk in the park compared to five years in prison.
That, in fact, is Moskos’ larger point: it is not that he is a proponent of flogging. He finds it as revolting as anyone else does. But he points out that the modern prison system is a systemic failure, and far crueler – not to mention infinitely more expensive – than flogging.
To the extent that the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” Moskos argues that incarceration is a more vivid example of that than flogging. To emphasize his point, he returns to the “which option would you choose” question throughout the book. Besides, as he also often repeats, it is a choice: a convicted criminal could choose prison and forego the flogging.
But what good will it do for society? Wouldn’t there be a rampage of killings and other heinous crimes if all the criminal had to face was a few lashes of a whip? Moskos has two answers for that. First and foremost, he believes there are certain types of criminals – the real, real bad guys, so to speak – for whom imprisonment should be the only option, simply because they should not be allowed back on the streets. But should a heroin addict be thrown in jail, he argues. Our prisons are filled with nonviolent criminals. Second, Moskos contends that statistically, imprisonment does not serve as an effective deterrent. In other words, prospective criminals do not stop and ponder the consequences of prison and thereby resist the temptation to commit a crime.
In often graphic detail, Moskos outlines the horrors of prison. He says society simply prefers not to think about it. The physical and mental torture that prisoners undergo week after week, month after month, year after year, he says, is quite barbaric – far more so than a few lashes from the whip.
But does flogging accomplish anything good? There is a sense of satisfaction for the victim, Moskos writes, addressing the retributive aspect of punishment. And it does serve as a deterrent and “lesson learner” to some extent, Moskos adds, pointing out that in the old days, police officers would practice “beat and release” tactics on, say, husbands who hit their wives. They’d give the offender a sound beating and then release him, the punishment serving as a painful reminder of what might happen to him should he attempt it again.
Near the close of his argument, Moskos asks the reader: do you still have a gut reaction that tells you flogging is wrong? To which he responds: “I do, too.”
Moskos concludes by restating that he does not think flogging is the answer, but the fact that he can make a plausible, logical argument in its favor depicts the massive problems of modern-day incarceration. Though In Defense of Flogging, Moskos hopes to raise the national consciousness that the prison system needs a major overhaul.
Like (presumably) most readers, I didn’t finish the book with a feeling of satisfaction that flogging is the definitive solution. But Moskos is right: it’s not as crazy as it sounds, precisely because Randy Cohen is right, too: Moskos compels us to think. That alone is reason to spend an afternoon with this clearly-written and eminently readable book.


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