Annapolis Institute Overview


Sparing the rod, reaping the pain

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, April 19, 1994

Michael Fay is learning that actions have consequences.

Fay is the 18 year-old kid from Ohio who was sentenced to six whacks of a cane on his butt as punishment for defacing expensive cars in Singapore.

I was reminded of this last week as I listened to a moving speech by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at the University of Northern Ohio Law School. Justice Thomas, born in Pin Point Georgia in 1948, recounted his youth in the segregated South. Proper conduct was drilled into him from the beginning by his parents and his teachers. One of his biggest fears was getting arrested. Reason: Justice Thomas was warned by his father, “If you end up in jail I will not bail you out and I will not visit you, so conduct yourself accordingly.” Justice Thomas learned early that behavior has consequences and that improper behavior will not be excused, even by those who love you the most.

Today, in the words of Rockford Institute director Alan Carlson, “Young barbarians are making our cities unlivable.” If we are going to fix our cities, we have to fix the problem of crime.

That means, first of all, stopping crime — not just finding its “root causes.”

It means punishing, not just counseling or excusing, people who misbehave.

Suppressing crime and preventing crime are two different things — and punishment that is swift, sure and severe is an effective way to suppress crime.

Yet, today, most plunder with impunity while there is growing evidence that punishment works.

Indeed, in Singapore in 1966, when caning was introduced, Singapore’s former attorney general (who then opposed the policy) tells us, “Almost overnight acts of vandalism dropped dramatically.”

In the U.S., by contrast, 6% of the criminals commit 70% of the violent crimes as they go through the revolving door of our failed criminal justice system, where they typically serve about one-third of their sentences.

While members of Congress debate “root causes” and communitarianism, and Amnesty International condemns human rights in Singapore, most ordinary Americans consider safe streets, safe neighborhoods and safe schools basic human rights.

President Clinton, who has joined the father of Michael Fay in a plea for clemency, says caning is brutal and inhumane. But what could be more brutal and inhumane than a gang rape in an overcrowded U.S. prison?

The U.S. is not in a strong position to be lecturing those who run safe, well-ordered societies about safe streets or humane punishment.

While Congress debates a $23 billion crime bill with lots of symbolism (e.g., gun control, as if repeating rifles and not repeating offenders were the problem) and billions of new dollars to get at the “root causes” of crime, U.S. mayors have to deal with the immediate problem of people and businesses deserting America’s cities because of unchecked violence and crimes against property.

Result: Mayors need more cops on the beat to stop crime and new approaches to punishment — which are certainly more relevant than the social slush funds being created by Congress in the name of crime prevention.

We may have something to learn from Singapore.

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