Corporal punishment is not a good deterrent, and is a poor substitute for prisons

I saw this video by Marcel Gautreau, who argues that prisons ‘do not work’, are inhumane, and advocates for something better, like corporal punishment:

I came across Mr. Gautreau a few weeks ago when one of his articles went viral. He is a PhD candidate at George Mason University, and runs a Substack blog, Dispatches From Absurdistan.

It has become trendy in recent years by ‘the right’ to hold up Singapore as a model government, which is famous (or infamous?) for employing caning as a punishment. Given the success of Singapore’s economy and lack of crime relative to the US, this idea of caning (or other corporal punishment) has caught on among some on the fringe or alternative-right as an alternative to prisons or a useful punishment.

As the title of this post makes clear, corporal punishment is not a good substitute for prisons. It’s worth keeping in mind that all countries that employ corporal punishment also have prisons, such as Singapore. It’s not like having to choose between prisons or corporal punishment. As far as being a deterrent, I think it would prove somewhere between infective to useless.

Imagine if the prosecutor offered someone like SBF, who is potentially facing a lifetime in prison, a choice between being caned for every year he would otherwise be incarcerated, or being incarcerated. What would he choose. Is this even worth asking? Unless he is as feeble as an 90-year-old or something, which given his penchant for office parties and beanbag chairs suggests he can withstand a caning, no shit he would choose corporal punishment. The irrecoverable loss of time makes prison far worse. Even Mr. Gautreau concedes this point that wrongful imprisonment is worse than caning because you cannot get back lost time. Which incidentally also makes prison a better deterrent and effective! He just proved the point about why prisons exist.

He belabors the points about the high recidivism rate of prisons and poor conditions, but poor conditions are part of the deterrent. That is a feature, not a bug. As for the high recidivism rate of prisons, true, but this is not an argument for corporal punishment. All it possibly shows is that criminals have a tendency to reoffend regardless of the type of punishment employed (maybe owing to the fact they are criminals?).

It’s certainly possible recidivism would be even worse under corporal punishment; I expect it would be despite the high recidivism rate of prisons. Do you really think a hardened career criminal is going to be deterred by caning, especially, as Mr. Gautreau belabors, prisons are also violent and chaotic? An orderly caning by a well-trained official sounds a lot better than the chaos and violence of prisons, plus lost time. The problem is, all the arguments he gives for why prisons are bad, are also why they work (or at least are better than alternatives like caning).

As it’s often said, correlation doe not mean causation. Just because crime is low in ‘country x’ does not mean such a criminal justice system would work better in the US. Likewise, transporting America’s worst criminals to countries which have more humane prisons or shorter sentences would not suddenly turn them into model citizens when they come out, or at least we cannot assume that. America has variables such as demographics that possibly are unique to it and explain why prisons exist the way they do. The recent, big business scandals in Germany– the Wirecard fraud and the Volkswagen emissions scandal–shows how a lenient or compassionate criminal justice system is a not a surefire deterrent or solution to crime as often touted or assumed by academics, the media, and pundits.

Later in the video he mentions how habitual offenders, perhaps after three strikes, would receive a worse punishment, alluding to a death penalty of sorts. But this is moving goalposts from ‘corporal punishment’ to ‘death penalty’, which is not his original argument. This again shows why prisons are perhaps the best middle-ground between the finality of death or the uselessness of caning. Indeed, even for Singapore, the worst drug offenders are punished by death or lifetime in prison, not caning.

1 comment

  1. In the age of social media, wouldn’t shaming be ideal. Gang members want respect. Sitting naked in the stockade while being live streamed seems a strong deterrent to thieving and also identifies the thieve to the whole populace.

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