What Constitutes "Appropriate Punishment?"

By DeVito, Paul L.; Hyatt, Ralph | USA TODAY, March 1995 | Go to article overview

What Constitutes "Appropriate Punishment?"


DeVito, Paul L., Hyatt, Ralph, USA TODAY


TAKE A FEW moments to test your philosophy of punishment. Read each of the following situations and write out your responses to the questions that follow them.

* Poverty-stricken teenagers Joey and Art had been dreaming about the rock concert for months, and now that it was in town they only could continue to dream, for they did not have the entrance fee. In desperation, Art sneaked into the kitchen and snatched several dollars from his mother's hiding place in the cupboard. That evening, Joey's father cracked him across the face and accused him of stealing the money. Art, his supposed friend, had lied to his parents and implicated Joey. Art's father complained to Joey's father about the felony. After Joey screamed out the truth, Joey's father angrily approached Art, grasped him around the throat, and quickly got a confession. Art was confined to his room for a week by his parents.

a) Did Joey deserve his whacking?

b) Should Art have been choked?

c) Were Art's parents too lenient?

* Pennsylvania has a unit called "super-max" in its maximum security prisons. This unit houses chronic troublemakers, who totally are segregated from the other inmates. They are given one hour daily of isolated exercise out of their small cells. Many have spent years in super-max.

a) Is it humane to isolate troublesome maximum security prisoners? For such long periods of time?

b) Is this program consistent with rehabilitation?

c) Does the death penalty make more sense?

* Autistic children, although often quite intelligent, do not develop in expected ways. They may be overly active, speech can be delayed, and they do not establish normal human attachments. Many gesture in strange ways and do not make good eye contact. At times, they can be destructive to themselves and others. Some professionals believe that physical restraint is necessary to get their attention as well as a means of helping them to release their pent-up anger. Aversion therapy, a group of methods for treating such individuals, includes paddling and mild electric shock. This mode of treatment also has been used with some success with drug addicts, sexual deviants, and people demonstrating extremely violent behavior.

a) Should aversion therapy be used as a form of treatment or banned by law?

b) How about physical restraint? These situations and questions were given to a variety of people on an informal, nonscientific basis. It is safe to say that your particular response--or any of them --is included among those of the group. Respondents replied with a yes, no, and everything in-between to each question. Those at the extremes invariably qualified their answers if additional conditions were to exist. This should come as no surprise since those interviewees who were psychologists, attorneys, correctional employees, and school counselors also had no pat answers.

Recent events bear out the uncertainties people have about meting out punishment, some praying for mercy and forgiveness, others demanding justice--and often blood. Take the caning of Michael Fay, the 18-year-old American visiting Singapore, who was accused of spray-painting and tossing eggs at automobiles, among other acts of vandalism. Prior to his punishment of four cane strokes, which was "mercifully" reduced from six, American sentiment, as revealed by a series of polls, was procaning by a large majority. Even Fay's emotional denials of any wrongdoings other than removing some street signs did not soften their hearts.

Americans, it was hypothesized, had had it up to their eyeballs with teenage social irresponsibility, lack of respect, and guntoting crime. "He deserves it" and "He should have known better" generally expressed their exasperation. Yet, in his hometown in Ohio, 90 days of incarceration and a $750 fine would have taken care of the matter.

It is worth recalling that, in the 1960s, flogging was a form of legal punishment in Delaware. …

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