Taking a cue from an internationally celebrated case in Singapore, an Orange County lawmaker is contemplating a bill to require the punishing of juvenile graffiti vandals with up to six whacks with a paddle.
Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange) said he began pursuing the idea--dismissed as ludicrous by legal scholars--after being prodded by constituents caught up in the highly publicized debate over the caning of an American teen-ager for spray-painting cars in Singapore.
“The thing I was hearing from the public was, ‘Why can’t we do something like this? Our graffiti problem is so bad,’ ” Conroy said.
The notion of bringing paddling to California did not sit well with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). “That clearly would be considered cruel and unusual punishment in this country,” Brown said.
Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor and nationally recognized expert in criminal law, said “there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell” that the bill would pass constitutional muster.
“What is significant about this proposal is not the likelihood of its enactment, but the fact that it was made at all,” Arenella said.
Conroy, however, contends that his bill could survive a court test, noting that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia--the intellectual leader of the court’s conservative wing--suggested in a talk last week in San Francisco that he feels caning is constitutional in the United States.
Conroy has asked the legislative counsel for an opinion on his proposal, which would allow no more than six strokes and require that a physician be present to administer first aid if needed. Conroy said he felt the punishment should be carried out in a public forum with a paddle, not in private with the sort of Singapore-style rattan cane that can leave permanent scarring.
“The point behind this is deterrence, not punishment,” Conroy said. “It could prove to be an effective way to change the lives of some youngsters who are now on the wrong track.”
Regarded as a favorite to be reelected in his conservative district, Conroy said he will drop his effort if the public does not embrace it.
On May 5, Michael Fay, an 18-year-old high school senior from Dayton, Ohio, got four strokes of a rattan cane after being found guilty of vandalism in Singapore.
Nationwide public opinion polls found that most Americans disapproved of Fay’s punishment, but supporters of the flogging bombarded Congress and the Singapore Embassy with telephone calls and letters. One poll found that three-quarters of all Americans felt caning would be the right punishment for graffiti.
From the pillory to the paddle, the United States has a long history of corporal punishment. The Constitutional Congress drew up regulations in 1775 permitting flogging on U.S. warships, and they were not abolished until 1850. The last legal flogging for a crime occurred in Delaware in 1952, although the state continued to turn a blind eye to the practice for another two decades. Today, 23 states still allow corporal punishment--mostly paddling--in schools.
Mark A.R. Kleiman, an associate professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said it is inappropriate to rely on judicial interpretations to determine the merits of Conroy’s bill.
“It’s obscene to pluck out graffiti for corporal punishment as opposed to something more serious, like assault and battery,” Kleiman said. “I admit I sometimes come across graffiti and would like to see the guy who did it at the other end of a stick. But that’s not necessarily a sane reaction.”