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Caning Proposal Touched a Raw Nerve : But Disciplining Youngsters With a Paddle May Not Be Just, or Helpful for That Matter

Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange) certainly got people talking when he proposed that youthful graffiti vandals become the recipients of as many as 10 whacks from a wooden paddle.

Thankfully, the proposal did not make it out of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, but the closeness of the 11-11 vote indicated what a raw nerve Conroy had touched.

His proposal, coming in the wake of the controversial caning of American teen-ager Michael Fay for spray-painting cars in Singapore, got national publicity as people increasingly were fed up with vandalism and looking for ways to impart a lesson.

Conroy actually managed to provoke some serious discussion of the merits of an old idea, corporal punishment as a corrective device, including testimony from one psychologist, Charles D. Willis, who worked in California prisons, and told legislators that “early corrective discipline” would keep some youngsters out of prison and that “ordinary discipline” would not damage their psyches.

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The question, of course, is what is helpful or constructive discipline, and there are serious questions both about the wisdom and constitutionality of paddling.

The California legislative counsel’s office, which provides legal opinions for lawmakers, said it was unconstitutional. However, the staff counsel for the Assembly Public Safety Committee, which approved the measure in June, said it was an open question because there was “no bright line” setting the limit.

With all the discussion of violent felons having histories of being victims of child abuse and whether or not the courts could sanction violence, the proposal sent the wrong message: that violence is acceptable punishment. The proposal was criticized roundly by children’s rights advocates, educators and civil libertarians.

The wonder may be that the issue got so much attention at all. It’s a reminder of the dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system that is out there and a sign of how politicians are responding to it.

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One way or the other, swift and just punishment for crime is appropriate. But whether having parents or court bailiffs whacking youngsters with a three-quarter-inch paddle would be just or helpful is an entirely different matter.


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