A Better Penalty Than Paddling : Instead of swatting vandals, it's wiser to make them clean up the graffiti

In a complex world where simple answers appeal to headline-grabbing politicians, there may be something irresistible about trying to straighten out wayward youth with a few whacks of a paddle.

After all the publicity about the caning of an American youth in Singapore in 1994, Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange) got a lot of mileage out of a proposal to deliver remedial swats to young graffiti vandals in California. The proposal died in committee, but managed to stir a good deal of discussion about corporal punishment and elicited some conflicting legal opinions about its constitutionality.

Unwisely, Conroy vowed to revisit the issue. Now a committee in the Republican-controlled Assembly has narrowly approved a measure by Conroy that would allow a judge to order a parent or bailiff to whack children up to 10 times with a half-inch-thick wooden paddle.

The measure, slated eventually for a vote on the Assembly floor, should never become law. Paddling may provide some emotional satisfaction to those who want to strike a blow at crime, but its supporters' claims that youngsters will be reformed are dubious. The method is much more likely to confuse youngsters about whether violence is an appropriate way of righting wrongs.

There are better ways of dealing with the problem. Moreover, renouncing corporal punishment as barbaric does not mean that those guilty of defacing the environment should be dealt with leniently.

On the contrary, recent success at controlling or eradicating graffiti in Conroy's own county suggests that this is a problem ideally suited for a punishment that fits the crime. There is, for instance, no more appropriate labor pool for the intensive work of removing graffiti than vandals who have been sentenced to court-ordered community service.

No doubt there are people who think that paddling is an effective get-tough approach to a vexing and costly problem. While the political lineup in Sacramento may have shifted to be more accommodating of that view, it's folly to regard paddling as anything other than a reflexive swipe at juvenile crime.

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