Caning, American Style

CALL it copycat punishment.

Following Singapore's highly publicized caning last month of an American teenager convicted of spray-painting cars, a few lawmakers in the United States are proposing similar measures for young vandals in their own jurisdictions:

* In California last week, a legislative committee passed a proposed state law that would allow juvenile graffiti painters to be spanked publicly in open court. A parent or court bailiff would use an 18-inch-long hardwood paddle to administer from four to 10 strikes to the clothed backside of offenders under the age of 18.

* In St. Louis, six aldermen, one of them the mayor's son, are seeking a legal opinion on whether caning could be used as a punishment for teenage graffiti writers. They argue that the city's current punishment for such offenses - a $500 fine and up to 90 days in jail - does not deter vandals.

* In Cincinnati, a city councilman has introduced a resolution to allow ``public paddling'' for youths found guilty of graffiti and other forms of vandalism.

Opponents rightly argue that such actions constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Supporters counter that public spanking sends a powerful message to young people and acts as a deterrent to crime. Yet this desire to inflict pain and possibly cause injury suggests a vengefulness, a desire for violence that could ultimately cause more problems than it solves.

In California, for example, what would it do to family relationships, which might already be strained because of a child's arrest, to have a parent administer this kind of punishment in public? Even if court officials wield the cane or paddle, the message to a humiliated teenager is clear: Brute force is acceptable.

Some critics also warn of possible litigation by those who are paddled. Even Michael Fay, the 18-year-old caned in Singapore, has vowed to sue that country.

No one can ignore the damage young vandals cause. But at a time when many thoughtful groups are seeking to get violence out of American life, this form of punishment simply legalizes brutality.

Defacing property should never go unpunished; but when considered in the context of other, more horrendous crimes of the 1990s, the caning-crusaders can look as if they are attacking a gnat with an elephant gun. These proposals for public paddling should serve as a spur for communities to find alternative sentences and higher-minded forms of justice.

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