“Boys had been beaten since history began and it would be a bad day for the world if ever, inconceivably, boys should cease to be beaten.” So said C.S. Forester in Lieutenant Hornblower.

Clarence Davis, a black Democratic member of the Maryland House of Delegates, courageously proposed restoring judicial flogging in Maryland last year. Courts would give up to ten lashes with a rattan cane for minors at least 14 years old who commit theft or vandalism worth more than $300. In the past, such a proposal would have met with derision. But in the wake of the caning case in Singapore, a conservative resurgence at the polls, and increasing frustration with crime at home, flogging’s time may have come again.

Except for keeping incorrigibles off the street, ever longer prison sentences are costly and unlikely to provide additional deterrence. More important is the probability, immediacy, and type of punishment. Corporal punishment might serve admirably. Citizens modify behavior in fear of crime. Why wouldn’t criminals modify theirs in fear of punishment? This seems logical, but we must be cautious. A logical fallacy plagues social science; the fact that one event follows another is no proof of causation. While favorable to countries practicing corporal punishment, simple crime rate comparison doesn’t account for other social factors. Neither is the surge in crime since the abolition of flogging in the United States conclusive.

Davis proposed a four-year experiment with corporal punishment. However, the experiment has already been made. There were no judicial floggings in the United States during World War II, while we harnessed the violent impulses of our young men overseas. Flogging resumed sporadically after 1945. Let us compare the change in population-adjusted FBI crime rates for each state that imposed corporal punishment to the simultaneous national trend.

Arkansas lashed three men in June 1946 for burglary and grand larceny. It was a tonic. While the postwar crime wave receded marginally in 1947, Arkansas enjoyed precipitous declines compared with the rest of the country: robbery (AR, -45 percent; U.S., -5 percent), burglary (AR, -22; U.S., -2), larceny (AR, -11; U.S., -1), aggravated assaults fell six percent in Arkansas; they rose seven percent nationally.

Last employed in 1940, Delaware imposed two flogging sentences in 1945 and 1946. The following year saw a miraculous fall in violent crime compared to 1945: robbery (DE -23; U.S., +9) and aggravated assault (DE, -58; U.S., +119)—this despite the return of thousands of battle-hardened soldiers that drove up crime nationwide. Property crimes rose much less than the average, particularly burglary (DE, +5; U.S., +20) and larceny (DE, +15; U.S., +21).

Maryland’s last flogging came in 1948 for wife-beating. An immediate improvement in crime rates occurred over 1947, even while crime rose nationally: robbery (MD, -11; U.S., -6), aggravated assault (MD, -11; U.S., +5), burglary (MD, -4; U.S., +1), and larceny (MD, -3; U.S., +2).

In 1952, Delaware imposed the last judicial flogging in the United States. Crime in 1953 was down in Delaware and up everywhere else: robbery (DE, -10; U.S., +1), aggravated assault (DE, -26; U.S., +4), burglary (DE, -22; U.S., +5), larceny (DE, -1; U.S., +3). When the floggings ceased, crime rose again in 1954. Governor McKeldin commuted a flogging sentence for wife-beating in Maryland in 1952, arguing that he wouldn’t commit a “crime” against the criminal. His crime was against Maryland citizens, who in 1953 endured an increase in crimes to ten times the national average: robbery (MD, +24; U.S., +7), aggravated assault (MD, +4; U.S., +4), burglary (MD, +18; U.S., +5), larceny (MD, +30; U.S., +3).

While flogging’s deterrence did not extend to rape and murder, flogging clearly “beat” the national average. Flogging adds efficiency to the virtue of effectiveness. Consider that corrections spending has outstripped inflation by two to one for 20 years. Incarceration now costs $59 per prisoner per day; new prison space costs $60,000 per bed. In the present circumstances, the cost of punishing the offender often exceeds the cost of the vandalized property.

Flogging is also more egalitarian than fines. Like a regressive tax, the limits on fines fall unevenly. The rich consider them a nuisance; the criminal a business expense. Viewed objectively, flogging is also more humane than incarceration. In all four of the 1946 cases, the convicts chose flogging in lieu of jail terms ranging from one to three years. When the accused is employed, fines and flogging may allow him to keep his job, while he is certain to lose it after imprisonment. This may keep his family off the welfare rolls, and it preserves his self-respect. Keeping first offenders away from career criminals might even lower the rate of recidivism. With the occurrence of male rape in prisons and an HIV incidence among male prisoners as high as eight percent, any time in jail can be a de facto death sentence. The AIDS epidemic and cramped conditions also make prison ideal for the spread of antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis.

In 1978, the European Court of Human Rights overturned a flogging sentence in the Isle of Man, but not because it constituted “torture” or “inhuman punishment.” The court merely found the punishment “degrading” because it was applied by strangers to the bare buttocks. Our constitutional test is “cruel and unusual,” not “degrading,” and the state laws allowing flogging were repealed by legislatures, not overturned in court.

Given the wide contemporaneous use of corporal punishment, the intent of the constitutional convention was clearly not to ban it. The Fifth Amendment implies the legality of corporal punishment when it states, “nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” Public flogging for 25 different offenses in Delaware was not abolished until 1972, and 16 countries still employ flogging worldwide. The pillory and the stocks could combine milder discomfort with social opprobrium. Corporal punishment is not cruel; we should see to it that it is not unusual. We bomb Serbs, Iraqis, Vietnamese, Koreans, Chinese, Italians, Germans, and Japanese to defend other people’s cities; why do we recoil from corporal punishment to defend our own? The only problem with the legislation that was proposed in Maryland is that it does not apply to violent or adult crime. It should be the criminal, not the citizen, who turns the other cheek.