Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Are Bear Crawls the Answer?

Last week my son was involved in some horse-play with another boy during PE class. After getting a talking-to by the teacher, he and the other boy were subjected to what many consider corporal punishment. My son was required to do "bear-crawls" across the gym floor while the other boy did "wall-sits." Both methods of discipline caused a reasonable amount of physical discomfort (pain) and humiliation. Some parents were appalled the boys would be subjected to such treatment in this enlightened age of adaptive behavior. I backed the PE teacher 100%.

Last month, writing for the Washington Post, Penn Associate Professor Marie Gottschalk hypothesized our country was degrading into two separate societies: One in prison and one not. She noted:
The Pew Center on the States released a study in February showing that for the first time in this country's history, more than one in every 100 adults is in jail or prison. According to the Justice Department, 7 million people -- or one in every 32 adults -- are either incarcerated, on parole or probation or under some other form of state or local supervision.

These figures understate the disproportionate impact that this bold and unprecedented social experiment has had on certain groups in U.S. society. Today one in nine young black men is behind bars. African Americans now comprise more than half of all prisoners, up from a third three decades ago.

Last week in Wichita, Kansas the governor signed a bill prescribing tougher penalties for theft and sex crime offenders. Kansas state senators called the legislation a tough new stance on crime. Criminal defense lawyers remarked the state needed to focus on solutions to crime other than additional lengthy imprisonment.

At home, local prosecutors are less apt to resolve cases without jail time or a conviction. I recently represented a high school student caught by police carrying a cup of beer. She was under aged, scared, and told the police she was her sister and 21 years of age. Within minutes the officer deduced my client was lying. When confronted she owned-up to her lie. No more than two minutes elapsed from the lie to the truth. However, the officer arrested this 17 year old for making a false identification to a police officer. It was like pulling teeth for the prosecutor to consider reducing the case to a ticket level offense. They were dead-set on getting a conviction or putting this impressionable young girl on probation for a two-minute indiscretion. Why so hard I asked? "We see hundreds of these cases and we treat everybody the same."

I concluded the social experiment gone awry which Dr. Gottschalk debated was not the mass incarceration of our citizens. Rather mass incarceration was an unintended consequence of another social experiment gone awry - eliminating corporal punishment in homes and schools over the past 30 years. In other words, I don't think my son will be horse-playing anymore in PE class, unless, of course, he enjoys the bear-crawls.

How many of the 7 million people either incarcerated, on parole, or probation would not be consuming governmental resources had parents been more aggressive in the discipline of their children? How many of the 7 million would be free of the system had schools been free to use reasonable corporal punishment to adapt the behavior of misbehaving kids? I certainly understand the potential for abuse when using pain and humiliation to redirect behavior. But I also see how incarceration rates have increased in relationship to the elimination of corporal punishment in our schools.

I know. I know. It's not politically correct to spank children anymore. But maybe corporal punishment is part of the solution Kansas defense lawyers were talking about. If my kid's PE teacher wants to make punishment a memorable experience - something feared and something to avoid in the future - something that redirects behavior and makes my son act right, I don't have a problem with it.

So maybe we need to begin a new social experiment. Bear crawls and wall sits. It worked for my kid. Why won't it work for your's or any of the 7 million in the system already?

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