Bring Back the Stocks

April 15, 1994|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

Charleston, South Carolina -- By this time, just about everybody has taken sides on the matter of Michael Fay. The 18-year-old American committed acts of vandalism in Singapore. judge sentenced him to serve four months in prison and suffer six lashes on his bare buttocks.

Very well. I will take sides too. I hope Singapore's President Ong Teng Cheong pardons this punk kid and then expels him from the country. By civilized standards the lashing is excessive punishment, but Singapore is not a civilized country. So much for Singapore.

It appears that young Fay had been abundantly warned. Singapore does not tolerate ''pranks.'' He was charged with 53 counts of vandalism and confessed to spray-painting 18 cars. The brat deserved severe punishment -- but not this severe.

No such sentence could be imposed under our system of justice. Under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, courts may not inflict ''cruel and unusual'' punishment. Here at home a judge would have slapped Fay's wrist, figuratively speaking. There would have been a small fine and probably probation. End of case.

So mild a punishment would not deter a single classmate from going abroad with a spray gun of his own. There has to be a better way of treating vandals here at home. I have a modest proposal: Bring back the stocks.

In Singapore the lashing surely will have a deterrent effect. It will be a long time before another spoiled adolescent spray-paints a car in Singapore. Nothing is likely to concentrate a kid's mind better than the prospect of a bloody beating. We could accomplish the same civic purpose by reviving an old English institution.

The stocks, for those who have forgotten their history of Colonial times, once served admirably as a punishment for minor offenders. The culprit sat on a bench, his feet out-thrust between two movable boards, and there he remained until sundown.

I have a dream. I am dreaming that the civilized city of Charleston, where I now reside, will be the first to revive the stocks. We would appoint a small corps of litter wardens. A slob sits down on a park bench within 5 feet of a trash can. The slob drinks his beer, then throws the bottle on the ground.

Up comes the warden. ''Under arrest, sir!'' Then, off in the paddy wagon! Miranda warnings! Evidence! Fingerprints! Guilty!

''The court sentences you to six hours in the stocks at Battery Park! Bailiff, take him away.''

In my dream there is a sign above the slob's head: Litterbug. We would have to provide a portable potty, of course, a chicken salad sandwich and a pint of Cooper River water. On rainy days perhaps the stocks could be moved to the covered market. Charleston is nothing if not humane.

The stocks would be used not only for litterbugs but also -- indeed, especially -- for dog owners who do not clean up after their pets. Pooper Troopers in plain clothes would patrol. ''Is that your dog, sir? It is? Kindly collect the evidence and come with me.'' We would not put the dog in the stocks, only his oafish master. The dog would have visitation rights from 2 o'clock to 4.

What about the Constitution? It is always wise to recur to the Founding Fathers. When they ratified the Eighth Amendment, they were thinking of torture -- of disemboweling a convicted felon or burning a woman at the stake. Under the doctrine of ''original intent,'' regularly urged by such eminent jurists as Justice Antonin Scalia, a day in the stocks might be unusual, and it might be humiliating, but it could not reasonably be challenged as ''cruel.'' After all, Delaware did not abolish stocks until 1905.

Humiliation would work. There's nothing heroic about sitting in a public square with one's feet in the stocks. As for the Singapore Sprayer, let us not expend too much smarmy solicitude. In six weeks to two months, Fay will be able to sit down again. He will sell his story to People magazine for $100,000. Paramount will buy film rights for a million. People bruise easy, they say, but with that kind of balm they heal quick.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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