A call for justice, Singapore-style

May 23, 1994|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Special to The Sun

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA — SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Not that long ago, California lawmakers were creating commissions on happiness and self-esteem and penning bills of rights for prisoners. One governor even had his own guru.

Now, the capital is happily abuzz over a Sacramento councilman's proposal that graffiti vandals be subjected to Singapore-style justice: paddlings.

Where have all the love beads gone?

"We've tried holding hands. We've tried psychiatry. We've triedpenalizing parents," said City Councilman Josh Pane, the 35-year-old lobbyist who has floated the proposal. "And none of that has worked."

"We're all tired of these gutless little punks. Next thing we know, they'll put down their spray guns and pick up handguns," he said. "I'm not saying we need to break skin or make them bleed, but society needs justice."

While it's not clear how far the mood of the moment will push corporal punishment into practice, Sacramento is not alone in considering it.

And there is at least some legal precedent to suggest that such a law might be constitutionally enforceable.

Informal polls have indicated widespread local support for paddling juvenile graffiti "taggers," who caused more than $1 million in property damage in Sacramento last year.

An unscientific telephone survey of more than 3,000 callers conducted by KCRA-TV showed 81 percent in support of paddling. Since he disclosed his paddling proposal last Monday, Mr. Pane has been a guest on radio shows originating in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, there seems to be some evidence that the idea might be catching on: A councilman in Cincinnati, Charles Winburn, has talked to Mr. Pane's staff about the possibility of introducing a similar measure in his city.

"We're gathering information at See SPANK, this time," Pam Brown, Mr. Winburn's assistant, said last week. "The councilman is still gathering all the facts."

Friday, St. Louis Alderman Freeman Boseley Sr. proposed public caning as a punishment for graffiti vandals, saying a whipping or two never hurt his own son, Freeman Bosley Jr. -- who is now mayor of St. Louis.

The Board of Aldermen appeared cool toward the idea, effectively burying it by voting to hold a hearing on it, Reuters reported.

Singapore inspiration

Mr. Pane, a Republican who has served on the council for five years, said that his proposal was inspired by the controversial caning of American teen-ager Michael Fay in Singapore earlier this month. Mr. Fay received four lashes with a rattan cane on his bare buttocks after pleading guilty to vandalism. His mandatory sentence of six lashes was reduced after an appeal by President Clinton. Many Americans supported the flogging.

Indeed, the issue generated nearly 1,900 calls to The Sun's own reader response line on a single day at the height of the controversy -- the large majority in support of the caning.

Under the Pane proposal, vandals would be spanked at least six times with a wooden paddle in Sacramento's Plaza Park, one block from the state Capitol.

The paddling proposal -- still in the making -- is unclear about whether the vandal's bottom would be bared and just who would do the spanking.

Not everyone is in favor of turning Sacramento into Paddling Capital U.S.A.

On Thursday, the Sacramento News & Review asked, in an editorial called "Josh The Barbarian": "And then there are the politicians who assault not just our intelligence but civility itself. . . . Should we cut off their wagging tongues before more damage is done?"

Michael Picker, chief of staff to Mayor Joseph Serna, would only say: "Councilman Pane should be spanked, and that's the end of Public support

Dan McGrath, a columnist for the Sacramento Bee, called Mr. Pane's proposal a "crackpot idea," but he said the majority of his many callers support public paddling.

"There is such a feeling of helplessness," he said. "People hear about juvenile crime, but they don't see it. [Graffiti] is something they see. People aren't offended by the idea or appalled by it -- they're appalled by the graffiti."

Graffiti vandalism has escalated in this tidy, tree-lined city of 400,000 in the past two years, and in recent months it has swept into some of Sacramento's most affluent, established neighborhoods.

Walking through the state Capitol on Thursday, Mr. Pane was waved down every few steps by supporters of public paddling.

"I'm all for you," shouted one tour guide. "You're just brave enough to say what everyone else is thinking."

"Democrats for Pane!" yelled another woman. Art Croney, a lobbyist for a Christian law-and-order organization, noted: "Even Jesus was flogged."

And Jeane Bolton, a retired jazz singer, said: "This is all my friends and I have been talking about. I'm just tired of America going to hell. At least, this is a beginning. What's cruel and unusual is to allow things to go on as they are."

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