Get me some elephants!

1916 photograph of an execution by firing squa...

1916 photograph of an execution by firing squad in Mexico. Caption: “Executing an Enemy – Just over the boundary such gruesome sights as this have been of frequent occurrence during the last few years and have kept alive the apprehensions of Americans on the border.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are two main reasons for society to punish someone for any transgression. Firstly to deter the offender and make then think twice about offending in future. Secondly, and usually in more severe cases, to make it impossible for the offender to recommit the offence in question. You would be forgiven for thinking that we have been punishing people for long enough to learn the most effective mechanisms for doing so. Unfortunately reoffending rates across the globe, at least for those where the punishment is not death, remain stubbornly high and the cost of undertaking most punishment methods has ballooned.

There is no real consensus with different countries punishing offenders in different ways. Although advances in forensic science have vastly improved detection rates, miscarriages of justice remain. Some of the most heinous crimes don’t have any witnesses other than the perpetrator and the victim and often it comes down to one persons word against another. Depending on the legal system, either the judge or the jury need to decide who’s telling the truth.

A very real barrier to justice is society’s attitude to human rights. In a recent European row, the European Court of Human Rights say that prisoners should be allowed the constitutional democratic right to vote. The UK government, together with most of the country disagreed. As a result, the tools available to society are fairly limited. Almost all punishment now involves either monetary punishment (in the form of fines), electronic tagging, denial of liberty through incarceration or the ultimate punishment; death. Roughly half of the UN nations still have the death penalty although the other half have either an unofficial or official policy of non enforcement.

Of course before human rights came into focus, there was a lot more scope and historical punishments show a great deal of imagination. I’m prepared to bet the reoffending rate was lower and the costs nowhere near as high. My personal favourite is the “brank” which in medieval times was reserved (mainly for women) to stop the offender from excessive talking and gossip. It consisted of an iron cage with a metal tab that held the tongue down suppressing speech.

If you were convicted of theft in ancient India, being trampled by an elephant was the favoured punishment. In ancient China, if you were found guilty of treason, you could look forward to a process called slow slicing which was probably as excruciating as it sounds. Given the choice, I’d take the elephant. In England, treason was punishable by being hung, drawn and quartered as immortalised by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. In you killed your father in ancient Rome, you could look forward to being blindfolded, placed in a sack with a serpent, an ape, a dog and a rooster before being thrown into the sea, regardless of whether daddy deserved it or not.

Most of these punishments make me squirm and I wouldn’t be happy to see them applied today, but I can’t help being frustrated by the blunt instruments wielded by our authorities. Added to this, the amount of money spent on punishment makes me angry. It costs nearly £50K (or $75K) to keep someone in prison for a year. Maybe we should get some elephants.