Increase punishment for vandals

Tuesday, May 20, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:46 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

One of the most troubling aspects of the news of the day, whether local or national, visual, audio or written, is seemingly unending vandalism and related criminal acts committed primarily by juveniles or by those adults who refuse to grow up. However, even more worrisome is that punishment deemed appropriate for these senseless acts does little to deter repeat or copy cat offenders.

The most recent idiotic escapade locally was the May 13 vandalism of 28 of Jefferson City’s 55 school buses by flattening the tires. Preceding this senseless act in Columbia were the actions of several knucklehead college students arrested for wilfully damaging some 40 cars in the Virginia Avenue garage. Add the recent junior high bomb threat by two moppets who wanted an early school dismissal and an earlier keying of a new car by an immature adult whose ire was piqued simply because it was not parked to his liking, and you have a fair sampling of mentally challenged behavior.

We can commiserate, blame the parents, blame a permissive society, blame the lack of recreation available and even blame global warming or Karl Rove; nevertheless, there is really but one solution — devise a punishment that fits the crime and publish the result for all to see. Mere slaps on the wrist, severe but toothless admonishment or assignment to nonpunitive or mundane community service tasks serve only to encourage repetition by the perpetrator or by “monkey see, monkey do” imitators.

In large measure, the blame for juvenile offenses can be placed with lack of parental supervision and the accompanying indifference to authority and responsibility. Admittedly, this is not always the case as some adolescents defy logic and, despite their parents doing all the right things, stray from the straight and narrow. When push comes to shove, though, blaming bad parenting will not solve the problem; a parent or parents who have permitted a child to reach his/her teens without respect for authority or private property are hardly candidates to make one forget Ward and June Cleaver.

We must design a system of punishment for youthful offenders, whether their crimes be vandalism, assault, arson, disruption by threat of explosive, that are not only swift and just but also appropriately severe as to inhibit a repeat performance. More importantly, the ensuing price paid by miscreancy must be sufficiently distasteful and publicized in such a manner that imitators will find it embarrassingly “uncool” to copy such utter foolishness.

Having 36 plus years supervisory experience in the military as well as in running a high school, I have learned the value of the “carrot and the stick” — the rewarding of good behavior and punishing the bad. I have also seen the effect of “coddling” offenders in the effort to be their friend, to respect their “self esteem,” to appeal to their better nature or to appease complaining parents. I guarantee that the transgressor as well as his/her peers will consider any unwarranted leniency a sign of weakness — the resultant contempt for authority will permeate the group.

What punishment is appropriate for acts of vandalism, if I may narrow the field? In making this determination, one must consider several factors to include the severity of the crime, the age of the offender, any prior record of vandalism involved and the cost of reparation to name a few. Personally, I would advocate a medieval solution (weather permitting) of about three hours in the stocks on the courthouse lawn on Saturday morning. I realize this will not pass muster with the American Civil Liberties Union, the rehabilitation by kindness crowd and assorted bleeding hearts, but a morning on view among one’s peers would eliminate return engagements.

I am aware that even properly supervised and with appropriate oversight, my suggestion has as much chance for adoption as I have for appointment to the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, while I do not presume to hold all the answers, it should be obvious that there exists a growing disrespect for authority, for private property and for taking personal responsibility for one’s own actions as well as those of one’s children.

There was a time that these issues were solved largely within the family or by the community. Today, it is “let the police and the courts handle it” while tying their collective hands in litigation. We must do better.

J. Karl Miller of Columbia retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He can be reached by e-mail at

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Kevin Gamble May 20, 2008 | 11:16 a.m.

This is a tough issue. I sometimes wonder if "gentler" punishments on the post-offense end result from some kind of collective guilt over our incresingly fragmented and polarized communities. That is, adults are making an increasing mess of the world, leaving lessons of partisanship, bitterness, selfishness, and wanton consumption for our children to sift and struggle through to find good-hearted identities of their own.

I think the best solutions on the punishment end--and Miller may well be right about what could be effective--will be incomplete so long as root causes fester, though. Subduing the committing of crimes may help close what seems like a valid option for frustrated kids, but it won't make them feel better about things they feel bad about in their lives. It reminds me of the way our government deals with the reality of terrorism, taking punishment to higher levels while ignoring the factors that back people into a corner, contributing to the desperation that results in crimes.

It seems we haven't quite learned how to acknowledge both individuals' responsibility for their actions *and* the community's shared responsibility for the condition of individuals. When we manage that, we may well find we need a lot less punishment.

(Report Comment)
Robert A. Robinson May 21, 2008 | 5:51 p.m.

Reminds me of the old joke, "the beatings will continue until morale improves!" What a troglodyte mentality. Yeah, let's just beat kids or throw them in jail. That'll teach them respect for authority.

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