Crime: Put Him in the Stocks

by Robert Brow   (web site -

Published in the Kingston Whig Standard, April 29, 1987, and posted on this Model Theology web site Kingston, Ontario, April 1999.

In many countries offenders were put in the stocks. It wasn't as stupid, unfair, and cruel as it sounds. Justice was quick. You went straight from being arrested to the stocks the next morning. And you could be back at work the next day. Justice was also cheap to administer. A set of stocks with holes for your feet and a bench to sit on was one day's work for the village carpenter. And was it really more cruel than spending six months in one of our jails. I know which I would recommend to my son if he was a first offender.   Best of all, justice was public and democratic. On the village green most people knew you by name or at least by sight. If anyone thought you were innocent they could come right by to say so. Those who objected to your antisocial behavior could tell you why. And if someone threw a bad egg at you, your friends and supporters could give him what for.

Now don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting we go back to setting up stocks in the Market Square behind city hall. For one thing the Canadian winter is too cold. In the summer it would be quite a tourist attraction, but we couldn't really afford to risk our name as a civilized country. Anyway our Charter of Rights and Freedoms would view it as cruel and unusual punishment. I am only setting up imaginary stocks to make a point.

The point is to suggest some directions for improvement. A day in the stocks had three great advantages which we have lost. The public was directly involved in meeting the offender face to face. There was a quick and visible connection between the offence and its consequences. And it maximized the freedom of the individual to continue his normal work and family.

Are there humane options that are open to us? We should give every encouragement to those who are working at alternatives to incarceration.   Judges have already begun giving suspended sentences, assigning community service, and requiring various kinds of supervision instead of sending offenders to jail. After spending a day in court watching a judge patiently listening and sentencing, I was amazed at his humanity and concern to do what he could if there was any hope of avoiding a jail sentence. We need as many options as possible for judges in assigning consequences for various kinds of offence.

I found myself wondering how I would want to sentenced if I had committed a crime. Strangely enough the idea of being able to say I was sorry seemed to be important to me. After pleading guilty I imagined getting a lawyer presenting a written apology to the judge, and promising to publish it in the Whig Standard the next day under my picture.   "I, Robert Brow, on April 1, 1987 in the evening did drink too much, mugged a woman on Barrie Street and took her purse to buy more beer. I regret my action and do hereby apologize to the said lady and Kingstonians in general." If I looked half honest, I would hope the judge might give me a suspended sentence, assign some community service, and not send me to jail.

I am sure a few bad eggs would be thrown at me, and I am not sure how my church would take it, but like going to the stocks, I don't think I would do it again. And if I did, I would expect the judge to nail me hard the next time.

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