Re: Punishment

Charlie Stross (
Thu, 12 Mar 1998 13:18:26 +0000

On Wed, Mar 11, 1998 at 11:28:49AM -0500, Alexander 'Sasha' Chislenko wrote:
> You can be unhappy punishing anybody, but the criminals will also be
> unhappy. That's the point - their unhappiness with the punishment will
> prevent them from committing [more] crime.

Um, there are some falacies creeping in here ...

There are, 'less I'm mistaken, three policies for punishment in most
societies: deterrence, revenge, and prevention. These are usually applied
in combination, rather than in isolation, and the mechanism by which
they are applied, and severity, varies.

Firstly, deterrence. This is pretty much disproven as an approach to
preventing crime; punishment doesn't deter criminals because criminals
don't expect to be caught and punished. If they did, they wouldn't
commit crimes. The classic study of this problem was conducted in England
in the victorian period. The death penalty by hanging was carried out in
public until roughly 1860, when executions were moved indoors. A study
in the 1860's and 1870's demonstrated that something like 95% of criminals
condemned to death had, however, witnessed a public execution for the very
crime they wer to hang for. The deterrent had failed, in their cases. (We
don't know how many people _were_ deterred, of course, but there are other
studies of countries which abolished the death penalty and didn't experience
a sudden surge in the murder rate that suggest the same principle applies.)

Arguably this is due to incorrect risk evaluation on the part of the
criminally inclined; here in the UK there's a massive program of placing
CCTV cameras in public places, and it does indeed appear to have a major
impact on petty crime (vandalism, car theft, muggings) in public places
overlooked by cameras. The point being that the punishment doesn't deter
criminals; it's the certainly of capture that deters them.

Secondly, there's revenge. I am not going to try to justify revenge; I
think it's a ridiculous, obscene and unpleasant notion that degrades
everybody involved. An argument for a judicial system based on revenge
is an argument for barbarism. (The whole point of law is to enable people
to coexist peacably without infringing each other's rights. Revenge
doesn't damp down imbalances in the observation of rights; it just
tips the balance the other way.)

Thirdly, there's prevention. Locking people who break laws up for long
periods of time may or may not be appropriate, but in some cases it may
be the most appropriate way to prevent them re-offending. It has the big
advantage (over captial punishment) that if you discover after you've
locked someone up that they were innocent, you can let them out and try
to provide some kind of compensation. But imprisonment is still an
after-the-fact approach to prevention. The best approach to crime and
punishment would be one that aims to prevent crimes being comitted in
the first place by diverting or defusing criminal impulses (and
minimising the number of spurious or victimless crimes on the statutes,
of course). And I think the best way to do this is probably some sort of
polycentric, open, surveillance society -- Neighbourhood Watch with CCTV
writ large, so that everyone participates in crime prevention (meaning
there are no authoritarian figures in a privileged position to police
society) and everyone knows that it's very difficult to commit a crime
and get away undetected.

But first, of course, we need to figure out what constitutes a crime, and
what constitutes a welfare program for police officers.

Any opinions ...?

-- Charlie