Re: Punishment

den Otter (
Thu, 12 Mar 1998 17:17:31 +0100

Charlie Stross <> wrote:

> 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.

Maybe, but there will always be *some* would-be criminals that are deterred
by strict sentencing, and every crime prevented, counts. Also, I'm quite sure
that mild punishments make criminals loathe the justice system and may thus
increase crime. Some people just need a firm hand to keep them on track.

> 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.

Not only do I strongly disagree on an emotional level, but I daresay that
the need for revenge is in fact *useful* because it helps you to terminate
your enemies and therefore thrive. The need for revenge is almost universal
in humans, which is a strong indication that it can't be too bad a trait.

Example: a lion kills a member of a group of humans. Unlike dumb herbivores
(for example) they likely won't just accept the loss and go on, but they'll
want to punish that lion, and lions in general while they're at it. A posse
is assembled and all lions in the area are hunted down and killed. The
revenge-driven group has made life a bit safer for themselves, and probably
for later generations too.

Revenge might have played a major part in man's ascension to the no.1
spot in the food chain. Even today revenge might be the real drive behind
justice systems and many a personal crusade against crime. "I want justice"
really means "I want revenge". I'd be very careful with removing this emotion
from the human meme/gene complex.

> An argument for a judicial system based on revenge is an argument for
> barbarism.

The need for retribution does not make someone a barbarian, just like feeling
joy or anger or any other emotion doesn't make you a barbarian. A good justice
system takes all three elements into account (protect society from the criminal,
discourage potential criminals and satisfy the victim's/society's need for revenge).
It isn't up to the justice system to be "holier than Jesus" so to speak, but to put
the punishment in proportion to the crime, and be consequent at it.

> (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.)

The action(s) coming from the need for revenge might restore the balance
of justice, if done in a controlled and professional 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.

As a kind of compromise you could consider freezing executed criminals as
a standard practice. Once (if?) perfected suspended animation is possible
it could be used as an alternative for incarceration too. Anyway, killing or
otherwise removing criminals *works* when done properly (no parole BS)
because you elliminate these misfits from society. Not only are they
personally removed, but also their genes from the genepool.

> 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.

Full agreement here! Cameras and microphones all over as far as I'm
concerned (all public spaces like streets, parks, malls, tunnels etc.),
all with interlocking fields of view. Some highly visible, some hidden.
Also cops should have small personal cameras & listening devices
on their clothing and on their gun (to be auto- activated whenever the
gun is drawn). Personal cams etc. should be highly recommended to
private citizens too. The images are automatically send to various
central databanks with either completely free or highly monitored
access, and local copies (near the cam/audio device itself) are kept
too (and can be downloaded into the general databanks at designated
points (or via your PC or whatever). Everything is auto-dated for later
reference. Of course all certified recordings have full power of evidence
in a court of law.

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

Some "certain" crimes:

-physical harm
-psychological terrorizing
-damage to property


-using recreational (or other) drugs
-euthanasia (when voluntary)
-killing in self-defense (including duelling)
-eating fatty foods
-blasphemy ;-)

Basically, anything goes as long as it doesn't harm others without their