Re: Punishment

Charlie Stross (
Fri, 13 Mar 1998 15:27:25 +0000

On Thu, Mar 12, 1998 at 06:49:59PM +0000, Warrl kyree Tale'sedrin wrote:
> There *should* be a fourth item in the list: reparation.

Yup -- I forgot that one. But it's not a strategy for dealing with crime; it's
one way of responding after the event. (An ideal strategy for dealing with
crime is one that focusses on preventing crimes being committed, not on
bolting the stable door after the horse has fled.)

> > 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.
> Deterrence has been shown to be somewhat effective when an
> intelligent person would rationally expect to be caught.

Yup -- as I think I said.

> > 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.
> But being caught would be little deterrent, if no punishment
> followed.

This was also a punishment in the UK in the early 19th century. UK law
at the time was based on something historians know as the Bloody Code.
There were no police, as we know them, but freelance commercial "thief
takers" and various ways by which people might be arrested and come up
before the justices. And if they _were_ arrested and tried, the likely
verdict was Death -- death for everything, for stealing the equivalent
of two loaves of bread. This is obviously a disproportionate response,
and so it became the practice for judges to recommend clemency; it got
to the point where only 20% of people sentenced to hang were actually
hanged, and the process was almost entirely arbitrary.

England was _extremely_ lawless in those days, by modern standards.
Interestingly, the judicial system focussed on protecting property,
not people: Attempted murder was treated as a minor misdemeanor, but
rape was a crime against property (women being chattel), and rape
in marriage was seen as a contradiction in terms. However, pick-pocketing
was enough to guarantee the law would prescribe a neck-stretching --
and the humans who administered it would usually prescribe clemency.

In short, having punishments that are so severe that nobody wants to
enforce them is nearly as bad as no punishment at all. As is
inconsistency. Relatively mild penalties can be enough -- if the risk
of incurring them is seen as a dead certainty by potential criminals.
("If I burgle that house with the open window I _will_ be tracked down
and go to prison for six months ... hmm, I didn't like it there last
time. Think I'll pass.")

As for the fairly tiny proportion of dangerous recidivists -- well, I'm
not opposed to the death penalty because it's painful or extreme; I'm
opposed to it because it's irreversible. The British judicial system
has maintained a constant error rate of about 10-12% on murder convictions
throughout the 20th century, as indicated by original verdicts being
struck down. In many cases in the past 20 years, people have been found
to have been wrongly convicted decades after the event. Before the death
penalty was suspended in 1965, the appeals process was abbreviated; if
you were found guilty of murder you would hang within ten weeks. In
contrast, the recidivism rate for murderers in the UK is less than 0.2%;
a life sentence here means a minimum of 14 years, a mean of 22 years,
and lifetime supervision thereafter, with the option of no release
at all for serious cases. So the death penalty in the UK resulted in the
deaths of more innocent people than mandatory life sentences for murder,
as currently enforced.

Personally, I don't much like paying taxes that support people in
prison, but the alternatives -- letting them free, or killing them --
are worse. Maybe freezing (when proven reversible) would be an
acceptable alternative to execution; it takes dangerous ones out of
circulation permanently, but its reversible if you find there was a
mistake. Certainly I'd be willing to pay taxes towards that -- it'd be
cheaper than prison, and one way of viewing it is that the cost is
insurance against the possibility of miscarriages of justice in capital

-- Charlie