Alternatives to using prisons

For any society, crime is a toxin. It attacks the social tissue by eating away at trust. Trust is what emboldens individuals to surpass themselves by joining forces with each other. Without trust, individuals are forced to continuously waste resources defending themselves.

Crime is a direct assault on personal freedom, not only because of the measures individuals are forced to take to protect themselves, but also because the same freedom that allows people to do good can also be exploited by criminals, and therefore as crime increases, the society nearly always restricts freedom.

Because of its silent but steady effects, crime is arguably the most insidious enemy of a vital civilization. In politics, it is corruption, which destroys institutions. In the streets, it is terrorism, often largely against the poor who cannot afford measures to protect themselves. In business, crime deadens the entrepreneurial spirit.

. . .

Prisons are an unintelligent way to respond to crime.

They conveniently and without obvious cruelty put the criminal out of sight, but a prison term often costs much more than a university education, and the criminal eventually returns to the streets meaner than ever.

Societies have come to rely on emprisonment because of its relative unobtrusiveness and inoffensiveness, but it is a grimly wasteful and ineffective way to manage crime.

Presented here are three alternatives to using prisons alone for resisting crime: aggressive psychological treatment, punishment-in-kind through dysphoria-inducing pharmaceuticals, and banishment.

More important than those, however, is that a society ought to invest fully and wisely in the health and education of its entire population. That investment, along with firm measures to resist crime directly, will guard and strengthen the vitality of the society.

. . .

Whenever possible, aggressive psychological treatment has great advantages, as long as society can be reasonably certain that the treatment is effective.

If successful, treatment converts a criminal into a contributing citizen. A net gain overall.

Treatments depend on certain assumptions about human nature and the mind, such as that overwhelming impulses can be controlled through cognitive choices or eventually through medication or some other organic intervention.

. . .

A more shocking response to crime, from the perspective of most modern societies, would be punishment-in-kind through dysphoria-inducing pharmaceuticals.

Dysphorics would interfere with the brain's own "feel good" neurotransmitters, causing the criminal to experience generalized discomfort and grief.

Professionals would carefully administer dosages to ensure that the criminal neither accommodated to the dysphorics nor experienced a total psychological breakdown.

More heinous crimes would presumably be answered by more painful dosages.

In part, this approach appeals to the desire felt by most societies and victims to see some sort of justice, or counterbalancing of the pain and harm they suffered at the hands of the criminal.

A further notion is that the threat of experiencing years of treatment by dysphorics might serve as a deterrent. Deterrence is difficult, however, as criminals are often impaired or deluded when weighing the risks and benefits of committing a crime.

. . .

Probably the simplest and possibly the oldest means of dealing with crime is banishment. Banishment has been used by indigenous people in various parts of the world.

From this perspective, when a person decides to commit a serious criminal act, he or she is actually forfeiting the right to live in a society. That society, in turn, exercises its justifiable right not to abide with criminals in its midst.

Upon conviction of a grave crime, the national citizenship of the criminal is revoked and the criminal is permanently expelled to a land removed from the public but within the jurisdiction of the nation.

Unlike prisons, which are maintained at great expense by society, the banishment lands would simply be open territory where it would be up to criminals to form their own society and run their own economy.

Communication with the banishment lands would be strictly limited, and biometrics of the criminals would be taken before expulsion so that they could be recognized if they ever tried to re-enter public areas.

The banishment lands would be perpetually sealed off, probably by means of walls and perhaps even military technology.

Initially, society might furnish the banishment lands with crude barracks and tools, enough to start a rudimentary economy, but the banished would ultimately have to live or die by their own wits.

Nothing would prohibit another nation from welcoming the banished, but it's doubtful that any nation would want another society's hardened criminals, especially since the criminals would have no passport or citizenship.

. . .

While those alternatives to prisons may seem unnecessarily harsh, we ought to keep in mind that crime is brutal and ultimately weakens or destroys everything that individuals and societies care about.

An often-discussed principle is that when small crimes are tolerated, larger crimes occur more frequently, and when larger crimes also become common, then heinous crimes are sure to follow quickly.

An open society must take a resolute stand against crimes large and small, but above all it must invest heavily in health (especially mental health) and education.

Michael Webb, 2004

home ]