Effective criminal punishment

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Effective criminal punishment

Many crimes carry punishments with them that are in no way useful to our society. Politicians are incentivized to create laws that sound good, not ones that actually address the problem they are supposed to solve.

The goals of punishing a crime

Different ethical systems give different reasons for why crime should be punished. Additionally, the reasons can be categorized differently.

These three reasons form an effective basis for designing a criminal law system, although they are by no means perfect:

  • (1) Prevent the perpetrator from repeating the crime

  • (2) Prevent other people from committing similar crimes

    This is distinct from (1) because things that disincentivize the perpetrator may not always disincentivize other people, and vice versa. For example: A brutal and inhuman prison system only makes the prisoners more criminally inclined, but is a strong deterrent for others. A benevolent and mild prison system with a focus on resocialization works great for the prisoners, but is not much of a deterrent for other people.

  • (3) Fix the damage done to the aggrieved party

Examples of bad laws

Some examples of laws that are not working well:

  • The death penalty

    The death penalty is intended to achieve goals (1) and (2). Obviously it achieves goal (1) very effectively, but the evidence suggests that it does not work for achieving goal (2). Since most people don't care about statistics, this is completely ignored by politicians, who support it anyway in order to appear "tough on crime". Apparently, many people believe that being "tough on crime" is inherently good and no careful analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of a criminal punishment is necessary.

  • Suing for damages after getting hurt

    Some countries allow people to sue for millions of dollars of damages after getting hurt. This is a mismatch of goals.

    The perpetrator should pay money to the victom because of (3). Additionally, the penalty should be steep because of (1) and (2), to make up for the low chance of getting caught and sued in the first place.

    However, these are two separate reasons for paying money. Only reason (3) requires the perpetrator to pay money to the victim. Reasons (1) and (2) just require them to be punished in some fashion.

    It would make much more sense if the perpetrator paid a reasonable amount of money to the victim, and independently of that also paid a very large amount of money to the state, or else suffered some other kind of penalty.

    The injured party should not get millions of dollars, because that's much more than the injury is worth and gives people perverse incentives to e.g. throw themselves in front of cars in order to sue the drivers. As a simple test: if you offered people the choice to get the money for suffering the injury, and people would gladly take it for even a hundredth of the money, then something is wrong.

Brainstorm for effective punishments

These are some random ideas for different kinds of punishments.

  • Physical punishments

    Prison sentences are wasteful. Prisons are expensive to run, and the prisoners lose years of their lives that they could otherwise spend as productive citizens. As far as deterrence is concerned, physical punishment works just as well, within reason. Obviously there are situations where a prison sentence is better, but for a petty crime that you don't expect the perpetrator to repeat, a bit of physical pain would be much better than sending the perpetrator to prison for months or years.

  • Sterilization for rapists

    This would solve the problem at its root to achieve goal (1), is intimidating enough to work for (2), and is much less expensive than a prison sentence. If a reversible form of chemical castration is used, or if the libido is suppressed with medicine instead of outright castrating the perpetrator, then this punishment could be reversed after some time has passed.

  • Forbid luxury goods

    Instead of going to jail, a criminal may still do everything as normal, but they are forbidden from doing things that are classified as 'luxuries' and receive a visual marker for the duration of the punishment (luxuries are things like watching movies meant for entertainment, having expensive meals, and generally could be anything that is pleasurable but not essential to life). This only applies to criminals with low chances of committing more crimes.

    This has several advantages:

    • The criminal continues to contribute to society.
    • Each time the criminal is prevented from indulging in a luxury, it serves as a reminder of what they did wrong, which helps with (1).
    • The punishment is easy to visualize, which helps to achieve (2): Prison is a vague idea you have in mind, but since you never interact with prisoners until you actually go to prison yourself, it's not very effective as a deterrent. If however you see people in everyday life who have a visual mark branding them as a criminal, and see that they can't do enjoyable things, that is much easier to visualize and therefore a better deterrent.
    • Wearing a visual marker (for the duration of the punishment only) would be shameful, but not as life-ruining as a permanent record.

    Unfortunately, this idea would be very hard to implement in practice: Who classifies what constitutes a luxury? It's highly subjective.