Punishment feedback


Not admitting that criminals are humans will lead to a nasty society, admitting it is expensive. Can this be used to create a feedback loop that makes the world a better place? We have discussed punishment mechanisms before on Zygomatica, but in Finnish only (on the stupidity of punishing car drivers for unintentional mistakes,  on substituting soft technology for hard punishment and on why these don’t necessarily work).

While I mostly lurk, I recently took part in a couple of conversation on Google+, about last meals (here) and death penalty (here). In the best spirit of internet discussions my comments were a bit off topic.

I’m too lazy to check what is google’s policy on quoting the discussions, but I’m pretty confident that I can use my own blurts. You’ll have to go through the above links if you want to see the responses.

In the first instance there was some discussion on how expensive it is to keep people in prison vs. executing them. This got me thinking about when and where has capital punishment been used a lot. My feeling is (I’m not an expert on this) that when it has been used a lot it has been either fairly cheap or even profitable. Cheap because of summary executions and profitable through slave labor. This of course only considers the direct costs. I then tried to generalize and came up with this (includes edits to correct spelling):

+G.G exile would be a cheap alternative and would make it easy to get rid of people breaking the law. I’m afraid this would eventually lead to a dystopia, through someone’s utopia. As punishing would now be cheap and easy there would be more punishing for less serious crimes. Because the people thinking differently would be exiled the remaining population would be more extreme and would change the law. Some people would break these new laws and be exiled. It’s called positive feedback and it leads to an unstable system. This is how a dictatorship is created, get rid of the people who think the system should different.

I think it is impossible to create an acceptable definition for crime that would make a clear distinction between political views and actual crimes. Thus there is no way of cramming cheap punishment and pursuit of happiness in one society.

Comments in the other discussion also referred to cost of the prison system, so the same thought came to me and I came up with this:

To keep up the heat up in the discussion I propose that the living conditions of prisoners are made so much better that the associated cost really does hurt the taxpayer. This will give a feedback mechanism that will lower the number of people that need to be imprisoned.

In the other direction, lowering the cost of punishment, lies a society where none of you will want to live.

And after someone appeared interested I continued with this:

+V. M. many (if not most) crimes are intimately connected to the surrounding society. In effect due to the path their lives have taken the criminals don’t have much choice. These people may have made bad decisions which have led to their current situation, but even those choices could have been different had the surroundings been different.

To lower the number of people that end up being punished society, not only the potential criminals need to change. This change will encounter resistance and it will cost money. By increasing the cost of punishment the trade off becomes visible. Take care of the criminals inside the prison or take care of the potential criminals outside of it. The current situation is that the harm (i.e. overcoming the resistance to change and the cost of running a different kind of society) has been externalized to the criminals.

This was immediately debunked as including the “economists mistake”, i.e. that I had assumed a rational actor. It was further claimed that my actor would need fairly advanced reasoning powers and that the evidence shows that this is not the case. To this I commented:

+V. M. “But it already does, and he already doesn’t” this is not true, society is clearly changed by imprisoning a large number of people. Further, it is done specifically because crime hurts the actor. What I am proposing is actually only a different change.

I think the reason behind your argument is not that society is not changed or that the actor is not rational enough. It is that the actor doesn’t care. It is happening to other people elsewhere. This is a valid point.

There however is a trick that has been used before. Grant that the criminals are humans and they cannot be stuffed to small boxes without anything to do. (You can reuse this if you change the word human to “chicken” or “pig” etc.). From this it follows that to lower costs you can either lower the number of criminals by changing society in a way that steers people away from crime or you can use other methods which are usually excluded by admitting humanity. I believe this method has been used in some European countries with a degree of success. Because the admission of humanity can be done at an emotional level less rationality is required.

Basically I tried to show that the evidence does not lead to the conclusion made in the critique and offered an alternate explanation to the observations. I then tried again to sell my idea, which I still think is valid.

In summary: If you increase the cost of punishment it will lead to less of it, if for no other reason then simply because it can not be afforded. I don’t think that the real crux is making the actor act rationally. The difficult part is making her admit that criminals are humans and deserve to be treated as such, regardless of what they have done.