Crime and punishment
No-one has ever found a really good way of responding to crime, and neither have I. However, here are some thoughts on the subject.
Imprisoning people is a remarkably poor way of responding to crime. Consider:
The only things to be said for it are that it does act as a deterrent, and it does prevent criminals from committing more crimes. But this works only if they're kept in solitary confinement for life. Otherwise they can and do commit crimes against other prisoners while they're inside, and further crimes when they're let out.
In my opinion, prison should be used (if at all) only for dangerous, violent criminals, who should be kept in solitary confinement for life, out of contact with other prisoners. Such prisoners should have no property: their assets should be confiscated and sold to compensate their victims or to pay part of the cost of keeping them.
For other criminals, see the various alternatives below.
A fine is a much better punishment in several ways:
However, it also has some disadvantages:
A novel economic punishment
If someone commits theft without violence, it's not really appropriate to use force on him, as he's not a user of force. But he's clearly not a respecter of property.
Therefore, it would seem appropriate for the law to declare that he's no longer legally entitled to own property; unless and until he repays what he's stolen, with interest, in which case he can be regarded as rehabilitated.
Not being entitled to own property would, I think, be painful for anyone, rich or poor, except for people so poor that they already own little or nothing. And I don't think many people want to live forever in that state.
Therefore, this seems a moral, cheap, and possibly effective way of responding to property crimes, though of course I don't know exactly how it would work out in practice.
Execution has been well tried over the course of history, and it's not noticeably more effective than prison in reducing the overall crime rate. However, it does have some advantages:
It also has some drawbacks:
I'm not really keen on execution, but I'm a bit surprised that it's out of fashion in most developed countries, as it seems a better solution than prison for the most dangerous criminals. As already noted, I have a low opinion of prison as a solution to anything.
If execution is used, and it turns out that an innocent person has been executed, I believe the law should require heavy compensation to be paid to the next of kin. This does the executed person no good, but it gives the government a financial incentive to minimize the number of wrongful executions.
Various countries have been experimenting with electronic tags that can be attached irremovably to a criminal, keeping track of his exact position and raising an alarm at a monitoring station if he goes somewhere he's not supposed to go. These are used, for instance, to confine criminals to their homes at night, or to prevent them from entering certain areas. If they don't respect their bounds, they can go to prison instead.
These tags are much cheaper than prison, but must be less effective both as a deterrent and as a way of preventing further crimes.
In future, electronic monitoring of convicted criminals will surely become more sophisticated, more effective, and more common. Perhaps the tag will come to contain its own enforcement, by disabling the criminal in some way if he tries to commit a crime. In this case, prisons may become unnecessary.
Monitoring of criminals will be combined with increased surveillance of the general public. Video cameras are already present in a number of public places to record any crimes that may be committed there. In future, there will be more cameras in more places, and at some stage they'll be linked to computers capable of alerting human monitors immediately if anything seems to require attention. It's reasonable to expect that computers will become capable of recognizing specific kinds of criminal behaviour, and specific people with criminal records (this becomes easy if they're tagged).
The message to anyone doing anything naughty in a public place will be, “Smile, you're on Candid Camera.”
Increasing numbers of people will choose to install surveillance equipment in their own homes as well, to combat burglary.
If someone offends against society by committing a crime, and he can't afford to pay adequate compensation, it seems quite reasonable for his society to confiscate whatever assets he has, and then throw him out. This is less drastic than execution and should normally be much cheaper than imprisonment. However, in the modern world it has some drawbacks:
Exile may still be worth considering in some cases, especially for foreign criminals.
The idea of re-educating criminals into useful and law-abiding members of society seems very attractive. But I put it at the bottom of this page because:
Brainwashing — changing someone's mentality without his consent — effectively extinguishes the personality that previously existed, and seems to me more or less equivalent to execution. Like execution, it's not reversible: I can't imagine it's even theoretically possible to restore the mind to the state it was in before.
Thus, this apparently-attractive option boils down to a more sophisticated, more expensive, and less reliable form of execution.