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On Justice August 27, 2007

Posted by David Bookstaber in Social Politics, Uncategorized.

Our society has not done a very good job addressing the problem of criminal justice: What is the purpose of punishing criminals? Deterrence? Reform? Retribution?

One punishment that doesn’t seem very efficient with respect to any of these goals happens to be the most widely-applied: imprisonment.  The only thing imprisonment does effectively is temporarily incapacitate the criminal, preventing him from committing further crime against the outside society.  Why should society bear the cost of locking a criminal in prison without putting him to any constructive use?*

If we stopped to consider the question we would surely arrive at more appropriate punishments.  For example, James Miller astutely recommends torture as an efficient alternative to prison:

Because of its far lower cost, the U.S. should torture rather than imprison criminals who don’t need to be removed from society.

Some would argue that it’s excessively cruel to torture criminals. But both prison and torture impose costs on criminals. Why is one type of cost crueler than the other? If a convicted criminal is indifferent between receiving a certain type of torture or being imprisoned for a given period of time then why would it be excessively cruel to torture but not to imprison?

I actually had this question in draft for quite some time and was finally moved to post it by that brilliant observation.  Other useful reading on the subject can be found at Agoraphilia and also in a recent issue of In Character.

* (In fact, many of our prisons offer such benign accommodations that they are really just supervised adult daycare at taxpayer expense. But that is a topic for another day. Also a topic for another day: To what constructive uses might society legitimately put its criminals? Forced labor? Medical testing?)


1. federalist - October 12, 2007

Came across an interesting standard reading Walter Block (section 4): “In encapsulated form [libertarian punishment philosophy] calls for two teeth for a tooth, plus costs of capture and a premium for scaring.” Worth reading in full.

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