Thursday, February 24, 2005

A Digital Orange

The death penalty is immoral. So is imprisonment.

This wasn't always the case, but then, what is moral and what is not is often a function of what is technologically practical. Hundreds of years ago, when the resources did not yet exist to build and maintain prisoners for societies population of convicted criminals, the only viable options for dealing crime were the death penalty or public humiliation. We used to hang thieves, remember, and put people in the stocks for lesser crimes. We've lost the taste, as a society, for the latter, and the former has been abolished entirely in many societies, and in others is reserved for murderers.

Instead, we lock up our felons, taking away months, years, or decades of their lives. Is this right? In the past - even the near past - it was. Crime must be punished, after all. And yet, imprisonment is hardly an effective means of dealing with crime. It is expensive, for one thing. For another, it does not seem to achieve its stated aim of rehabilitation; some changes their ways, but many others only become hardened criminals. Granted, many of those locked up are sociopaths, and society must be protected from their predation. But what of those whose crimes are relatively minor? Who, had they not been brutalized by forced socialization with hardened criminals, might actually have been rehabilitated?

Things change fast, these days. The rapid advance of technology can render society almost unrecognizable to people who have known only the grey concrete walls of their prison cell for the last decade. How, one wonders, are these people meant to become productive members of society when their best years have been taken from them?

So here's my proposal, one which I imagine will shock, even disgust, some of you. It is unconventional, and it has never been tried because up until quite recently it was not even possible. But I believe the idea has merit, both in being a more effective method of crime prevention, and in being for more ethical.

The proposal is this: instead of putting the felon in jail, why not put the jail in the felon?

More specifically, why not implant interrupors in the nervous systems of convicted criminals? Four should suffice; one per limb. When activated, the interruptors - I call the system as a whole a nerve harness - would paralyze the individual. Guards would be assigned to watch the prisoner, 24/7, through surveillance systems that will likely be there anyways (at least, if David Brin's transparent society happens, as I think it will.) So long as the felon does nothing illegal, the guards would let him be. However, the instant he tries something - violence, theft, rape, what have you - he is paralyzed, and the police show up to cart him away.

A nerve harness would make it effectively impossible to commit a crime twice. A first conviction would result in the harness being implanted for a period depending on the severity of the crime. Two years for armed robbery, say, or twenty for murder. Every subsequent attempt to commit an illegal act would extend the term under the nerve harness. When the allotted time is up, the felon is set free (though would likely be kept under surveillance for a while, just in case.)

There are, of course, objections, some of which I have anticipated and will attempt to address.

1) Privacy: the system presupposes that the felon has no privacy at all while under the nerve harness, save perhaps when he is at home. All I can say to this is that felons in jail have very little privacy as it is, and in far less congenial conditions.

2) Security: What is to stop the felon from slipping out from under the surveillance net? This is an engineering issue. The system could be rigged so that, in the absence of an encrypted signal emitted from the surveillance network, the nerve harness automatically activates. At which point the police reappear to drag the felon back under the network.

3) Invasion of the Felon's Body: Forcing a felon to undergo surgery might seem, to many, to be a gross violation of their dignity. One might respond, "When did we start worrying about a felon's dignity?" But a better response would be that felons could be given a choice between old-fashioned imprisonment and going under the knife. Given that the second option implies far greater freedom, I imagine that many would choose the nerve harness over the jail cell.

4) Punishment: The nerve harness might strike some as being fundamentally soft, as completely ignoring the imperitive for retribution. There is some justice in this, but there is, I believe, a certain amount of retribution in the nerve harness: social stigma. There would almost certainly be some outwardly visible sign of the nerve harness' presence, one that would immediately mark the felon as a lawbreaker. This obviously much milder than being raped on a daily basis by the skinheads in your cellblock, but then, the primary point of the nerve harness is not to punish. It is to prevent the felon from re-offending, while simultaneously making it much easier to reintegrate with society.

If there are others, please bring them to my attention in the comments; I'll attempt to address them.

The major benefit of the system would be that it would greatly encourage rehabilitation. While under the nerve harness, the felon would still be able to carry on essentially as normal (so long as no laws were broken.) They could hold down a job, maintain a household, socialize. Or not. It would be up to them. The point is that the option would be there.


Blogger Decadent Leftist said...

"Clockwork Orange" meets up with and beats Jeremy Betham's Panopticon over the head with a sack of rusty doorknobs.

10:07 AM  

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