Crime and Human Rights (21): A Proposal For a Better System of Criminal Punishment

Like many of you, I’m in favor of a radical overhaul of our criminal justice systems. We’ve made tremendous progress over the centuries, and yet the way we treat criminals today is still an abomination for which future generations will rightfully scold us. I was therefore pleasantly surprised – initially at least – to learn about a revolutionary proposal coming from Rebecca Roache. There’s a write-up here, and the headline sure grabs the attention: “Prisoners could serve 1,000 year sentence in eight hours”. The proposal:

Future biotechnology could be used to trick a prisoner’s mind into thinking they have served a 1,000 year sentence, a group of scientists have claimed.

Philosopher Rebecca Roache is in charge of a team of scholars focused upon the ways futuristic technologies might transform punishment. Dr Roache claims the prison sentence of serious criminals could be made worse by extending their lives.

Speaking to Aeon magazine, Dr Roache said drugs could be developed to distort prisoners’ minds into thinking time was passing more slowly. “There are a number of psychoactive drugs that distort people’s sense of time, so you could imagine developing a pill or a liquid that made someone feel like they were serving a 1,000-year sentence,” she said.

A second scenario would be to upload human minds to computers to speed up the rate at which the mind works … “If the speed-up were a factor of a million, a millennium of thinking would be accomplished in eight and a half hours … Uploading the mind of a convicted criminal and running it a million times faster than normal would enable the uploaded criminal to serve a 1,000 year sentence in eight-and-a-half hours. This would, obviously, be much cheaper for the taxpayer than extending criminals’ lifespans to enable them to serve 1,000 years in real time.” (source)

These innovations – or should I say imagined innovations since the technologies aren’t available yet – are defended on the basis of cost, humanity and proportionality.

  • Radically reduced prison sentences are cheaper for society, and more humane for the prisoner.
  • By tricking prisoners’ brains into believing that they serve a very long time while in fact only serving a short time, we’ll make it possible to offer them a life after prison.
  • By making it possible to impose very, very long sentences – or rather the chemically induced experience of very long sentences – one could make punishment truly proportional and retributive. Retribution is currently limited at life sentences (for those civilized countries that don’t impose the death penalty). When drugs will make it possible to impose sentences that last much longer than a lifetime, one can punish the very worst criminals proportionally to their crimes. Hitler could be locked up for ages. Roache writes about a particularly horrendous crime punished by an “almost laughably inadequate” sentence of 30 years in prison. “Sufficient punishment” is what this is about, and Roache is quite explicit in adopting the retributive and proportionality approach to justice.

There’s an obvious contradiction between these justifications. While it’s certainly good and humane to give prisoners a life after their sentences – no matter how long these are (or are perceived to be) – tricking people into believing that they are hundreds of years in prison is actually kind of cruel. And there’s no need for this cruelty. I’ve argued elsewhere that the role of retribution, proportionality and desert in criminal punishment should be strictly limited, and certainly not expanded as in Roache’s proposal. The number of months or years a person is to be imprisoned should be determined by the need to incapacitate him or her and to protect society from harm. Tricking people into believing that they have been in jail for thousands of years and then setting them free after a few hours will only create resentful human beings in the prime of their lives, willing and able to take revenge on the society that has punished them in this way. Of course, the endorsement of retributivism is not a necessary precondition for favoring the proposed technologies, and with some tweaking the technologies may actually do some good. We’ll see, perhaps.

More posts in this series are here.

10 thoughts on “Crime and Human Rights (21): A Proposal For a Better System of Criminal Punishment”

  1. Haha, so criminals will be like: “Oh they will just mess with my mind is all. I go to jail today, come out tomorrow. I just need to write all the important things down somewhere to not forget through the process.”


  2. Despite floating the idea in the blog post you quote, I’m actually not in favour of the mind uploading punishment scenario, for various reasons, some metaphysical (i.e. it’s not clear whether the upload would be the same person as the criminal, in the relevant sense) and some ethical (we can envisage a dystopian scenario in which punishments are ‘rushed through’ before any appeal can take place). Actually, if I’d realised that post would attract so much attention I wouldn’t have written it: it was more an emotional response to reading about Daniel Pelka than a balanced philosophical evaluation and I don’t actually endorse the punishments I describe there. (But I’m unwilling to remove the post now, which would be a bit Orwellian.)

    You raise a very interesting point in the final paragraph which relates to a question I was discussing today with someone after I presented this paper: does punishment really have to be unpleasant? It depends what its aims are. Perhaps it should be somewhat unpleasant if we’re only interested in retribution, but usually we’re interested in other things like deterrence, restoration, rehabilitation etc (as you mention in your earlier post). It may be that it was once thought that an unpleasant punishment would be a good deterrent – but since we now know that that’s not necessarily the case, and since technology might come to offer ways to help us achieve the non-retributive aims of punishment in ways that are not particularly unpleasant, we might have to rethink the role of pain/discomfort in punishment. (Which is not to say that we will, but we should.)


  3. Great post. Like you, I believe we should use tech to reform, not revenge. These tech imaginings make visible what our retributive systems actually amount to: causing as much harm to criminals as is legally possible. In many ways, the tech innovations seem like wildcards to get one out of the restraints of current laws against torture – just find a way to inflict suffering that hasn’t been outlawed… Yet. Which is, of course, why we need to debate this beforehand.

    As a sidenote, I wrote a (similarly-minded) reply to Roache a couple days back-


  4. I’m not sure the author has quite understood what Rebecca Roache is suggesting.

    The idea is not to ‘trick’ a prisoner into thinking he has served a 1,000 year sentence. The plan is to use time dilation to allow the prisoner to experience a 1,000 year prison sentence in just 8 and 1/2 hours (from our perspective).

    Can you consider the impossibility of an appeal being made during the sentence (by the prisoner)? What about false convictions? There is little possibility of new evidence being found or a successful appeal being made in 8 and 1/2 hours, yet the prisoner will have suffered 1,000 years of imprisonment.

    Presumably that 1,000 years will also be effectively spent in solitary confinement if it is achieved through either ‘time dilation pills’ or ‘uploading minds to computers’.

    Human rights for the 21st century, lol.


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