Capital Punishment (22): Deterrence

Many crimes, especially violent crimes and property crimes, are human rights violations. The fact that theft, assault, violent attack and murder are crimes in most if not all national legal systems, indicates a high degree of normative consensus on the importance of a subset of human rights, namely the right to life, the right to property and the right to physical security.

Moreover, there’s also a high degree of consensus across different national legal systems as to the best way to react to these rights violations and to stop them from happening in the future: isolate the perpetrators in prisons. We believe that this will prevent crime in three ways:

  • It stops the criminal from re-offending during the period of his/her isolation.
  • It stops the criminal from re-offending after the period of his/her isolation.
  • It stops other people from following his/her example.

The last two bullet points are what’s called “deterrence”. We tend to believe that this deterrence effect correlates with the severity of the punishment. More years in prison means more deterrence. More brutal punishments – such as capital punishment – means even more deterrence. The belief in this correlation between degree of deterrence and degree of punishment rests on the “rational actor hypothesis”: people will take only those actions that produce more benefits than costs. If the punishment for a certain type of crime imposes a much lower cost on the potential criminal than the benefits the result from the crime – for instance a few weeks in prison for a theft worth several millions of dollars – and if the chances of being caught are reasonably low, than a “rational actor” is likely to become a criminal. Deterrence is therefore a function not only of the severity of the punishment but also of the probably of getting caught.

There are three problems with deterrence understood like this.

Irrationality

Many people don’t fit the rational actor description. They don’t make cost-benefit analyses before engaging in actions, especially not when crime is concerned (and certainly not in cases of certain types of crimes, such as “crime passionnel”).

Reductio ad absurdum

There’s an element of “reductio ad absurdum” in deterrence: if you want to deter certain types of crimes, especially crimes with very high potential benefits, you have to impose very high costs. Hence you may find that your logic leads you into acceptance of very brutal punishments: e.g. very painful, prolonged and public types of capital punishment, the killing of the family and friends of criminals etc. The danger with all cost-benefit logic in human affairs – and with utilitarian philosophies in general – is that you wind up accepting the sacrifice of some for the larger benefit of society as a whole. Rawls called this the failure to take distinctions between persons seriously. Utilitarianism means

extending to society the principle of choice for one man, and then, to make this extension work, conflating all persons into one through the imaginative acts of the impartial sympathetic spectator. Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons. John Rawls (source)

It seems that if you want to defend deterrence, you have to stop at some point and accept that there are limits to it. There are certain things you just can’t do to people, and no amount of deterrence or other benefits can justify doing these things.

Doesn’t work, unless…

It’s not beyond doubt that deterrence works, probably in part because of the first point. There’s solid evidence to the contrary in the case of capital punishment (see here). But also for crime in general and prison sentences there’s doubt:

Although long sentences are now common and the incarceration rate is five times what it was during most of the 20th century, the crime rate is still two and a half times the average of 1950-62. … most criminals are not the dispassionate rational actors who populate standard economic models. They are more like impulsive children, blinded by the temptation of immediate reward and largely untroubled by the possibility of delayed or uncertain punishment. (source)

Detention only seems to work when the odds of apprehension and punishment are very high.

The evidence suggests that when hardened criminals are reasonably sure that they will be caught and punished swiftly, even mild sanctions deter them. But not even the prospect of severe punishment is effective if offenders think they can get away with their crimes. (source)

This would seem to undermine the argument for capital punishment. Of the two elements that are believed to cause the deterrent effect, only the odds of getting caught seem to matter, not the severity of the punishment. Hence, capital punishment is useless. What counts is the odds of getting caught, not what happens when you’re caught. In general, people take costs that are relatively modest but immediate and certain much more seriously than higher costs that may or may not happen in the longterm.

Experimenters have found, for example, that even long-term alcoholics become much less likely to drink when they are required to receive a mild electric shock before drinking. Many of these same people were not deterred by their drinking’s devastating, but delayed, consequences for their careers and marriages. (source)

Measuring Human Rights (8): Measurement of the Fairness of Trials and of Expert Witnesses

An important part of the system of human rights are the rules intended to offer those accused of crimes a fair trial in court. We try to treat everyone, even suspected criminals, with fairness, and we have two principal reasons for this:

  • We only want to punish real criminals. A fair trial is one in which everything is done to avoid punishing the wrong persons. We want to avoid miscarriages of justice.
  • We also want to use court proceedings only to punish criminals and deter crime, not for political or personal reasons, as is often the case in dictatorships.

Most of these rules are included in, for example, articles 9, 10, 14 and 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 10 of the Universal Declaration, article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights, and the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Respect for many of these rules can be measured statistically. I’ll mention only one here: the rule regarding the intervention of expert witnesses for the defense or the prosecution. Here’s an example of the way in which this aspect of a fair trial can measured:

In the late 1990s, Harris County, Texas, medical examiner [and forensic specialist] Patricia Moore was repeatedly reprimanded by her superiors for pro-prosecution bias. … In 2004, a statistical analysis showed Moore diagnosed shaken baby syndrome (already a controversial diagnosis) in infant deaths at a rate several times higher than the national average. … One woman convicted of killing her own child because of Moore’s testimony was freed in 2005 after serving six years in prison. Another woman was cleared in 2004 after being accused because of Moore’s autopsy results. In 2001, babysitter Trenda Kemmerer was sentenced to 55 years in prison after being convicted of shaking a baby to death based largely on Moore’s testimony. The prosecutor in that case told the Houston Chronicle in 2004 that she had “no concerns” about Moore’s work. Even though Moore’s diagnosis in that case has since been revised to “undetermined,” and Moore was again reprimanded for her lack of objectivity in the case, Kemmerer remains in prison. (source)

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (12): The Scope of Criminal Law in Different Countries or Cultures, and Its Effect on Human Rights

Different countries and different cultures make different choices about the appropriate scope of criminal law. Some actions which are legal in one country are illegal in another.

The two tables below list a number of action types (certainly not all) and whether they are legal or illegal. This table can be used to classify countries or societies according to the degree of freedom that they grant their citizens. The legalization of some actions makes countries more free, the legalization of others less free. (And the same for the choice whether or not to criminalize certain actions). This table can therefore be used to distinguish between countries or societies that are more free or more “liberal” than others which are more authoritarian or more “illiberal”.

The distinction between countries can be made by attributing a certain score to each action and then making the sum. The scoring could be done like this: add a point when a country or society is best described by the right column, and subtract a point for the left column. Countries with high marks are then liberal, countries with low marks illiberal.

For example, if we would like to score the U.S., this country would be given one point for allowing gun ownership, making it a bit more “liberal” (I know this label doesn’t really fit U.S. politics, in which a favorable view of gun ownership is a rather more “conservative” than “liberal” position. But “liberal” here should be understood not in the context of U.S. politics but simply as meaning “more free”). However, the U.S. would lose a point because it has allowed torture. Done for every type of action, this scoring should then give an overall impression of the country, or of any other country.

I don’t intend to attach any moral significance to these terms, “liberal” and “illiberal”. One isn’t necessarily good or the other bad. More freedom isn’t always a good thing. The terms “liberal” and “illiberal” merely describe the degree of freedom in a country.

Now, the interesting thing from the point of view of human rights, is that liberal societies, in general (as can be seen from the tables) are more favorable to human rights than illiberal ones. So the table can be used to classify societies according to their respect for human rights (and then the distinction does take on a moral character). But this isn’t completely true, for two reasons:

  • Some human rights issues, such as health or poverty, aren’t included in the table, because they aren’t relevant from the point of view of criminal law. But they can and should change the score: a society that scores as “illiberal” from the point of view of criminal law, can improve its score as a “human rights respecting country” when it offers its citizens good health care and income (but of course this doesn’t excuse the human rights violations resulting from its criminal law). Or vice versa.
  • It’s debatable whether more freedom for certain actions results in more respect for human rights. One can think of pornography or abortion. So an extremely liberal society is perhaps not the best one from the point of view of human rights.

A correct distinction between more or less liberal countries should not only include the scope of criminal law, but also the severity of punishment when a crime is committed. Societies that have the same scope for criminal law as others, but use capital punishment, corporal punishment, mutilation, stoning or torture as methods of criminal punishment, should be classified as less liberal.