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March 18, 2014

"Prisoners Could Serve '1,000 Year Sentences In 8.5 Hours' In The Future"

The title of this post is the headline of this awesome new article that an awesome former student sent my way.  Here are excerpts:

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, she wrote on her blog.  "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."...

"To me, these questions about technology are interesting because they force  us to rethink the truisms we currently hold about punishment.  When we ask ourselves whether it’s inhumane to inflict a certain technology on someone, we have to make sure it’s not just the unfamiliarity that spooks us," Dr Roache said.  

"Is it really OK to lock someone up for the best part of the only life they will ever have, or might it be more humane to tinker with their brains and set  them free?   When we ask that question, the goal isn’t simply to imagine a bunch of futuristic punishments — the goal is to look at today’s punishments through the lens of the future."

March 18, 2014 at 05:00 PM | Permalink


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I would be opposed to such technologies, not out of any regard for the offender but because their use would do nothing to protect society from further crimes.of the offender. If it became possible to reprogram the brain I might see it differently but not to simply say "we're going to make this offender experience all 1000 years of his sentence".

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Mar 18, 2014 6:49:58 PM

Halleluiah...the benefits of modern pharmacology and advances in neurology, there's probably an illegal substance out there already that could provide a similar experience through the manipulations of brain chemistry :-)

Posted by: Greg | Mar 18, 2014 7:23:16 PM

Having watched the relevant Star Trek episode (Deep Space Nine, Season 4, Episode 19: "Hard Time"), I think there are a few concerns we'll face:

* Increased risk of irreconcilable mistake. If you're sentenced to 20 mental years that can be served in a few hours, you're removed from the opportunity to exonerate yourself. Would we wait until all appeals have expired to begin the part of the sentence that is accelerated? What about collateral attacks on the conviction?
* For the longer sentences (e.g. 1,000 years), what sort of condition will these people be in when released? A person who has served a mental sentence of centuries might not be able to reintegrate into society at all, even if that society has effectively stood still for the entire sentence.

And a few concerns not from the episode:
* Will this incentivize more use of the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole? If convicted murderers are being released the next day, and if we think that prison time likely serves ends more focused on retribution and isolation from society than on rehabilitation, legislators and judges and prosecutors might see imprisonment as less desirable relative to more permanent measures.
* What about life without parole? Would there still be the option for a slowed-down (i.e. normal time perception) sentence for that sentence? How much would we see efforts not to allow certain offenses to be punished with accelerated sentences?
* I'm not sure we think a thousand years is really fitting punishment for a crime. It seems like the centuries sentences are enacted and handed down knowing that the human lifespan effectively limits the sentence and ensures the person will die in prison. Is there a demand for ways to ensure that a thousand-year sentence feels like a thousand years?

Posted by: JVB | Mar 18, 2014 8:13:19 PM

It is well-known that the Romans liked to sentence people "damnatio ad bestias". What is less well known is why the practice eventually died out. Although it was passed off as a sentencing scheme sending criminals to the beasts was a popular form of entertainment. The problem was that word eventually got out and the criminals stopped fighting--if one is condemned to die there isn't much incentive for the criminal to put on a show for the state. Unfortunately for the Romans there was wasn't much entertainment value in a person laying on the ground while a hungry lion quickly killed the criminal. This annoying truth resulted in the Romans procuring the most fantastic beasts from their far-flung empire such as bears and rhinos in order to up the entertainment value. The other problem besides uncooperative criminals was that often the animals wouldn't cooperate, either, making a mockery of the sentence. There was zero entertainment value in a criminal lying on the floor of the arena while a rhino stomped around ignoring the person it thought was dead. So when feeding criminals to the beasts ceased to amuse the rabble then the practice withered away.

We are so much more enlightened today that our solution to the uncooperative beast and the uncooperative criminal is simple: drugs. We will create a chemical animal that will cooperate exactly the way the state wants it too and then inject that animal into the person's body, like it or not. The criminal will then be forced live with that beast in their head, whether they like it or not. How amusing! Listen to roar of the approving crowd! There is indeed progress. Another fine example of modern technological solutions to age old problems.

I have an idea. Rather than looking at today's punishments through the eyes of the future maybe we should look at the future's punishments through the lens of the past. If we did, maybe we wouldn't be so eager to embrace them.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 19, 2014 12:33:13 AM

Why not add idiotic science fiction to the fictions of the law? Fictitious supernatural powers. Fictitious character setting standards of conduct. Fictitious adjudicated charges in 95% of sentences. Fictitious crime statistics. The fiction that the death penalty is a punishment covered by the Eighth Amendment, when it is not a punishment. The ridiculous fiction that ours is the greatest justice system, when it one of the worst in the world and in history. It sucks at everything except collecting the rent at the point of a gun. The fiction that the legal system imparts any benefit in exchange for its $trillion cost, when it is totally worthless. The fiction that law school teaches anything about real world law. The fiction that a bar exam requiring spotting and analyzing 25 issues in an hour is anything but legal malpractice (a lawyer operating at that speed would be arrested). The fiction that the judiciary has any authorization to review laws (nowhere in the constitution, and prohibited by Article I Section1). The fiction that the lawyer did not cause the Civil War, 9/11, and every social/economic problem of the nation.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 19, 2014 5:08:53 AM

This doesn't seem to really address many of the goals of punishment except the goal of doing it in a cost-effective manner. For example, it would increase the chance of releasing dangerous people back onto the street since (a) they'll be released sooner and (b) they're probably going to be even less productive members of society if they were in a drug-induced psychosis that led them to believe they have done literally nothing to improve their lives for decades or centuries (unlike actual prisoners who are capable of pursuing activities that will train them to do something useful upon release).

Posted by: Erik M | Mar 19, 2014 12:00:13 PM

When you write like that Supremacy Claus I almost like you.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 19, 2014 2:09:27 PM

In addition to the aforementioned Star Trek episode, a more pertinent fiction example is actually from the original Outer Limits episode called The Sentence.

The episode actually looks to how the process was developed in the lab, as well as the political intervention in trying to get said process speeded up to meet the growing prisoner population.

Sound familiar?

The wikipedia listing here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sentence_(The_Outer_Limits)

Posted by: Eric Knight | Mar 19, 2014 2:32:17 PM

This is what happens when you let Philip K. Dick draft your criminal justice policy.

Posted by: C.E. | Mar 22, 2014 1:43:49 AM

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