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Thoughts on Prisoner #771782
Science and Criminal Injustice

by Michael Shermer, Sep 01 2009

Ever since Skeptic magazine gained widespread distribution in bookstores, newsstands, and libraries in the early 1990s, we have received a steady stream of letters from prisoners (several a week), some to request free magazines and books, others to complain about the religious indoctrination they receive (both Christians and Muslims actively evangelize in prison), and a few to offer their own theories and conjectures about this or that scientific controversy that we covered. We even had a death-row inmate write to request that we devote a special issue of Skeptic to abolishing the death penalty, with his contribution as the lead article of course. After reading about what he did—multiple rapes and murders — we passed on the suggestion in honor of his victims. And in any case, he told me that even after his trial, conviction, and sentencing to death, cuffed and shackled to the seat on the way to prison, all he could think about was bolting out of the van and grabbing the first woman in sight so he could rape and kill her. I was relieved to know that death’s clock was ticking close to midnight for him.

As a libertarian I’m conflicted about the death penalty. On the one hand, from the victims’ families perspective, when it comes to first-degree murder — premeditated and with malice aforethought — my sense is that justice will only be served when the murderer is dead; an eye for an eye. And since the murderers didn’t worry about the humaneness of the death they forced on their victims, then I say fry ‘em ‘til their heads catch on fire and ol’ sparky runs out of juice. On the other hand, from a political perspective, I’m always leery about giving the state even more power, especially that over life and death; plus there is no reason to think that bumbling bureaucrats who run the government will magically transform into competent commissioners when it comes to the allocation of justice, as the Innocence Project has demonstrated in freeing 16 innocent people from death row based on irrefutable DNA evidence. As I said, I’ve not made up my mind on this issue.

Although we have largely avoided political controversies in Skeptic magazine, in our most recent issue (Vol. 15, No. 1) investigative journalist Steve Salerno’s article on the criminal justice system (“Criminal Injustice: The Flaws and Fallacies of the American Justice System”) generated a lot of mail in response to the questions he asked about “whether we’re punishing the right people for the right reasons, and even what constitutes a crime in the first place.” Which is worse, Salerno asks: “stealing a six-pack of beer from a 7-Eleven one time, or verbally abusing your wife, children and friends daily?” As well, given the current economic recession, Salerno argues “that corporate raiders and stock speculators — even when they break no actual laws — cause widespread job loss and severe economic dislocations in their pursuit of personal wealth and/or ‘maximum shareholder value,’” and that perhaps these too should be considered a punishable crimes. Finally, there is the problem of mistrials, planted evidence, coerced confessions, institutional racism in police departments, the criminalization of victimless (and harmless) crimes like prostitution and smoking pot, and the fact that “correctional institutions” are not really designed to “correct” criminal behavior, and one can’t help but be skeptical of the system we have.

Of the many letters from prisoners we received, one in particular stands out for its erudition and literary sophistication. I’ll only identify him by his prison I.D. #771782, incarcerated at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center in Clallam Bay, WA, where he is serving two life sentences plus 205 years for murdering his algebra teacher and two students when he was 14. #771782 fully admits his guilt even while agreeing with Salerno that “emotion and political expediency hold far more sway than facts in every stage of a criminal proceeding.” Nevertheless, when Salerno asks, “Cannot white-collar/financial crime of such disruptive magnitude be construed as a far greater offense against the social contract than any single crime against the person, up to and including homicide?,” #771782 answers no. “For starters, the ideology is ugly. This is a world of individuals, not interchangeable Alphas, Betas and Epsilons. We ascribe value to each individual. The social contract is useful only when it serves those individuals. Living individuals are arguably better served by a social contract riddled with white-collar crime than dead individuals are with one that’s white-collar free. I’ll hazard a guess that most victims of these crimes will agree. Ask Madoff’s victims which they’d prefer: to be bilked by him or killed by me.”

There is also the matter of making amends: “A white-collar criminal can, at least in theory, always redeem himself. Murderers cannot. Someone who’s scammed a billion can earn a billion. I, on the other hand, can never resurrect those I’ve killed. I’m vile enough to take a life, but not smart enough to restore it. Society recognizes this, and incorporates it into the criminal justice system.” Point well made.

A perennial issue in criminal justice is volition and accountability: in order to have a civil society we need to hold people accountable for their actions, and this assumes that people have free will and that their crimes were committed by choice. Despite this presumption, the trend in the social sciences is to look for and find mitigating circumstances, societal determining factors, and causal agents of crime outside of the criminals themselves. #771782 disagrees: “Hardship does not negate free will. Madoff and I could have chosen to be decent human beings rather than what we are.” Salerno noted that Madoff’s scheme led to at least two suicides, thereby justifying the moral equivalency argument between violent crimes and white-collar financial crimes. “That same choice is available for Madoff’s victims, no matter how tragic their loss. There is no need to commit suicide. If you’ve lost only your fortune, you are fortunate indeed compared to those whom I’ve hurt. You may be unemployed; maybe even destitute. But you’re alive, able to make or lose some more.”

What about juveniles? Doesn’t the justice system need overhauling here, as suggested by Salerno? #771782 agrees that “many juveniles are poorly served by declination into the adult system (I cannot honestly claim to be one of them),” yet notes that the argument “‘adult enough for the crime, adult enough for the time’ is far more prevalent among cable-news pundits and vote-lusty politicians than in a courtroom. When deciding whether to try a juvenile as an adult, the court must apply eight factors derived from the Supreme Court’s ruling on Kent v. United States,” and thus the criminal justice system has already nuanced this issue.

As for Gerry Spence’s observation (quoted by Salerno) that “correctional institutions do not correct anything” and that their “only real purpose is to punish people or keep them away from other people,” #771782 notes that this is another false dichotomy: “Punishment is a form of rehabilitation. When you punish your child for playing baseball in the house, it’s not because you get pleasure or a sense of justice from sending him to bed without supper. You simply want to protect your windows. You hope to condition your child to associate unpleasant consequences with the behaviors you’d like to inhibit.”

Many liberals think that conservatives want to just “lock ‘em up and throw away the key,” and that this negates the notion of rehabilitation and correction. Regardless of what liberals and conservatives actually believe and how that differs from what they accuse each other of believing, #771782 runs the thought experiment in a personal way: “I consume around $20,000 every year. I produce nothing. Thus, from a financial perspective, incarcerating me make little sense. To paraphrase Hannibal Lector: Any civilized society would either execute me or put me to some use.” But this isn’t so easy or practical: “Unfortunately, the capability to re-offend increases as we come into contact with more people and resources. What can nourish can kill. How can society calculate the odds of any one individual re-offending? And if I do, the consequences would be irreversible. From the perspective of society and its representatives, it makes sense in cases like mine to play it safe. Throw away the key.”

Taking the thought experiment one step further, #771782 makes this economic calculation with what could be done with the budget currently set aside to feed and house criminals like him: “The world’s resources are limited. Why not allocate them to, say, feed a hundred starving children instead? Would not society be better served? So why not execution? Why not dispose of me and spend the money I consume elsewhere? Posed with this question, I cannot offer any honest defense of my existence.”

So why do we keep murderers like #771782 alive? Emotion. “Rightly or wrongly, people value emotional experiences. One of those experiences is the sense of justice derived from making wrongdoers suffer in proportion to what they’ve made others suffer. Our victims feel good knowing we suffer. The question is what that satisfaction costs.” Consider this economic analogy from #771782:

Compare the complaint over the idleness of inmates to complaints about the inequality of wealth. In a world where wealth is constantly created and destroyed, the income gap is meaningless, provided it’s predicated on consensual trade. However, that matters little, because, as critics point out, unequal wealth promotes social instability. You could view wealth redistribution as the rich paying extortion money to those who have earned less. Likewise, you could classify throwing away the key as a sort of emotional ransom to those who cannot tolerate lighter sentences. Whether these things are logical doesn’t matter. Given our history as a species, we may have to do them simply to maintain social order. You could classify both phenomena as ransoms to our genes.

Ransoming our genes. Whatever else #771782 has been doing in prison, he’s obviously been reading, as these are not the idle scribblings of an uneducated man. But where does it leave us? If we want the perps to suffer as much as their vics, then maybe the death penalty is not the solution since in order to experience suffering you do need to be alive. On the other hand, happiness researches claim that our genetically hard-wired happiness set-point rebounds even after a devastating loss, such as that of a job, marriage, or spouse, and even the loss of freedom through incarceration, so if we abandon the death penalty maybe jail conditions need to be much harsher. Then again, think of the lives that could be saved by investing some of the monies spent on the long-term incarceration of prisoners on AIDS drugs, potable water, food to the starving, or mosquito nets for the malaria infested.

Finally, I think #771782 is on to something important in the notion of restitution. What is the purpose of the criminal justice system? Justice. Whatever else justice is (and it represents a lot of things in our complex society), justice for those who have been wronged should certainly incorporate restitution. The wrongdoer should make restitution for those who have been wronged. The victims of Bernie Madoff may glean some small satisfaction in knowing that he’ll rot away in a tiny cell until he dies, but how does that form of justice help recover their losses from his theft? Surely Madoff could be put to work under tightly controlled conditions doing something useful for society while simultaneously paying back those he wronged. Although the logistics of implementing total restitution for all crimes would be far more complicated than just throwing the wrongdoers in a cell and throwing away the key, it seems to me that at least in principle the goal of total restitution to the wronged is a worthy goal for an advanced civilization like ours.

In the meantime, as I said I remain conflicted on this issue and I’m not sure that science can help us find an answer. It may be a purely political issue that depends on what the majority wants at any given time, which grates on my rationalist sensibilities and our quest for universal principles. Are there any to be found here? Can science at least inform our politics, if not determine them? I invite your comments.


165 Responses to “Thoughts on Prisoner #771782
Science and Criminal Injustice”

  1. Cambias says:

    This is not a science issue, or even a science-related issue. Other than the technology of criminalistics, there is little connection between science and justice. And that is as it should be.

    Science is morally neutral. It is about facts. About what _is_.

    Justice is entirely about morality and ethics — how things _should be_.

    When science starts meddling in how things should be, it corrupts itself. The conclusions start driving the data. This happened in the eugenics movement, it is arguably part of the modern environmental movement, and it is never a good thing.

    Similarly, justice should be based on how we want things to be — the rules we agree to abide by and the penalties we agree to inflict on lawbreakers. The moment justice starts to wrap itself in science, it, too, becomes corrupted. It ceases to be a human institution and becomes a terrifying mechanism. One can appeal a human’s judgement, but there is no appeal beyond scientific facts. Science (at its best) is dispassionate, objective — and merciless. There are no compassionate exceptions from the laws of nature.

    The prisoner who wrote to you sounds very erudite, and I’m sure many of the people who took the opposing view are as well. But this is not a scientific debate, and you dilute the authority of your magazine (and this Web log) by getting involved.

    • Tim says:

      Would you prefer an editor who concealed his biases and thoughts?

    • tmac57 says:

      One definition of ‘Justice’ :”3 : conformity to truth, fact, or reason : correctness”
      I don’t think anyone involved with the justice system should ever lose sight of “facts”,”truth””reason”,or “correctness”, when meting out justice.
      A recent Supreme Court decision ruling that prisoners do not have a constitutional right to DNA testing after their conviction, is an example of the Courts rejection of science as a tool for determining facts and truth, and lamely punting it back to the states to do what ever they saw fit. That may fit their definition of “constitutional”, but it sure lacks the truth,facts,reason, and correctness definition of justice, and lack of justice for an individual, to my mind IS unconstitutional.

      • Tim says:

        Well capital punishment is clearly Constitutional (I know that is not what you said) as capital punishment is stated in the fifth amendment. As for criminals being denied complimentary DNA testing after their conviction, I’m not sure how that would be Unconstitutional. I can understand why that would be bad and why Congress should provide for such testing, but I do not see how something that was not even known about at the signing of the Constitution could be a right. Now obviously you can say that I am arguing application of a concept and not the concept itself which the founders clearly could comprehend (e.g. the freedom of speech is a concept, the internet is an application of that freedom), and you would be right, but still the concept of the state paying for the collection of evidence after a conviction doesn’t appear to be in the Constitution. If you could point out where in the Constitution this concept appears then that would make my evening, but I just don’t see it in there.

      • tmac57 says:

        It would fall under the right to life and liberty. If the state is unfairly depriving a citizen of their right to liberty or preparing to kill them, and there is DNA evidence that would exonerate them, and the state denies the citizen the right to have that evidence examined in order to prove their innocence, then the state is acting in an unconstitutional manner in my opinion. You can debate all day about the technicalities and nuances of what the framers meant in this situation that they could never have envisioned, but ask yourself this:”What if this theoretical person were me, or my loved one?” I have no doubt whatever what yours or anyone else’s answer would be.

      • Tim says:

        The Constitution says that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. You said that after people have received due process and been convicted that the state will not pay for DNA testing. You say this act is Unconstitutional. I agree with you that the state should make new technologies available to those who have been already convicted, but I don’t see how not paying for the test after they have received due process would be Unconstitutional. Morally I agree with you, but I don’t see your legal argument. What Article and section, which amendment? I just don’t see it. I don’t think we could debate about technicalities, nuances, or what the framers “meant” in this situation or any situation. The Constitution says what it says and it doesn’t mean anything except the language that is there. Each framer that voted for the Constitution had their own original intention as for what the Constitution meant to them, what their line of reasoning was, but the text is what they agreed to.

        If you can point out specifically what in the Constitution would require the state to purchase DNA testing for whatever DNA the convict wanted tested and receive stays in sentencing for however long that takes and for however many times he wants it tested, then I’m happy to see it. Apart from the obvious points of sarcasm I really would be glad to see that part of the Constitution which would provide for DNA testing for people already convicted because it would reinforce my position, but I just don’t see it in there.

      • tmac57 says:

        I think that due process could be used as an argument for DNA testing the same way that the appeals process has become part of justice system. I guess what I am saying is that the justice system has not caught up with the science on this yet. By the way, the case before the Supreme court was about an Alaska man convicted of rape, who want himself to pay for the test. The issue was only for access to post conviction evidence, not asking the state to pay for the test. The ruling was 5 to 4 against, so nearly half the court at least agrees with my view of the constitution on this.
        Here is an excerpt from a news article on the case:”Osborne appealed to the federal courts, and the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco recognized a right to such testing under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution.”

      • Tim says:

        Well when the 9th Circus takes a side that is usually cause enough to oppose it. I have trouble seeing how a court would deny an appeal on the grounds that new technology could provide exculpatory evidence. Still, I would think under the current Constitution such an issue would be a matter for the legislature rather than a Constitution granted right. Yes, a good idea, but there is nothing in the Constitution that says that such an appeal must be granted. All courts and the appeals process is left to Congress to decide, only the process is guaranteed.

        Of course the innocence project is proof that you can get DNA testing done after a conviction.

      • tmac57 says:

        Tim, “there is nothing in the Constitution that says that such an appeal must be granted. ” You forget, that 4 of the 9 justices disagree with you on this, and maybe they have a better read on the Constitution than either you or I. One more like minded Justice, and we would not be having this discussion, so at the least, the case was not as cut and dried as you would seem to think.
        “Of course the innocence project is proof that you can get DNA testing done after a conviction.” Apparently not if you live in Alaska, Oklahoma or Massachusetts.

      • Tim says:

        Perhaps 4 out of 9 disagree, but 5 out of 9 agree. Whether they have a better read of the Constitution than you or I, I do not know because I have not researched the decision or read the opinions (if you could state the name of the case I would certainly look into it). However I do know that arguments by authority are BS.

        Again though, not disagreeing with you on substance, but your legal reasoning seems a little hinky.

      • tmac57 says:

        Here is a link to the NPR article which has a link to the decision:

    • John says:

      As skeptics we owe it to ourselves and each other to use language carefully. The word ‘science’ gets tossed around so casually that it is on the verge of losing all meaning (which is why I avoid loaded terms like ‘scientific method’ when I teach it to students)

      Modern science is a systematic endeavor using observations to build and test theories (AKA explanations). The individual scientists, being human, have biases – to overcome individual biases, science requires a community to scrutinize each other’s contributions.

      What makes ‘science’ work is that the community of scientists agree to play by a set of rules to establish admitted evidence, interpretation and inferences (anyone who has ever done research knows that arguments arise from accepting and interpreting experimental results as well as explanatory theories). An individual may be able to convince himself of something but to convince one’s peers requires building solid arguments. BTW: A scientist who ‘cheats’ is usually ejected from the community. [Note: it is true that whole communities of scientists often go down the wrong path but science is self correcting and the next generation will gladly point out the folly of their predecessors.]

      If this were a community of scientists, conducting research into these areas, it would be accurate to describe this as ‘science meddling’ into it. But we’re just a bunch of skeptics applying critical thinking to it… and it’s fair to apply critical thinking to justice. So the problem goes away if we choose our words carefully!

      I’ll end with an anecdote about my father, a mathematician who *hated* _Star Trek’s_ Spock. Every time dad heard Spock’s catch phrase “Highly Illogical” he’d have a conniption, “He doesn’t mean ‘illogical’, he means ‘unreasonable’ – ‘unreasonable’ means it doesn’t make sense, but ‘illogical’ means it doesn’t follow a specific set of rules by which we can ascertain the veracity of a given statement!”

    • fascination says:

      Skeptic magazine does not only feature articles on science. They regularly feature articles on history, religion and social issues as well. So, I don’t see how Shermer’s opinion piece “dilutes the authority” of Skeptic magazine. We should apply our critical thinking skills to all issues not just science issues.

    • Chris says:

      This is absolutely a scientific debate. Science is about facts, and it’s issues that are so easily clouded by emotions left over from our lizard brain which have such impact in our lives that we need science the most. Absolutely nothing is devoid of facts. The greatest scientists among us just found where to look, because it’s not always easy or obvious. Don’t be so arrogant to think that just because you can’t see any facts to observe, they aren’t there. Someone had to realize the world wasn’t flat.

      Take for instance the serial rapist that has an uncontrollable desire to rape and kill women. It’s obvious he’s a sociopath and I’d be willing to bet money there’s a physiological problem that does hinder his free will. Science certainly can help piece this together. Does he have a chemical imbalance. Are there under or overdeveloped sections of his brain? Does any findings match up with other sociopaths? Sure, it’s not has hard and observable as physics – but delving into the complexity of the human mind will only serve to better understand ourselves, and better understand various fields of science.

      For the record, I believe that rapist should either a) be forced to be a guinea pig to whom ever wants to study him (so long as it’s not cruel and unusual – no nazi experiments here) or b) put to death. We don’t have a cure, he obviously can’t control himself, and he’s very dangerous.

  2. Miko says:

    “If we want the perps to suffer as much as their vics”

    Any truly libertarian theory of justice must necessarily start from the recognition that whether “we” want this or not is irrelevant to questions of justice.

    “[The death penalty] may be a purely political issue that depends on what the majority wants at any given time, which grates on my rationalist sensibilities and our quest for universal principles.”

    It’s actually a linguistic issue: if 50%+1 voters approve of it, it’s called the “death penalty.” If at most 50%-1 voters approve of it, it’s called “murder.”

    As for our current system, we have what we have because it works great for prison guards and they have a powerful lobbying arm to make sure things stay that way.

  3. Adam Slagell says:

    You should listen to the Reasonable Doubts podcast on free will and retributive justice. It’s a two part episode and very compelling. It has changed my views on justice.

  4. Cronan says:

    The Italian philosopher Beccaria put it well in 1763 when he argued that the State, by putting people to death, was committing a crime to punish another one. Beccaria cited Montesquieu who stated that “every punishment which does not arise from absolute necessity is tyrannical.”

    It’s not a political issue, it’s about right and wrong.

    Humanity fail.

    • Tim says:

      Ridiculous. If you imprison a kidnapper, are you as guilty as the kidnapper, committing the same crime as him? Of course not. Criminal action involves the initiation of force, not the forceful act itself. If a mad man on the road starts ramming cars with his car, are the cops as guilty as he because they ram his car with theirs?

      Beccaria was wrong. You say the issue is (summarizing) ethics and not politics, but what are politics except the implementation of ethics into some sort of justice system. You are correct that if one is wrong on the justice then one is wrong in their justice system, but I would suggest that both questions are put forward by this blog entry by Mr. Shermer. He says plainly that he is conflicted, it is a position I share in total, about whether it is just to kill a killer and whether our system can be run honestly and effectively enough to administer such justice. Now I do admit to being a fan of Dexter, but I am a bit squeamish about the idea of killing a man. I do not lose any sleep over the execution of Ted Bundy, Saddam Hussein, or Timothy McVeigh, and I have trouble thinking of a system of ethics in which death as a punishment would be completely out of bounds for those who murder. Certainly in our ethics killing somebody in self defense is acceptable as is justifiable homicide (to kill a man raping a woman for example). Once a man is captured, neutralized, and found guilty though it seems more like an issue of politics and aesthetics to me than an issue of ethics or justice.

      Politically I share Mr. Shermer’s reservations. Can a government that can barely run cash for clunkers execute people without accidentally killing innocent people or getting carried away and start killing people for selling weed? Now if you are a “greatest good for the greatest number” person then the question is simply; are the number of innocent people saved by the death penalty greater or lesser than the number of innocent people accidentally killed by the death penalty? I, however, find the idea of deciding what is and what is not a just system based on how pleasant the outcome is to be beyond distasteful, I find it to be unjust. I am more one of those, “do justice and let the heavens fall” types of people. I believe that if you accept that moral premise that outcome can equal justice (or more accurately, hypothetical or perceived outcome can equal justice) then you have abolished the notion of justice and you can do really anything you please so long as you think the outcome will be good for you and whatever people manage to make it into the group of people who you declare ‘count.’ For me the killing of one innocent person on death row is too many and raises enough doubt in itself to call into question the validity of the whole capital punishment system.

      So I’m conflicted. I am not against the death penalty, but I can live without it.

      • fascination says:

        Good post Tim!

      • Pseudonym says:

        For me the killing of one innocent person on death row is too many and raises enough doubt in itself to call into question the validity of the whole capital punishment system.

        Bingo. There was an article in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago which brought up this exact point.

        No statistical argument about the inequity in the capital punishment system, no audits showing how much more expensive capital punishment is than life without parole, no number of prisoners exonerated while on death row will be enough to overturn capital punishment. But it will only take one undoubtedly innocent person to be executed, and there will be no more executions in the United States.

        It looks like it might happen sooner than you think. Look up Cameron Todd Willingham.

  5. Deen says:

    As a libertarian I’m conflicted about the death penalty. On the one hand, from the victims’ families perspective, when it comes to first-degree murder — premeditated and with malice aforethought — my sense is that justice will only be served when the murderer is dead; an eye for an eye.

    I don’t get it. How does your libertarianism lead you to the principle of an eye for an eye? Couldn’t have been your atheism that lead you there either.

    Don’t see how the death of the murderer serves justice either. Justice would be to give the victim’s families their loved ones back. Killing the murderer won’t do that. That sounds more like revenge to me.

    For me, the question of whether to support the death penalty or not is easy: until you can guarantee that no false conviction can ever occur, the death penalty shouldn’t even be considered as an option. No need to even go into the problematical ethics of state-sanctioned killings.

    Locking up irredeemable murderers for life can be defended from the standpoint of protecting society from these people. Of course it would be cheaper to just kill them than to provide for them forever. However, simply killing the murderers, just because it would be more economically prudent seems wrong to me. We don’t let people die on the streets after they got run over, just because that would be cheaper than rushing them to the ER either. Not even if it was their own damn fault that they got run over in the first place.

    What could science do for us? I hope someday psychology and neuroscience will progress to the point where we can not only diagnose, but even cure sociopathy and psychopathy. Maybe we could then reprogram the brain, possibly using brain implants, so that it can feel empathy again, for instance. Or remove dangerous or destructive urges altogether. For now, of course, that’s unfortunately all SciFi. This sort of technology will likely come with its own range of ethical problems as well. Still, this sort of science is what we need if we’re really serious about rehabilitation of criminals, and about protecting society at the same time.

    • Majority of One says:

      I have heard the death penalty referredd to as revenge as well. I disagree. Even incarcerating a person for a crime could be discribed as “revenge.” Giving the person their loved ones back is impossible once they’ve been murdered. Thus why the concept of justice is so difficult to sort out. Out can you get “justice” for someone who has lost a child to murder? Again, anything you do to the “perp” can be considered revenge. I’m for the death penalty in EXTREMELY LIMITED cases…some cited above (Ted Bundy, Saddam, Tim McVeigh, et al). For most others, somehow finding a way to make them work for society seems a better solution. I know it wouldn’t be easy. As either or the author of the article or Michael put it, it’s easier to throw them in a cell and lock the door than figure out how to make them work without giving them further opportunity to offend. This, however, seems to me the best solution. Have them build things, have them grow vegetables and can them for soup kitchens, have them train assistance animals (this is being done in some prisons with great success). This seems more like achieving some kind of “justice”, at least for society as a whole and not just a victim or their family member.

      • Tim says:

        You are confusing justice with restitution. Restitution is a part of justice, but the two are not interchangeable. If a man robs me then justice would not be done if I simply got back what was taken from me. My piece of mind was taken from me, my rights were violated, and for justice to be served there must be punishment for the violator. Can killing a child murder bring back a dead child? No. Restitution is not possible, but justice is not simply restitution or else you would say to just let the killer walk free since there is no restitution possible.

        As for your comment about “society” getting justice, what are you talking about? Are you saying that a man kills my brother then justice is not served until you get some free vegetables from him? How does that make any kind of sense? Why would anybody except the victims and their families get any sort of restitution? What would the criminal be restoring or making whole that was taken away from a third party who by definition had nothing taken from them since they were not a victim? Now if you made a different argument saying that criminals should be forced to work to pay for the expense of their incarceration then that would be a fine argument, but to say that there is some sort of “social justice” is an exploitation of and insult to the very notion of justice.

      • Majority of One says:

        You misunderstood, or I didn’t make myself clear. Canning vegetables was simply an idea to “give them something to do” instead of just sitting around doing nothing, something that might benefit society…it had nothing to do with restituion or the victims.

      • Tim says:

        What is “society” and who gets to speak on its behalf? Why would we want them to do anything? What right would we have to tell them that they are now our slaves because they committed a crime against somebody who is not us? Just speaking practically, surely you can see the slippery slope (a term I have come to hate because it has lost all meaning almost) of saying that if somebody commits a crime then they must work for “society.” If this practice is acceptable, then why not pass more laws? Throw people in jail not just for crimes, but for unpopular hobbies too. After all, who sympathizes with criminals and since they are working for the good of “society” prisons are good places. Surely you can see how this sort of attitude can lead to bad things.

        “it had nothing to do with restituion or the victims.”

        That is kind of my point.

      • Majority of One says:

        I don’t know why I keep responding to you because you keep twisting my words. Picking and canning vegetables could be VOLUNTARY so the prison could choose if he wants to do something instead of sitting around. Why be so negative toward everything I’m saying and take it in the spirit it is intended? Ideas. Just throwing them out. It is hard for me to see where you get a word like slavery from what I have said.

        I don’t hate prisoners. I’m not looking to enslave them or make them do anything. What I said was in response to what someone else said regarding it seems a waste for them to sit around and do nothing. For both them and society.

        The “training assistance animals” program that I also mentioned is voluntary and the prisoners who want to be in the program then have to maintain the priviledge. I was thinking along those lines.

        And, for my purposes I’m using the word “society” to mean the people living in a group within a geographic area, be that a state or a country or the entire world.

      • Deen says:

        Even incarcerating a person for a crime could be discribed as “revenge.”

        That seems to be how a lot of people view it, yes. The sort of people who complain that the prisons are too comfortable, for instance. Clearly, they see prison in the first place as a place of punishment, not as a place of re-education and rehabilitation. They don’t even see it primarily as a place where you keep dangerous people away from society, with as little discomfort to the dangerous people as possible. Just because they’re animals, doesn’t mean we get to be cruel to them.

    • leaford says:

      To me, reprogramming someone’s mind is a greater offense on the part of the State than imposing the death penalty. ANd one with a much more slippery slope. It’s more far-fetched to imagine the death penalty expanded to minor crimes or no crimes at all, then to imagine the state implementing “re-education” policies for minor crimes or for non-criminal ideas and practices the state disapproves of.

    • Anthony O'Neal says:

      And besides, there are plenty of victims families opposed to the death penalty. The only reason Alaska has no death penalty is because of all the victims families they flew up there to speak up about it. The opinion that you should support the death penalty out of respect for the victims verges on absurdity.

  6. Ranson says:

    Shermer says the two words that turned me against the death penalty forever: Innocence Project.

    Given how often it is demonstrated that our justice systems are incompetent or malicious, the though of a penalty that cannot be rescinded chills me. I’ve never heard a good answer to the question, “How many more innocent deaths is a guilty man’s death worth?”

    • Tom says:

      I agree with this point. We all experience outrage when we hear of people unjustly jailed for ten years. That feeling is exponentially worse when innocent people are executed.

      One other point: the inmate’s economic analysis is flawed. It may cost $20k per year to incarcerate him, but it would probably cost $2mm to execute him. Lengthy appeals happen on every death penalty case, even when the defendant wants to die. So, to the degree that an economic justification for execution was ever entertained, it can be dismissed.

  7. Heretic says:

    Ranson nailed it. That’s the only reason I’m against the death penalty. I wrote a paper on it in school, in favor of the death penalty when I started. But I simply couldn’t be at the end. After reading about the incredibly expensive appeals process, and then finding out how desperately needed it was given how many death penalty convictions are overturned, and how many weren’t overturned in time…

    And now after working in the criminal justice field for nearly 10 yrs, I know firsthand how incompetent the system can be. I’m just never going to be comfortable with it.

    Not against it in theory, but the reality is a whole other beast.

  8. John says:

    It seems to me as a practical matter that justice is determined by what society can afford. If we can afford to lock up a criminal and throw away the key while he enjoys cable TV, a gym, better health and dental care than most people get, as well as a library and educational opportunities that inner city kids should (not that they would) calmmor for, then that’s what we do, and we do it even if innocent members of our society are denied benefits or opportunities as a result. That bothers me. If we can’t afford it, the criminal does hard labor that benefits society or he is executed. It bothers me that the state should be able to decide such. Should justice be determined by economics? The practical side of me says yes, and the idealistic side of me says no. I’ll have to give this some long hard thought. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Doug says:

      I happen to work as a mental health clinician in a Texas prison. Believe me, being in prison in Texas is not an easy life. There is no cable TV, limited recreation, no air conditioning in the dorms which get up to 120 degrees F, and the library is very limited and will only allow you one book at a time. The food is awful, the medical care is adequate but far from first rate, and the environment is stressful and dangerous. Prisons do not do a good job of rehabilitation, but they actually do one thing pretty well, which is separate dangerous people from society. And, they are punitive. I don’t know about elsewhere, but I can tell you that it sucks to be incarcerated in Texas.

    • tmac57 says:

      John, while thinking about it, do consider that innocent people go to jail every day, and it could happen to you one day, as unlikely as that seems. There is an irrational mindset that goes something like this: “People would not be arrested and accused of crimes, if they weren’t guilty of something. Jurys are are made up of reasonable people who would never send an innocent person to jail or to be executed. All people in prison are criminals, and bad people, and deserve to be there.”
      All of those statements are demonstrably false of course, but sometimes we forget because “Hey, its no one I know”…until it is.

      • Tim says:

        Quite true. For a refresher course in this very true statement I would suggest re-watching the first two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which they deal with that mentality rather explicitly. For the death penalty there is a book by Christopher Hitchens, “Letters to a Young Contrarian” which has a chapter dedicated to the death penalty being applied to a mentally disabled man who, when given what he was told was his last meal, saved the Pecan Pie dessert “for latter.” He had a few choice words for then Governor Bill Clinton who deliberately refused a stay of execution in order to look tough on crime for the New Hampshire primary.

        Good post tmac.

      • Majority of One says:

        Yes. This is where the death penalty is truly tragic. I’m from Arkansas and I remember several such cases of low IQ prisoners being executed. They were poor and in most cases black. I’ve also seen statistics that show the poor and minorities are executed in far higher numbers than are middle class and white. If you’re going to have something as severely punitive as the death penalty, it should be fairly applied. One guy shouldn’t be executed in one state when in another, he would be eligible for parole in 15 years for the exact same offense.

      • Tim says:

        So what would you suggest, kill more white people because they are white? Also, are you saying that the federal government should eliminate the right of each State to make their own laws and punishments according to the will of the people of those States (within a Constitutional framework)?

      • Majority of One says:

        There wasn’t a reply button under yours so I will simply add my response to your question: “So, should we execute more white people?”

        What???? How do you jump to that conclusion from what I said??? Don’t execute ANYONE and that would be a better solution, now wouldn’t it?? I’m a bit perplexed at your vitriol toward what I stated.

  9. Nexus says:

    The prisoner himself just gave a reason why the logistical nature of a death penalty is morally wrong:

    “I, on the other hand, can never resurrect those I’ve killed. I’m vile enough to take a life, but not smart enough to restore it. Society recognizes this, and incorporates it into the criminal justice system.”

    Are those who work within the justice system also capable of taking a life… and likewise capable of considering the same fact so well stated above, that is, that they too are unable to resurrect a life, whether it be the prisoners’ or his victims? Does his death rectify the death of his victims? I think not.

  10. teacherninja says:

    A great thoughtful and thought-inducing post! I look forward to reading the comments that come in…

  11. LovleAnjel says:

    “I am not against the death penalty, but I can live without it.”

    This pretty much sums it up for me. If the justice system were perfect, I would have no problem. If even one innocent person gets executed, then it’s not worth it.

    I think we need to keep people who ‘deserve’ capital punishment around, if for no other reason than to learn from them. What made them do what they did? Was there some form of intervention that could prevent it? We won’t know why socio- and pyschopaths do what they do if we keep bumping them off.

  12. The death penalty is irreversible, and that’s reason enough for me to be against it (although there are many others).

  13. MadScientist says:

    Depending on the crime, you may give prisoners opportunities to work and that does happen. It’s a tricky situation though because you never know if someone’s likely to take tools or material and what they can do with it. From the point of view of a business, it is also difficult to imagine any economic benefit; the greatest benefit may be for the morale of the prisoner. You need to train people for the skills you want and they need to be genuinely interested to do a good job. Outside the prisons you just put out an ad; however, it is often very difficult to find the right people from the free population; I don’t see that it would be any easier within a prison.

    People are not opposed to the death penalty because they like to see criminals rot in jail; of the numerous reasons people have I never encountered anyone who said they’re opposed because they want to see prisoners suffer. Most people are neither victims of serious crime nor masochistic.

    Can science help inform how prisons are run? Perhaps there are niches where science can get involved; otherwise it’s really a social experiment in progress. People involved come up with new ideas and may be able to get the support to try something. Nothing happens quickly; aside from the huge task of getting support for an idea, there are also existing regulations which you must work within or amend. The evangelists for example work with the existing conditions that absolutely anyone can visit most prisoners. Things do change at a glacial pace, but you only need to read factual accounts of prisons over the past few hundred years to see how things have changed.

    • JGB says:

      “Can science help inform how prisons are run?”


      One crucial aspect of science is interpreting data and drawing inferences from. Any time we want to form policy based on empirical evidence we must make effective interpretations and draw good inferences from it.

  14. rustlemeup says:

    It’s always a little bit jarring to open up Skepticblog to find one of Mr. Shermer’s essays on politics, economics or philosophy instead of something relating to science. Otherwise, the site is still a breath of fresh air.

  15. Tuffgong says:

    I willingly admit my own bias here because I also happen to agree with a lot of libertarian ideas and most of Shermer’s ideas politically I can agree with. He already addressed this bias in agreeing politically with someone as seeing it is just “right”. That’s just a fair admission.

    “Can science at least inform our politics, if not determine them?”

    I think is is a very important point because too often people have kept scientific ideas and principles separate from things other than the natural world. That’s the reason social science isn’t getting that definitive respect that other, more established fields receive.

    I guess I didn’t want to say it but being a skeptic and scholar in the sciences for as long as I have (i’m only 17), I don’t see how science SHOULD be kept separate from more socially subjective areas. Science and skepticism surely has steered me in a certain direction politically that hasn’t done me wrong yet and as long as I (and Shermer), can keep himself in check, I don’t see why people cry bloody murder at the sight the word “libertarian”.

    As far as the article is concerned, I find that considering the theory with the practical is important and understanding the limitation of the system as well as things like the Innocence Project generally should relegate the Death Penalty as an exception.

    However I think the death penalty could work much better for someone who has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have comiitted the severe crime that warrants a severe punishment. I don’t think eliminating the option will solve anything. I think fixing how we handle the death penalty is much more preferable to the sexy alternative of social action and definitive conclusion (ie banning it).

  16. Scott Carnegie says:

    While this may not be a science issue, it can be a critical thinking and logic issue, and that is part of being a skeptic. For example, killing a killer seems hypocritical to me, why is it bad for an individual to kill, but okay for a state (a collection of indivudals) to kill? I don’t think it is, seems inconsistent to me.

    • MadScientist says:

      It gets even trickier as with all moral issues. If I saw a nut out in public and shooting people, if I had my rifle on me you could bet I’d shoot the nut and I wouldn’t feel bad about it either. If people are so whacked that they’re happy to kill without provocation, I’ve got nothing against getting rid of them. For me one of the greatest issues is convicting and executing people without good hard evidence that they’ve committed the crime they’re accused of. I don’t care if the cops framed someone who’s really horrible and whom no one wants – killing the wrong person is a crime in itself and to compound that problem, the criminal you really wanted is still wandering free. Unfortunately history shows that there are quite a few wrong convictions.

      • Majority of One says:

        Killing a killer is not hypocritical. It is self defense. I look at the death penalty for the most heinous criminals as SOCIETY’S self defense. Killing Hitler, Saddam, Pol Pot, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, etc. is simply a society protecting itself.

        The death penalty is wrong when it is misapplied or when it is imposed on an innocent person and isn’t necessary when society is in grave danger from the person. So, your average wife killer, like Scott Peterson, isn’t really that great a danger to society as a whole. Or Pamela Smart, who is on death row for getting a bunch of kids to kill her husband. She didn’t even actually do the killing. That is definitely a case of revenge in my opinion. People don’t like her because she’s an extreme narcissist and extremely unlikeable but those kids didn’t have to go through with it. They had a choice. She would probably have dropped it and finally divorced the guy if they hadn’t killed him.

        Anyway, it is not a simple issue.

      • JGB says:

        “Killing a killer is not hypocritical. It is self defense. I look at the death penalty for the most heinous criminals as SOCIETY’S self defense.”


        If a killer enters your house and you subdue him and then execute him – that is NOT self defense, as he is no longer a threat.

        Likewise, if someone enters your house, murders a loved one and bolts, it isn’t self defense for you to pursue him down the street and shoot him in the back.

        With a good lawyer, you may get away with it, but it isn’t self defense.

      • Majority of One says:

        Again, context. I’m limiting the death penalty to the Ted Bundys of the world. I’m in complete agreement with you. If some individual busted into my house to steal my TV or even to rape and kill me, I’m not a murderer so I would do my best to defend my self and property without lethal force. However, in the case of Ted Bundy, he killed how many women? I think in this case and a few VERY SELECT OTHERS, it is reasonable for society to defend itself by putting these people to death. Big difference here, at least from my point of view.

  17. Heretic_twit says:

    To belabor the obvious: How many innocents must be crucified (and to have the death penalty at all means there will be some) in order to get the few truly heinous for their acts?

    One is too many.

    Death Penalty is mere revenge by a barbarous people.

    • Tim says:

      A simplistic and elitist opinion.

      • Lee Harrison says:

        A dismissive and unexplained reply.

      • Tim says:

        Dismissive? You bet. Unexplained? Hardly.

        The fact that I could rebut his argument in so few words may be embarrassing for him, but his argument is practically self-refuting. First, he confuses the very notion of justice by suggesting that two wrongs can negate a right; that if an innocent man is convicted and then killed then that somehow effects a guilty man and his punishment is therefore negated. Second, he describes proponents of the death penalty in true strawman fashioned by describing them according to intentions he wish they had. He replaces rational thought by placing himself above (or more accurately placing other people below) others with his

        Simplistic and elitist opinion.

    • leaford says:

      “One is too many.”

      I’d agree that even one is too many; but is that unacceptable?

      Perhaps it is a tragic, but necessary price. Much like even one death or serious injury from vaccine side effects is too many, but we accept those rare adverse reactions as the unavoidable price we pay for all the good vaccines do.

      • tmac57 says:

        “but we accept those rare adverse reactions as the unavoidable price we pay for all the good vaccines do.”
        This is a false analog, in that to prevent additional deaths by a murderer you need not execute them. Also the execution is a direct action to end a life (also unnecessary to achieve the desired outcome). Any deaths resulting from a vaccine are inadvertent, and we try to prevent them as much as possible, but some unfortunately will occur. The choice would be to either vaccinate and accept a few deaths or not and have many,many more deaths. With the death penalty, you either choose the death directly, or incarcerate for life, but the outcome of preventing further deaths is almost the same (murders do occur in prison, but those also could be prevented with proper incarceration).

      • Tim says:

        I disagree from the place where you are coming from. The issue is not to vaccinate or not vaccinate people, but whether to vaccinate or not vaccinate yourself and your children. The issue is not a numbers game saying that more people will die if not vaccinated than vaccinated, but an individual choice made based on the probability that YOU will die or your child will die. To start with the former premise would be to irradicate the very notions of morality, individuality, and liberty and to simply treat people as cogs in a machine. The issue is not how many people will die if you don’t give them vaccines, but what is the probability that you will die if you don’t take the vaccine. Obviously you should take the vaccine and give your children the vaccine because the probability of negative outcomes increases without the vaccine.

        A prisoner can escape from their jail cell, they cannot escape from their grave. The deterence effect as well as the fact that a killer cannot kill once killed have been well documented (although I know how easily statistics can be manipulated when statistics is all you have to go on for information). Ted Bundy for example escaped from prison and killed a Sorority House filled with young girls. Those deaths would not have happened if Ted Bundy had been executed earlier. Important to note though, nobody is responsible for those murders except Mr. Bundy himself. The questions before us are: 1, is it ethical to kill a killer once convicted? 2, when forming a political system (and all its apparatus including a justice system) is it possible to institutionalize a system of execution in which the flaws do not outweight the benefits or goal?

        I would say yes to one, no to two.

      • tmac57 says:

        Tim, you missed the point of leaford’s analogy, which was that there was some sort of equal comparison between the acceptance of a few innocent people being put to death in order to reduce the threat to society vs accepting the few deaths caused by vaccination to reduce the threat to society. There is no rational or moral equivalence to those two scenarios. Please re-read my response with that in mind. Also, I think that it is quite clear that if all vaccination were ceased today, millions of deaths would result. You cannot make the same claim for ceasing the death penalty. I agree some more deaths could occur, but I think the deterrent effect is still an open issue:
        “A recent study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology reported that 88% of the country’s top criminologists surveyed do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide. Eighty-seven percent of them think that the abolition of the death penalty would not have a significant effect on murder rates and 77% believe that “debates about the death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime problems.” “. Also, not that it matters, but Ted Bundy escaped from the Glenwood Springs Co. jail,which is arguably less secure than a prison, and he was not yet a convicted murderer. He was still awaiting trial

      • Tim says:

        You’re right tmac, I did miss the point there. I didn’t realize that he was making such an absurd argument. Obviously I agree with you, to equate a punishment for a crime with possible consequences of a voluntary behavior to prevent disease is obscene.

        I was objecting to the approach however. Namely the collectivist approach used to talk about people as though we were not individuals and to simply be looked at in terms of having things done to us was my main objection. I would certainly also object to argument by authority and argument by popularity which you made when arguing that the opinions of criminologists made fact and that a majority of them were opposed to the death penalty.

        A reasonable critique?

      • tmac57 says:

        “A reasonable critique?” Absolutely, in the contex that I used the reference: “I think the deterrent effect is still an open issue”. I was not asserting that the source was the final word on it, just that they had expertise which is a valid use of argument from authority.See this from Wiki:”On the other hand, arguments from authority are an important part of informal logic. Since we cannot have expert knowledge of many subjects, we often rely on the judgments of those who do. There is no fallacy involved in simply arguing that the assertion made by an authority is true, the fallacy only arises when it is claimed or implied that the authority is infallible in principle and can hence be exempted from criticism”
        Also, the fact that the source that I cited were arguably experts in their field (ie “the country’s top criminologists “), would disqualify this as an ad populam argument( also the fact that I never asserted that their belief was absolutely true, only evidence for questioning whether the death penalty is truly a deterrent).

  18. Hermanvv says:

    I thought I had to reply to this topic. I live in a country where the death penalty was abolished about two decades ago. In that time, the whole justice system was changed. We incorporated one of the most advanced constitutions in the world, with one of the most incompetent justice systems. (Prison overcrowding, too few police, incompetent judges, corruption, bribery, years of backlogs on court cases, etc.) This causes rapist, murderers and other criminals to get off scot-free, due to bureaucratic blunders. There have been many cases where murderers and rapists were caught, only to be set free on a few dollars bail (and I mean really little, in some cases $20-$50), who then go out to rape and kill again.
    Now wouldn’t “justice” be to put a bullet in the head of someone like that? (A convicted murder). We, as a society, shouldn’t pay him to live a few years in prison only to be released for “good behaviour”. Shouldn’t, for instance, Phillip Garrido just be taken to a hole in the ground and shot?
    I am aware of the technical difficulty in a system of law, but currently, as it is practices in my country, it is nowhere near justice.

    • tmac57 says:

      Yeah, thats the ticket. Kill ‘em all, then let “?” sort it out! How about working to correct the problems within your justice system instead?

    • JGB says:

      “Now wouldn’t “justice” be to put a bullet in the head of someone like that?”

      No. That would be expediency.

    • Doug says:

      Letting people who are guilty get away with crime is not justice. For one thing, innocent citizens are victimized by criminals who should have already been incarcerated. While I agree that it is barbaric to take an overly punitive approach–and the death penalty probably is exactly that–we have to keep in mind that not protecting innocent people is also a failure on the part of the justice system.

  19. Mark. says:

    As always in debates about the administration of a society the United States falls way short of the spin it projects to the rest of the world as the haven of the poor and the true bastion of democracy and justice.
    Whilst I’m an atheist I find it an amazing piece of hypocrisy that a society where Christianity and Christian values form the cornerstone of the belief structure, that one of the basic directions within the “text book” of the beliefs is ignored. “Thou shall not kill”…
    Capital punishment is state sanctioned Murder, yet all those politicians who wave the religious flag happily send people to die to satisfy their Christian constituents wishes. And I’m the savage in their eyes because I’m Godless!!!
    In Australia our judges are appointed by the agreement of both houses of the State Parliament, not voted in via a popular ballot. This separates the law makers from the law interpreters, making for a fairer system. Yes we get calls by the misinformed masses that we must have tougher sentences, mandatory sentences and the grand daddy..the death penalty. But such misinformed emotive comment must not have an influence on the judicial system, the effects of which are plain to see in the US where knee jerk popularist law making leads to the prospect of a waste disposal justice system. Maybe if humanity in general began working on a much more logical and scientific basis rather than the combination of religious zealotry and the “greed is good” doctrine of economics, we could begin to solve the social problems that lead to high crime statistics.

    • MadScientist says:

      Well, that’s “thou shalt not kill” willy-nilly. If god tells you to kill (which he frequently does in the bible) then you have to go kill. God also says stone prostitutes to death, stone apostates, kill your son if he’s rude to you, etc. So killing, and indeed murder rape and pillaging on god’s command, is not at all in conflict with the Good Book. It is a very good book indeed for neurotic killers.

      • Tim says:

        Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
        Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
        God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
        God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
        The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
        “Well,” Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
        God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

      • mark says:

        Yet again another mistake the supposedly infalliable God made..Say thou shall not kill, then exort your “chosen” people to kill. Personally I think this “Being” makes Hitler and Stalin look like nice fun guys.

    • MadScientist says:

      Oh, not all judges in the USA are elected either; many (if not most) are appointed. The systems also vary from state to state because we have a federal as well as a state legal system – but you’ll have to ask someone who works the system for the gory details; I can never remember half of it.

      • mark says:

        We too have a federal and state system…Both has the appointment Judges to the various benches of the judicial system via a 2/3 majority of both houses of parliament. Once appointed they can’t be removed, such is the independance of the judiciary under our constitution.

    • leaford says:

      Ah, but it doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not Kill,” it says, “Thou shalt not Murder.” The bible clearly does not consider the death penalty murder, since it specifically prescribes the death penalty for a HUGE variety of “crimes.”

  20. Rich says:

    I may not lead a typical life, but my days consist of work and sleep. I am self employed, and have been for twenty years. I wake up, I go to work, I have a couple of food breaks (I read a few blog posts); fifteen, or sixteen, hours later, I go to sleep. The next day I do the same thing again, seven days a week. I work hard, but it hasn’t killed me…yet. How about a system where prisoners do the same. They work every waking hour of their day, every single day. It is a punishment, it is constructive it leaves little, or no, time for social groups/rivalries/criminal activities to emerge. Any money made from the prisoners’ work will go towards paying for the secure incarceration of the prisoner. Any remaining money will be distributed to the victims/relatives of the victims. The prisoner will make no financial gain, but will accrue skills and knowledge that will be of benefit in the outside world on release. Prisoners who are deliberately non-productive could be compelled to give up a substantial proportion of their income, collected as a prisoner tax, on release into the community.

    • William Gwynne says:

      The problem with prisoners working is that their employer receives a cost-free workforce.

      How would you feel if you suddenly had a competitor with a massive workforce being paid cents-per-hour? Not to mention most overheads (rent, power, food, lodging etc) covered by state. No insurance or health contributions.

      Funnily enough, most businesses dislike the idea. Hence prison industries supply internal needs, market niches that can be covered entirely (licence plates), items of subjective value (handmade furniture, souvenirs).

      “Pay-for-prison” is a well-established practice (historically). The basic assumption is that one must pay for prison in order to be released. Often combined with requirement to pay-as-you-go. If you couldn’t, you simply starved to death. This sort of approach in England was a major contribution to many leaving for USA, Australia, Canada etc. How lovely to re-introduce! How far we have come! (And it IS being reintroduced in parts of USA, so far as I know).

      Why not go all the way? Historically, prison staff were unpaid: they had to extract their earnings (and all prison costs) from the prisoners. This generally required artful skills in extortion (from family and friends). Of course, the wealthy paid extra to have their own staff attend them. And the poor and isolated died.

      You forgot to mention forced organ transplants. Or burning prisoners for fuel.

      Work 16×7 – FOR YOURSELF.
      You are special if you can do that for 20 years.
      Be thankful most of us can’t. Otherwise, you’d need to rely on your knowledge and intelligence to be ‘special’. Which I suspect you have neglected for some time.

  21. William Patrick Haines says:

    Iam no Libertarian by any means but even an busted analog clock is right at lease twice a day . Yes for one thing this war on drugs which has not detered any from drug usage or sucessfull rehabiltated any either I am not for recreational usage but this social problem oughht to treated as a health problem
    Also the three srikes aside from being gimmicky catch phrase often puts people away for petty offenses instead of serving justice Ironicly you get better service at some greasy spoon . Not to mention how privately run prisions also caused problems .

  22. Like Michael, I was for many years conflicted about the death penalty. I finally constructed an three-fold argument as to why I was ethically obligated to oppose it:

    1) The possibility of error leading to the horror of the execution of innocents.

    2) The possibility of redemption during incarceration (even if it is for life) and making some positive contribution to society; #771782 seems to be taking steps along this path.

    3) The issue of punishment – I would argue that life in prison can in many cases be an equal, or even greater, punishment than execution.

    Of these arguments, (1) is by far the most persuasive.

  23. I J Dubois says:

    Let’s talk about prisoner #771782 for a moment. Having committed his crime at age 14, a child, he is less guilty than a man of 25, 35, more, who committed the same crime. He’s obviously bright, but sounds totally brainwashed into believing that there was never any chance of intervention for him. I am not saying he should not be in prison, I am saying that he has lost sight of his own age at the time of his crime. Who brought him up? What compulsions or mental disorders did he suffer from?

    And on the subject of “bright,” I think juries need to be intelligence tested. High school drop outs should not be allowed to serve. For other obvious reasons, 18-year-olds should not be allowed to serve. Look at the original OJ Simpson jury. It ranged from 25% high school drops out way up to one college drop out. Whose “peers” were they? They certainly never represented a cross section of American society.

    • leaford says:

      I think you misunderstand what they mean by a jury of your “peers.” ;-)

      It doesn’t mean one’s socio-economic peers, just that it is a jury of fellow citizens. OTOH, if it DID mean one’s socio-economic peers, a large percentage of convicted criminals, if not most, ARE high school dropouts, so a jury full of them WOULD likely be the defendant’s “peers.”

  24. Dan Lynch says:

    Apropos of the whole discussion – “The lottery” a short story by Shirley Jackson from half a century ago. Also, a TV program I dimly remember with no time to research.

  25. Alberto Villasmil Raven says:

    It is good that you are being skeptic about your own country. While you are at it, consider that your country also abuses a whole continent by disrectfully appropriating the name of the continent for itself. “America” is the name of our continent that goes from Northern Canada to Tierra del Fuego. By calling yourself “America” and disregarding the ohter inhabitants of the continent ( they don’t exist? would be typical) you manage to insult and offend more than 500 million people who share the continent with your country.

    • Tim says:

      Blah blah blah blah blah. Trivial nonsense that has nothing to do with anything.

    • Majority of One says:

      Oh my god, really??? Fellow Americans, oh sorry, I mean my fellow United States of Americans…

      Whev (that’s short for whatever) just like “America” is short for United States of America.

      Your country has a name. Canada, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Guatamala, etc. do I need to go on?


    • leaford says:

      I’ve had this conversation with a lot of Latin American friends. You don’t realize the history. After the revolution, the 13 former colonies were each independant nations, States in every sense of the word, only “united” in a loose confederation. It wasn’t until about 13 years later (IIRC) that they ratified the Constitution. So then they became a union of States in America, a union of the ONLY independant States existing in America at the time. SO, you see, The United States of America was an accurate name. Perhaps a bit too on the nose, but not inaccurate. ;-)

  26. Marc Schneider says:


    Oh, please stop it. Is this what you spend your time obsessing about? You call this “abuse”? Whatever the merits of that argument, it’s been settled for several hundred years. Americans aren’t going to stop calling the country America, so just get on with your life and stop whining about something that does not effect you one iota. Maybe if you and the inhabitants of the continent spent more time worrying about your own countries and less time worrying about how the U.S. refers to it, you might be better off.

    And, frankly, while I’m not conservative, I get a bit tired of people bashing the US over and over as if we are Nazi Germany. Yes, we are a flawed nation and we tend to preach to the rest of the world that we are perfect. But we also see the counter-idea from the rest of the world, ie, that anything that Europeans or Australians, or whomever, do is necessarily superior. It’s not clear to me why Mark even feels the need to comment on American institutions. I’m sure he would not like it if I decided to weigh in on Australia.

    It’s interesting that Mark’s problem seems to be a certain disdain for democracy. I get a sense that he thinks policy shouldn’t be the province of the ignorant masses, let the experts decide. There is certainly something to be said for the argument that democracy is problematic, but you should at least acknowledge that what you are saying is essentially anti-democratic. The point is, there are arguments for and against electing judges, for example, but this idea that Austrailia’s system is natually “fairer” is no more valid than the US pushing our institutions on anyone else.

    As for the death penalty, I have no moral qualms about executing deserving people. I think people can forfeit their right to life. I think the world is well rid of Timothy McVeigh. However, given the lack of deterrent effect and the obvious flaws in applying the death penalty, we should, at the very least, make it much more difficult to apply.

    But I’m tired of seeing Shermer and others bash the government. Yes, the government could be run better and more effectively. But your version seems to be to eliminate government and let people fend for themselves. Libertarianism is simply a return to the state of nature.

    • Tim says:

      I disagree (with the last paragraph, as well as some parts of the other paragraphs, but the last paragraph in particularly). I am not tired of seeing Mr. Shermer being skeptical of government, I do not think the government could be run better or more effectively, Mr. Shermer’s view is not to eliminate government and have people fend for themselves, and libertarianism is not simply a return to the state of nature. If you are tired of Mr. Shermer commenting on his blog about government then simply stop reading (and commenting on) it and that problem will seize to bother you. The government cannot be run better than it is now or else they would be running it better. The flaws in government are inherent, they are hardwired into the system which is why it never seems to work. The government deals in force, not reason, therefore they have no reason to understand anybody’s problems, concerns, or anything for that matter and so they don’t which results in inefficiencies and injustices. Mr. Shermer does not believe in eliminating government (nor does libertarianism), he believes in limiting the role of government to protecting our rights. Our rights are the right to life, liberty, and property (don’t kill me, don’t violate me, don’t rob me). Basically, no person may use force or coercion against another person (or more accurately, no person may initiate force). The role of the government in the view of Mr. Shermer (and libertarianism) is to make sure that people only deal with each other only in terms of reason and persuasion. So libertarianism is not the return to nature, it is the preservation of civilization. The other ideologies and philosophies are a return to the state of nature, the state of man where he feels he can take anything from anyone so long as he feels he is entitled to it. The only difference between barbarism and socialism is that in socialism there is one centralized tyrant instead of every man his own tyrant. Liberty is no tyrants.

      • JGB says:

        Government never seems to work?

        Just because it does things you don’t like doesn’t mean it isn’t working – it just means some of it isn’t working how you’d like.

        All democracies and republics are reflections of the people. This is as true at the federal level as the municipal level. When enough people bitch about a problem the government takes action (or the people throw them out and put in people who will take action). Sometimes the action is good enough, sometimes it isn’t. It is usually a compromise and never perfect.

        If the people bitching at the government are irrational, the government will do irrational things. Blaming the government for doing what the people want is denial – ultimately, the voters get the government they deserve.

        Libertarian, Republican or Democrat, I think we’d all be better off realizing that everything the government has (money, power, authority, goals, problems, unrealistic views) comes from us.

      • Tim says:

        Indeed the government does derive its power from the people, but the reason that Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians are all separate entities is because they do not all agree with that premise. Libertarians believe that premise, Republicans and especially Democrats reject that premise (not explicitly, but their philosophical premises contradict this principle you stated).

        As for the government working, I was not talking about whether or not the government was doing the things I consider ethical and proper, but I actually was speaking to the efficacy, efficiency, and effectiveness of their operations. From long lines at the Secretary of State (DMV), to waiting lists and poor care at the VA, to abysmal care from the Bureau of Indian affairs, to (the topic at hand) accidentally putting innocent people on death row, to running social security as a Ponzi scheme, to billions of dollars and double digit waste/fraud at Medicare and Medicaid, to stimulus money finding its way to dead people and prison inmates, to cash for clunkers still failing to compensate car dealers, etc., etc., etc.

        As for the government doing what the people want, I think you are being a bit naive. Apart from that though, simply because the government reflects the wishes of a majority doesn’t make the government moral or good at its job.

      • Lee Harrison says:

        This statement, “The government cannot be run better than it is now or else they would be running it better” is simply hilarious. What simple trust you show in the governments competency…

        And this one: “Basically, no person may use force or coercion against another person (or more accurately, no person may initiate force). The role of the government in the view of Mr. Shermer (and libertarianism) is to make sure that people only deal with each other only in terms of reason and persuasion.” Why do so few of the libertarians I have encountered on the internet (with the admitted exception of our host) think through the consequences of their arguments? So the role of the government is to ensure that we the people deal in terms of reason? And how do they ‘make sure’ of that, if not with the power (force) and implied threat (force) of the state?

        “So libertarianism is not the return to nature…” I would certainly agree with this. It is, instead, a continuance of laissez faire, ‘I’m alright and screw anyone else’ capitalism. It is stagnation, the ultimate conservatism, with little room for social progress.

      • Tim says:

        I have no idea why you are laughing, but I’m sure it is a defense mechanism. When you address the argument I’ll be happy to reply to that argument.

        Paragraph two is incoherent. I make clear that the purpose of the use of force is to prevent, stop, and punish the initiation of force. I make clear not just in my statement, but actually in the part that you quote, that the point of government is to use force and the said reasons are the only legitimate reasons. For you to just say that I said “no force at all” is simply wrong, and demonstratably so.

        Paragraph 3, you made no argument, just accusation. One, continuation of laissez faire? Are you kidding me? This statement is beyond ignorance and become the active rejection of reality. The closest America ever came to laissez faire was over 100 years ago during a brief period from the end of slavery to the beginning of the 20th century. The best modern examples of capitalism are Hong Kong, Macau, Monaco, Estonia, and several others with far more regulation and taxation than those states which include the United States, Japan, South Korea, etc.

        As for the notion of stagnation resulting from freedom, here I laugh. History disproves this statement. Apply your logic, think it through, investigate where it has been applied. Soviet Union, North Korea, China (although since the 1970’s they’ve moved towards capitalism), Ghana, Vietnam, Cuba, etc. Think of the morality of what you are saying. That person has more than me, I’m going to rob him. In what way is this act moral? Apply it beyond property. “That man has more women than me…” complete the rest. Is it moral? Iran practices the latter in actually having state sanctioned rape. What you are advocating is an ethical view of the world in which the INITIATION of force is a moral act. I think you will find that no amount of demagoguing freedom (or capitalism, the term coined by Karl Marx to demagogue freedom) will change the immorality of your philosophy.

      • Lee Harrison says:

        First, the hilarity is all yours – you ask me to address an argument instead of laughing – where was the argument? You made a ridiculously naive statement that the government would be better if it could be. That’s not an argument. It’s a belief, and I found it funny.

        Second – ‘incoherent’ I do not think that word means what you think it means.

        I did not state that stagnation results from freedom. I said that stagnation of social progress results from the selfishness of libertarian capitalism (read it agin, for comprehension this time). So you choose to equate libertarian political positions with ‘freedom’. Well, it makes for decent sound bites when speechifying, I guess…

        Yes, I know that the former Soviet Union now has more freedom than it had. Was it libertarian philosophies that accomplished this, or more reasonable steps? Also, there is a very large difference between a state with social welfare provisions paid for via taxation, and a communist state, so I hope you are not trying to draw an equivalence there (I can’t really tell since the quality of the communication in this paragraph breaks down to the point where I can also feel your spittle hitting screen as you type…).

        You also define taxation for social welfare as ‘robbery’. That tells me more than I’d like to know (read again the bit about ‘screw you, I’m alright’). You are also quick to portray the needy in a society as selfish robbers, given the subject of your ridiculously hyperbolic and preachy ‘morality’ play in the last half of the paragraph.

      • Lee Harrison says:

        On the ‘laissez faire’ point – are you really saying that the aggressively deregulated/ unregulated/ under-regulated US does not count as an example of laisez faire capitalism just because it’s not laissez faire enough for you personally?

        Have you not been paying attention to the current financial situation and its causes?

  27. Tom Clark says:

    “Hardship does not negate free will. Madoff and I could have chosen to be decent human beings rather than what we are.”

    So the question arises, why *didn’t* he choose to be decent? Any coherent, science-based answer to that question will involve the particular causal story behind prisoner #771782 and his choices. To suppose that he could have become a decent human being given those causes is magical thinking, the belief that human beings aren’t fully caused in their character and behavior. But all the evidence suggests they are. Anyone who considers themselves scientific, including Shermer and prisoner #771782, should repudiate the idea of contra-causal free will when thinking about how we might reform criminal justice. I’ll reiterate Adam Slagell’s suggestion above: have a listen to the Reasonable Doubts podcasts on free will, determinism and retribution, episodes 29, 30 and 34.

    • leaford says:

      Nonsense. Circumstances and experiences beyond our control absolutely influence us, but they don’t shape us; how we choose to react and respond to those circumstances is what shapes us. My brother and I grew up in the same circumstances, but we made different choices. As a result, he has a record, and I don’t. If his actions aren’t caused by his choices, but by his circumstances, what then of me?

      • Lee Harrison says:

        You’re ignoring the role of genes (yours are different from your brother’s, after all) and making an argument from one personal anecdote instead of looking to the broader scale population/probabilities.

        You say, “Circumstances and experiences beyond our control absolutely influence us, but they don’t shape us; how we choose to react and respond to those circumstances is what shapes us.” Then how exactly do they influence us? And isn’t how we have been shaped a factor in our reactions and ‘choices’?

      • leaford says:

        All you are doing is arguing that free will is an illusion. It’s rhetorical nonesense.

        You can talk about statistics and “probability” (whether based on demographics or genetics) all you like, but those only describe what HAS ALREADY happened; they have NO predicative power when it comes to the individual.

        Every individual is faced with choices, and has the power to choose one way or the other. Some make one choice, some another. Genetics or demographics may make you more likely to choose one over another, but they cannot determine it.

        Identical twins raised together still typically have different preferences, choose different careers, different types of spouses (in looks and/or personality), and if one commits a crime there’s no guarantee the other will, too.

        ANy argument based on “probabilities” as if they were determanistic is just rhetorical nonesense, just like arguing there is no material reality because you can’t be sure your senses aren’t illusionary. Pure nonsense.

      • Lee Harrison says:

        Someone sounds defensive…

        Please explain what you think a choice is and how exactly it is contracausal (ie not effected by events preceding it).

        You describe the ‘free will is an illusion’ position as rhetorical nonsense. This is merely an assertion – and all of your handwaving around the problem of induction over the next paragraph doesn’t actually change that.

        As for the identical twins – yes, they do have different personalities. No one is at all surprised by this given how complex personalities are. What you have completely avoided is just how very similar they are compared to fraternal twins raised together, who themselves are more similar than siblings of different ages raised together.

        I did not say that probabilities are deterministic, and your final paragraph is a lovely strawman, held firmly upright by that wonderful false equivalency of the last line. The only time I mentioned probabilities was in pointing out that yoy chose to rely on a personal anecdote (a single unverified case) and missed the forest for the lovely tree.

      • Lee Harrison says:

        You also didn’t answer my question: what do you mean when you say that circumstances influence us? How do they do that? To what extent? And do you have any evidence to support your case in general?

        You did the same when originally replying to Tom – you did not actually address his points, you huffed out ‘nonsense’ and then provided an anecdote bolstered by some loose definitions of key words.

  28. Bob Sanner says:

    I am quite disenchanted with Skeptic’s publishing of this article. It is political, has nothing to do with skepticism as generally understood. I probably will be not renewing due to this and other complaints.
    The other night on TV I saw a special about a premeditated murder in a prison. Two white inmates killed a black one, no dispute, all caught on a security camera. The inmate who stabbed him 30 times was already serving life without parole, for a murder outside, in a non-capital punishment state. So what’s the additional punishment ? You got it, life without parole. DUHHH ! And the guy who held him down while the stabbing took place , in prison with a lesser sentence, now has life without parole. He was interviewed while playing in the prison jazz band. (Maybe his murder victim would have liked to do that , too, but then, he is dead, isn’t he ?)

  29. John M says:

    Economics — “money” — should never be a consideration when discussing justice. Money is merely a manmade triviality. We can make as much of the stuff as we want.

    Or we can eliminate it all together. Just think of about it. There would be no crime. There would be no “profit” in it. Everyone would be the same. Why steal from your neighbor when he has the same thing as you do? Money truly is the root of all evil.

    True, even in a moneyless society, someone can murder and rape. But if money is no object, we can devote the entire resources of society — counseling, social workers, scientific study and, yes, lifelong incarceration if necessary — to address the breakdown in the social fabric without worrying about how much it “costs.”

    All our problems are of our own making, and they are all due to the archaic capitalist/market system we have created. It is time to move to a moneyless/classless society. Crime will be nearly nonexistent.

  30. James says:

    I agree with the comment at #23. It often happens that persons confined for prolonged periods of time embrace the ideology of those who hold the keys to that confinement. In this case, that process seems magnified by prisoner #771782’s age at the time of the offense, and the extraordinary sentence imposed. It may be the case that the only way 771782 can live with the magnitude of his crimes is to totally surrender to the perverse self-loathing his comments evidence. How else is a virtual child to reconcile himself to such horrendous behavior? He doesn’t see the utility of maintaining his humanity because to do so–again, given the nature of his offenses–would require a gargantuan degree of mental and emotional strengh. Such a proposition would loom all-but-impossible for a much more mature adult.

    • Tim says:

      Just because the man is intelligent and capable of understanding why what he did was wrong (and he is also sympathetic) doesn’t excuse him from punishment, doesn’t make him any less dangerous, and it certainly does not mean he should be released. I do not know any of the details of this man’s case except for what Mr. Shermer has told us (which he may very well have got that information from Mr. 771782) so to render any kind of judgment upon the man, favorable or unfavorable, would not be logical or appropriate.

      Where is your sympathy for the algebra teacher and his two classmates? Likable does not mean innocent or rehabilitated. Has it occurred to you that this inmate may be appealing to Mr. Shermer’s beliefs in order to get some sympathy and maybe some publicity for his case (and maybe even a reduction in his sentence)? He may not mean a single word of what he said from the guilt he feels to his theory of economics. Don’t be so ready to believe a convicted criminal.

  31. Frank says:

    Let the victim or the Victims family decide, they have been the ones hurt.

    • Anthony O'Neal says:

      And why should whether or not you die be decided based on how arbitrarily merciful or vengeful the victims family is?

      • Tim says:

        Ya, those vengeful victims. They are like wild vigilantes, worse than murderers even. If anything the murderer should be set free and allowed to decide how those VENGEFUL victims get executed. You know, to teach them a lesson, those vengeful, barbaric, (all the attributes that would normally be attributed to the murderer rather than the victim) animals a lesson! Now some people would say that this attitude is relativism with a clear strategy to bring about relativism by degrading all that society views as good and elevating all which society views as evil until everything meets in the middle and there is nothing left to fight about.

        After all, we all know that the root of all evil is the attempt to be right (or people thinking they are right).

  32. Rcreative1 says:

    I’m skeptical of our justice framework too, but for reasons that differ from Salerno. Rather than base “justice” on retribution, it should be based on protection. We think of crime as a hierarchy with murder at the top and all other crimes prorated accordingly. That leads to the irony of perpetrators of one-time crimes of passion being locked up longer than criminal predators, especially of the sexual variety. As #771782 points out about himself, he can never pay enough to make up for the murders he committed. If it is an impossible goal, then there is no sense in keeping it.

    Once he has been punished long enough to satisfy the minimal needs of the victim’s families for vengeance and is old enough and rehabilitated enough to pose no serious threat to others, why should the state continue to support #771782 and others like him? Why isn’t he out there working and paying taxes instead of the Phillip Garrido’s of the world?

    This is the 21st century. It’s time to move beyond Iron Age morality and 19th century justice traditions.

    • Doug says:

      I agree. Justice should be based on protection, not retribution. However, this raises some interesting questions. What about clearly sociopathic people who are only caught doing something minor? I work in a prison, and I see people every day who are out-and-out criminals but who are only in prison for something relatively minor. This does not mean that they are not guilty of more serious crimes, just that they have not been caught. Ideally, those people should be locked up for longer than they will be, but if you were to do that you would encounter some serious civil liberties questions.

      Somebody earlier in the thread mentioned “three-strike” laws, but if somebody is consistently getting in trouble with the law that is a good indicator that there are a host of other crimes they are committing that they never get caught for. A practiced criminal will commit dozens (if not hundreds) of crimes for every one that actually gets them arrested. Stanton Samenow, one of the leading criminologists, estimates that a true criminal commits about 400 crimes for every one that he is arrested for. And, they often plea down to a less serious offense, so you have people doing short time for minor offenses when it would be better for society if they were incarcerated for longer periods.

  33. James says:

    You say, “to render any kind of judgment upon the man, favorable or unfavorable, would not be logical or appropriate.” Then you proceed to suggest (read: adjudge) that 771782 is: 1)insincere, and 2)having ulterior motives in a ploy to get his sentence reduced. Illogical and inappropriate?

    The fellow was 14 years old! Yes, I labeled his behavior “horrendous”. He obviously should reside in lockup for quite some time. But, scientifically speaking, do you not accept the potential for–perhaps inevitability of– change? Do you not embrace some notion of the biological maturity of a child into a full-fledged adult? Do you rally believe that the guy fully realized the magnitude of his behavior at the critical moment of action?

    Death is experienced as tragic in most cases, regardless of the immediate cause. Life is fragile. We as a species, by and large, I think, don’t fully appreciate that. Yes, punish the child/man. Don’t blithely condemn him forever. That isn’t scientific thinking. That is blind and raging passion and prejudice.

    • Tim says:

      I don’t see the contradiction. I did not presume anything to be true, I was remarking about people making assumptions and then offering hypotheticals and possibilities that could be true which make that point.

      Do I think the guy fully realized the gravity of his behavior? I have no idea. I know nothing about the case. That is my point. I do have some confidence in our justice system and, if what Mr. Shermer relays to us is correct, he thinks he belongs there. He may be right, he may not, I have no idea. What bothers me is that on a website called “skeptic” people are forming conclusions based on next to nothing for information.

      “We as a species” is a meaningless statement. How about we, as individuals. I think many of us, as individuals do understand the tragedy of death and many of us as individuals do not. I don’t condemn him forever (although I might if I had all the facts), I don’t think scientific thinking has much to do with the conversation, and this attitude is not a blind and raging passion prejudice, it is judgment. Not prejudgment, judgment.

  34. Ron L says:

    “Ransoming our genes. Whatever else #771782 has been doing in prison, he’s obviously been reading, as these are not the idle scribblings of an uneducated man. But where does it leave us? If we want the perps to suffer as much as their vics, then maybe the death penalty is not the solution since in order to experience suffering you do need to be alive.”

    Unless you can show that the calculus of ‘equal suffering’ can ever arrive at an equation, offering that as a justification for punishment is meaningless.
    Regarding the death penalty, I don’t see a conflict. Much as we all should have consequences directly connected to actions, we have the overriding issue of the power of the government. We, as humans, grant the government the monopoly of coercion, but we do so with limitations. In the case of mutual defense (war), we allow that government agents can kill, including mistakes; we have no other choice.
    In the case of individuals, we do have a choice; we do (should) not allow the government that power absent the government’s guarantee that there can be no mistake. And we don’t have that.
    We cannot ring that bell, regardless of dollar costs; one mistaken ring of *that* bell means we are all in danger. Yes, #771782 represents an economic loss; the human equivalent of the broken window. But broken windows happen and they have costs.
    After all that, I have a question or two:
    Why is it that the US has the incarceration rates? And what role does the ‘war on drugs’ play in this.

  35. Max says:

    What is the purpose of the criminal justice system? Justice.

    I haven’t read all the comments, but I saw “deterrent” mentioned only once. In my opinion, deterrence is the primary purpose of the criminal justice system, or at least of punishment. Science can tell us whether a punishment serves as an effective deterrent. “Freakonomics” author Steven Levitt noted that crack dealers on the street have a higher mortality rate than prisoners on death row, so the possibility of dying doesn’t deter them. Legally insane people aren’t deterred by the prospect of punishment, so there’s no point in punishing them.

    • Max says:

      Deterrence dictates the severity of the punishment.
      Giving a speeding ticket to someone rushing to the hospital with appendicitis will not deter others in a similar situation from speeding, so it’s nothing but a revenue-raiser. An effective deterrent would have to be worse than a burst appendix.
      Excessive punishments have their own downsides. Capital punishment for rape encouraged rapists to murder their victims.

  36. leguru says:

    The role of government: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure Domestic Tranquility, provide for the Common Defense, promote the General Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
    This is a social contract, and is difficult to apply science or scientific principles to it. Typically, our politicians are elected by emotional appeals, not logic or reason. When we, as a species, can learn to understand the full human being and support government that makes the the dignity and the importance of human life above any superstitions, we can expect some form of rationality and dignity from such a government.
    The reason the U.S. has such high incarceration rates is due to our collective ability to be manipulated by those who have a vested interest in the prison population and the trials that lead up to them. As to the “War on Drugs,” follow the money.
    Is cynicism part of being a skeptic?

    • Max says:

      California is on the verge of releasing a quarter of its adult prisoners. If Schwarzenegger fails to stop it, it’ll be quite an experiment.

  37. Schermer Scam ? says:

    Barry Loukaitis is prisoner #771782 at Clallam Bay Prison in WA. In 1996 (age 14), in Moses Lake , WA, in JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL, he killed 3 people including his algebra teacher and 2 students, likewise 14 years old, in the classroom. He was tried as an adult, and received the sentence described. In reading about him on the internet, I conclude he is a psychopath or a sociopath or whatever. You wouldn’t have wanted him sentenced as a juvenile , and getting out about now, if you value innocent lives.

    I wonder if he really wrote this, or was Schermer scammed ? Remember, he never even graduated from a regular high school. He is not described as a brilliant student, how does he write such a literate letter ? How did he see the article in question in the first place ? Prisoners in his situation don’t exactly have unlimited and unfettered mail and internet rights, because of security concerns. Think porn on the internet , for example. I am a SKEPTIC !! You should be, too.

    If if wrote it, it’s another example of , well,…… you decide. We have paid money to educate him, for what purpose ? He’ll never get out. I like going to the library, reading books, getting educated. Sounds like he does, too. He’s having a fine time getting educated and writing well reasoned letters.
    I bet, as he says, his 14 year old victims would like to trade with him.

  38. AndrewB says:

    Before I say anything on our Criminal Justice system I want to say something about Government, Individuals, and Society. Because any political discussion is inherently about these three things, and all three things are vital and necessary to each other. It’s going to be important to figure out how exactly these three things relate to each other.

    It’s why I feel that $771782 is setting up a false dichotomy when he talks; “A world free of killers, but full of white collar criminals or a world where killers are free but white collar criminals are behind bars.” Perhaps I’m misreading him, perhaps he only means to suggest that one type of criminal is worse than the other.
    But both are damaging and we have a right to be concerned about both. And we should always be reassessing the value of the laws we make and the rules we live by.

    It’s good to question the morality of our justice system and indeed our own moral system if we didn’t the injustices of the past would still be perpetuated today. I see a lot of other commenter’s questioning the purpose of the justice system, but I don’t think it’s going to have just one purpose like deterrence, it will have many functions similar to Jonathan Haidt’s theory of morality.

    And while #771782 considers his life and the lives of the people he has murdered to have no value. This is something I disagree with immensely. Other criminals including murders might still want to try to make something out of what society has left them with(life.) He has instead deemed any attempt to even do so pointless, he has chosen and has gotten what he deserves out of it, but it didn’t have to be that way and for many criminals I would say that there’s still opportunity for positive change. To give something back even if their victims don’t rise from the dead and they are never forgiven. Your life has the value you put into it. It’s a shame #771782 has thrown every aspect of his life away.

    My opposition to the death penalty has nothing to do with the likes of #771782, and everything to do with innocent people who get dragged through the system. Its not hard to imagine a scenario where innocent people are convicted of horrible crimes, and it certainly has already happened. There are any number of things I might want to do with any extra money but I’m left with the realization that accepting it would mean killing millions, so just go ahead and keep it.

    I haven’t read Salerno’s piece yet I’m going to as I wonder if it covers anything about private prison systems. There is something deeply troubling about giving people not only authority but a profit motive to lock people away. If that is in fact what is going on.

  39. As the author of the piece, I chose not to cover the question of free will vs. determinism, as I felt that it would only derail the discussion to a whole new series of subordinate issues on points that may well be moot and insoluble, at least till science weighs in more definitively. But now that the “ransoms to our genes” line has surfaced, it must be considered in all its messy and–at least to hard-line types–inconvenient nuance.

    If it is true, as I basically believe it to be, that all of human life is physical (which is to say that even what we regard as “thoughts” and “feelings” are just the inevitable byproducts of the electrochemical infrastructure that keeps the body humming along as it processes data from the environment), then all behavior is, in a sense, created equal. We are ambulatory, soft-skinned computers, doing what our software tells us to do. And if that is true, then there is not much of a distinction between (a) convict #77172 and (b) the tree that falls during a storm, smiting a young mother and her two children as they run in from the car with groceries. After all, if the sociopath lacks a conscience–if it is something that he does not possess–then that absence is no less palpable in his overall make-up than if he lacked an arm or a leg. How can we, then, blame sociopaths for doing the sorts of things that people without consciences do?

    That’s a further reason why I argue for a bit more perspective and restraint in punishment. While it is true that people can be changed–as they are acted upon by the environment, and punishment of course certain plays a role in that evolution–I think it behooves us to inflict that punishment with greater understanding and forbearance than is commonplace now, especially if one conceives crime and criminality in the austere, draconian terms that tend to be the stuff of fear-mongering election campaigns.

    • Max says:

      Are sociopaths deterred from crime by the threat of punishment? If so, then punishing them is important, since they don’t have a conscience to deter them.

    • AndrewB says:

      I fail to see how the sociopath you describe isn’t a threat to society. Do they not belong locked up, hopefully and preferably where there could receive mental health care. I would agree that we need restraint and perspective in matters of crime and punishment, and I’m not suggesting that we start rounding up the “crazies” or the people with bumpy heads to make an allusion to a pseudoscience, but we can blame theme we could even blame ourselves for not having “seen the signs.”

      I would hold to the same line when it comes to children, or others that are not yet fully formed emotional wholes. The fact that we call on our legal system to hear cases of these types sends a need for us to make sure the defendants constitutional rights are being observed not a call to dismiss the case.

      I was glad to see that you mentioned Dr. Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment” and that you also briefly mentioned the Duke Lacrosse incident, both disturbed me greatly when I first heard about them, and they raise many question about the nature of our justice system. Both also serve as great reminders that we need to have a bit more perspective and restraint, in these matters.

      • leaford says:

        Um, the SPE has been SOUNDLY discredited. The researcher interfered and influenced the outcome, and then exaggerated and cherry picked from the data.

      • Tim says:

        To the contrary, the SPE (as you call it) was confirmed by the Abu Graib scandal which replicated the results.

      • leaford says:

        Yeah, Abu Graib scandal confirmed the SPE. According to the SPE researcher Dr. Zimbardo himself, when he was called as an expert witness by the DEFENSE. Biased maybe? Hmmmmm?

      • AndrewB says:

        While the SPE may be flawed in certain ways, I wouldn’t say that it has been “SOUNDLY DISCREDITED” If you have studies that contradict it I’d like to know what they are. The need for restraint in matters of crime and punishment would also be illustrated by the Milgram experiment.

      • leaford says:

        Here’s one addressing the flawed bias-prone self-selection:

        There’s more, but here’s a good summary of all the criticisms, from Skeptoid:

        15 years ago in my Psych101 class the SPE was held up as an example of BAD experimental design, and the bad pop-psychology that can come from it.

      • leaford says:

        I forgot to mention, the SPE was never published in a peer review journal. It’s pseudo-science and pop-psychology, not good science.

      • Doug says:

        As someone who gives mental health care in prison, allow me to point out that there is no mental health treament for sociopathy. If somebody is depressed or bipolar then there are things we can do about that, but there is no proven treatment for sociopathy. That is why rehabilitation has largely fallen out of favor in American prisons–nothing seems to work when it comes to reforming true criminals. Sometimes they kind of burn out of their criminality once they get into their forties, but that is because they are starting to wind down physically and they don’t have as much energy for their criminal activities as they used to.

    • leaford says:

      You talk as if we have no conciousness, no control over our thoughts or actions just because they arise from purely physical processes in our physical brains. I don’t see how mind-brain duality is required for us to have free will. Genetics do not dictate actions. They may influence us, but we ultimatly make our own choices.

    • Poradin says:

      Mr. Salerno, I’d love to know on what bases you believe that genetics plays a (fundamental, I say) role in the issues discussed. I’m sure you are aware, though, that those with your leanings are (at this point in time)in minority by a large factor. I am one of those, and thus I naturally rejoice when I meet another (of the same rational dough). I wonder if your belief in the genes’ determination of one as a whole has been a personal endeavour. If that is the case–congratulations.

  40. TryUsingLogic says:

    Many people say there is no need for a death penalty and claim that punishment by life imprisonment is the worst penalty for heinous crimes. Would that in turn mean that an innocent person wrongly sentenced to life imprisonment is receiving a penalty far more tragic than death? How would we make up for that mistake?

    In our complex society there will always be mistakes and bad judgment in all matters but let’s hopes that we can improve the standards for judging crimes against others and minimize the errors in maintaining a safe society. With every day, science helps us improve with things like DNA. We will never live in a perfect Utopia….get over it!

    Violence is an integral part of the animal world. We are the only species of the animal kingdom that can make decisions and take specific actions in order to protect ourselves as individuals or groups…..and feel guilty about it.

    Is an individual murdered by another individual any worse or different than thousands of people murdered by dictators or 911 fanatics? The individual murderer can be mistakenly identified and punished, or while confronting mass murders who threaten us, many innocent people can die in the battles [like in Afghanistan].

    We live in an animal world where we have the ability to over think every decision we make in order to seek survival and defend our freedoms……sometimes to our detriment.

    Prisoner #771782 makes good points using critical thinking……but obviously has never been able to function as a non violent part of society. Does his wisdom justify his life or does his admitted desire to kill applaud his death? Guilt time again…..

    Remember the psychological tests that set up scenarios like……would you through Prisoner #771782 in front of a bus to keep it from running over 100 starving children?

    I would have to say yes! Quite animal of me…isn’t it?


  41. Tom Clark says:


    Thanks for your article and your post. As you say, “all behavior is, in a sense, created equal.” It’s all equally the result of causal factors, given that we are indeed physical creatures, not immaterial souls or mental agents exerting contra-causal free will. Broaching the issue of free will necessarily raises fundamental questions about human agency, but that’s exactly what needs to happen in order to clarify our thinking about punishment. Those of us committed to science need not shrink from stating the obvious: that there is no logical or evidential basis to suppose that human beings are exceptions to causation, in which case offenders are fully caused to become who they are, and act as they do. This insight undercuts one of the primary justifications for retributive punishment: that the criminal could have done otherwise given his circumstances, but simply chose not to. So challenging contra-causal free will has important ramifications for criminal justice, as explored for instance by Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen in their Royal Society paper, For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything.

    Except for the gang at Reasonable Doubts, as far as I know science-based skeptics haven’t spent much time debunking contra-causal free will, which is a bit surprising given that it’s a prime example of magical thinking with no basis in fact or logic. Then again, it’s a central assumption of Western culture, so to question it publicly can draw a lot of flack, which Shermer, Randi and other prominent skeptics may not want to deal with. But I’m hopeful that someday the skeptic community will come out on this. In any case, thanks for discussing it in this forum.

  42. Tom et al: By no means am I arguing that the sociopath shouldn’t be confined and, if possible, “fixed.” Of course he needs to be kept away from the rest of us, just as it’s probably a good idea to prevent the pedophile from getting a job as a guidance counselor in your local elementary school. But there is a difference between pragmatics–what we as humans feel we need to do in order to keep our human world running in a reasonably civilized manner–and a larger sense of Truth that is detached from our own (self-centered? narcissistic? etc.) imperatives as humans. Let me give you an example. We recognize that the tiger is a dangerous creature–that inherently, by its nature, it will probably do us harm if it is allowed to reach us. Yet we do not really “begrudge” the tiger its nature, because the tiger is merely being, well, a tiger. That’s really the argument I’m making above. I’m saying that maybe we ought to take some of the venom (not to mix animals metaphors) out of our approach to crime and punishment. I find it interesting that in passing laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, we recognize that some of us were simply born with (or developed) certain disadvantages and therefore deserve special accommodations. We even feel sympathy for such people, and “root for” them.

    Cannot the absence of a conscience–or even if you want to put it in more provocative terms, the sheer enjoyment derived from killing (a la Manson et al)–be conceived as a form of disability? If not…please tell me why not.

    • Tom Clark says:

      “That’s really the argument I’m making above. I’m saying that maybe we ought to take some of the venom (not to mix animals metaphors) out of our approach to crime and punishment.”

      I’m absolutely with you, and thanks for making the case for this.

      “Cannot the absence of a conscience–or even if you want to put it in more provocative terms, the sheer enjoyment derived from killing (a la Manson et al)–be conceived as a form of disability? If not…please tell me why not.”

      Agreed, it’s a disability or defect in moral capacities, which as you note does *not* mean the sociopath goes free to kill again, but that in restraining him we are not needlessly punitive. UPenn law professor Stephen Morse makes the case for just such an approach in a recent paper Psychopathy and Criminal Responsibility, here’s the abstract:

      This article considers whether psychopaths should be held criminally responsible. After describing the positive law of criminal responsibility in general and as it applies to psychopaths, it suggests that psychopaths lack moral rationality and that severe psychopaths should be excused from crimes that violate the moral rights of others. Alternative forms of social control for dangerous psychopaths, such as involuntary civil commitment, are considered, and the potential legal implications of future scientific understanding of psychopathy are addressed.

    • leaford says:

      So, you’re generalizing from those who are mentally ill, to those who are neurotypical? Yes, mental conditions can influence your behavior, either by impairing your ability to empathize, or by giving you urges, or whatever. But, even mentally ill people can and often do resist those influences and urges, or try to overcome their lack of “conscience”, or lack or remorse. In fact, most do. They CHOOSE to.

      We make choices. We do it every day, all day. ANd we make different choices at different times, even in the same circumstances. Often, we resist the impulses and urges that our genetics and our demographics, and our past experiences give us.

      You’ve surpassed Descartes. You are arguing that even our most personal thoughts are illusary. We only THINK that we think.

      • Majority of One says:

        It is my understanding that what separates a sociopath or psychopath from your garden variety “mentally ill” person is they really don’t have the capacity to “choose.” Therefore, they cannot simply choose to be good. They don’t even know what that means. It feels good to kill. It feels good to watch someone or some animal suffer. I think it was Ted Bundy who said he was “thinning the herd” and even though he was smart enough to “say” he knew what he was doing was wrong, I don’t know, and can’t know of course, if he truly believed that what he was doing was wrong or if it was just “his ability to be charming” as some around him put it.

        I’ve always leaned toward nature in the nurture v. nature war because of my schizophrenic older sister. She shot someone and never served a single day of prison time for it. She was in a situation that someone else would’ve handled much differently, and it is a long story, but suffice it to say, the court showed mercy on her and she has never so much as hurt a fly since. We, as her family, just have to make sure she is never in a situation where she feels so threatened again.

  43. James says:

    Steve, thank you for your additional comments. Great perspective. And, whether or not Shermer has been scammed, the discussion the article has prompted is worthwhile. “Skeptic” needn’t mean “crude”.

    • “Skeptic” needn’t mean “crude.”

      Ahh, James, how I wish that notion were more universally understood! Almost daily on my own blog I deal with prospective contributors–clearly very intelligent people–who seem to feel that holding an opinion that differs from theirs is an unmistakable symptom of a moral or intellectual defect. And they’ll let you know it, some of them, in no uncertain terms. Having also for a decade taught college (where I focused often on the ground rules of productive discourse in both written work and speech), I remain amazed at how many people simply cannot have a debate without devolving into the realm of the ad hominem.

      • Doug says:


        Maybe it is in their nature to make ad hominem arguments, so how can you hold them responsible?

      • I can’t. I’m simply saying (a) I wish this were universally understood, (b) I don’t really “get” how intelligent people fail to grasp this, and (c) I wish it weren’t that way.

      • And incidentally, there is no basis for thinking that just because a person may have a certain nature/”flaw,” s/he cannot be disabused of it, if that is what the consensus seeks. We are all part of the environment that acts on those around us. So while the outcome may all be scripted in the end (I do not subscribe to “chaos theory”), we don’t know what that script is going in, ergo it behooves us to try to engineer the outcome we seek. We do that by trying to change the behavior of others. But you’re basically right, as I see it: Until such time as people change, they are who they are.

      • Max says:

        And the credible threat of punishment or retaliation is one way to change the behavior of others.

      • Max says:

        Why don’t you subscribe to chaos theory? Chaotic systems are deterministic, just extremely hard to predict.

      • leaford says:

        (a) I understand, I choose to disagree.
        (b) I DO grasp it, even though we disagree. Why do you disparage anyone who doesn’t believe your view by saying they must not “grasp” it?

      • Tim says:


        This video should help you understand people of this mentality.

        Also the book “Rules for Radicals” by Saul D. Alinsky will help you understand it. The novel “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand has this ideology as the main antagonist and “The Closing of the American Mind” by Allan Bloom is a non-fiction treatise on the subject. None of these say anything about any particular viewpoint (although the speakers/authors do say things about their views on issues), but rather they speak to the mentality which you see as odd.

  44. Richard says:

    I can’t see the point of extremely long sentences or the death penalty. Maybe restitution would be a more constructive and humane sentence, but I don’t see how a long sentence would make anything better. It just adds more suffering, in the hope that the perpetrator’s suffering will somehow heal the wrong that’s been done. I doubt that victims’ families feel much better whether a perpetrator is sentenced to twenty years for a murder or ninety-nine years, although this could be studied. Incidentally, I supported the Scottish secretary’s release of the Libyan terrorist on compassionate grounds (if this is truly the reason he was released). I have nothing but contempt for the reaction of the murderous Libyan dictator and his vassals.

    • Max says:

      “All who are made to be compassionate in the place of the cruel
      In the end are made to be cruel in the place of the compassionate”
      Qohelet Raba, 7:16

      How do you feel about the 1951 Amnesty for members of the Einsatzgruppen (Nazi death squads that murdered over a million Jewish civilians)?
      See the sentencing table at the bottom. Of the 14 war criminals sentenced to death, only 4 were executed.

  45. Anthony O'Neal says:

    This post was disgusting Michael. I couldn’t get past the first two paragraphs. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  46. John Draeger says:

    Four problems I saw with Michael’s comments on Salerno’s article:
    1. Not everyone will agree with Michael that bumbling bureaucrats run gov’t. That’s again a political (libertarian) view that gov’t is the cause of most of our problems – a scapegoat argument really.

    2. Prostitution and smoking pot CAN have victims (they are not always victimless as Michael seems to suggest). A spouse who contracts an STD from a deceiving spouse would logically be considered a victim. An innocent driver killed by someone who is impaired by pot smoking may suffer greatly (or die) due to such activity.

    3. Convicted criminals CAN produce things for society in prisons, so the argument that it’s more economic to just kill them is fallacious. I’d agree that the just thing to do would be to see to it that they pay back the victim to some extent, or the victim’s family in the case of wrongful death.

    4. No, it’s NOT just just emotion that makes us decide as a society to keep violent prisoners alive. One can arrive at that conclusion by logic alone. But how we pay for keeping them alive and what standard of living they should have in that setting are value judgements, and science can’t always (at least not at the current moment with the given information) help us decide what’s best to do for those decisions. Different societies may do it differently – that’s not wrong, just different.

    The main purpose of locking up criminals is to prevent repeat offenses. Sometimes education in prison can modify their subsequent behavior – there can be some rehabilitation. In the case of intractable schizophrenia with violent tendencies, and if such a person has a history of stopping necessary medicine once released, it’s appropriate to isolate such individuals from the rest of society, treat their illness, and try to make them productive to some extent in that setting.

    On the question of free will that Tom Clark and Steve Salerno have discussed above, I think that is an issue for neuroscience (and physics) to decide, not philosophy – depends largely on the definition of “free will.” There are some neuroscientists who would argue that we can have some free will even though there’s a natural cause for everything. Care should be taken not to perceive a dichotomy if none is justified by sufficient evidence at this time.

    • fascination says:

      When people refer to pot use as a victemless crime they are not talking about someone driving while high on it. They are talking about someone smoking it in the privacy of their own home where they are hurting no one. Driving impaired on any substance is a crime including legal ones like alcohol or a prescribed narcotic. As soon as a person gets behind the wheel of their car while intoxicated (on anything) then it is no longer a victemless crime. Also, I live in an area of Nevada where prostitution is legal and regulated. It has worked out very well. The prostitutes are frequently tested for STDS. So far, not one of them or their customers have contracted one in this area (they are mandated by law to use condoms and it is strictly enforced). Yes, illegal prostitution is dangerous but it is so because it is illegal. The prostitues here work in a very safe environment. Just my take.

  47. Wait a sec here. Getting back to Leaford and Tim, I’m not sure where things went off the rails. I wasn’t implying that people don’t have the right to disagree with me about my positions on crime and punishment; lord no! Who the hell am I? I’m just one person with a particular view of life. I was simply saying that people should be able to debate this topic without devolving into the realm of the ad hominem. So Leaford, you “choose to disagree” with that? Because then I guess we’re ultimately endorsing the likes of radical Islam, which conflates philosophical disagreement with personal defect and/or mortal sin (punishable by death). Yes? No? I mean, they can’t help being that way, either, but I’d hoped we, here, could have this discussion on the intellectual, rather than the personal, plane.

    As for chaos theory, my gripe is really with the bastardized version of it, which seems to argue that even in a closed system, you don’t know where we’re going to end up, therefore nothing in life is “certain.” That may be true in terms of the human endeavor to predict where things are going to end up, but–at least in my view–it is not true of the system itself, which is going to end up where it was always going to end up, from the beginning. So I guess what I’m saying, Max, is that I agree with you. :)

  48. DonS says:

    The alarming thing is that we have such a high incidence of people in prison. Few are or were in jail for murder. So little may be gained from extrapolating from one murderer. I doubt whether the differences between countries in justice or punishment accounts for the differences in incidence.

    A better question would be how did so many arrive at jail. Orange County, CA Probation Dept. found that half of their clients were one time foster kids. Becoming a foster kid is one of the consequences of a fatherless society. Currently half of the kids before they are 18 find themselves with severely reduced contact with their fathers because of the primitive actions of divorce court. Numerous studies show either the direct effect on crime or indirect through reduced school performance. An overwhelming majority of prisoners are fatherless.

    The huge “Corrections” expense could be more than unintended consequences. State law says that monetary child support is a stream of revenue and should be maximized. The state accepts $1B Federal funds to support collections. There is no monetary child support without the divorce court dividing up kids’ care unequally. Our best estimate todate is that the consequence is a $12B state taxpayer expense and $48B lost income to kids. Jailing half as many kids would itself save $2B in “Corrections”.

    One route to reducing the number of crazy stories from murders and petty thieves is to correct the missing logic behind some social policy. Too often a policy is deemed a right independent of consequence. Often child support is deemed a mother’s right, but in consequence this could be reframed to be a mother’s right to have children jailed and impoverished.

    Applying science and philosophy to a murderer’s plight is too late. Applying science to the wider context makes sense.

  49. Ed says:

    I would like to suggest that we look at our justice system from an alternative perspective.

    There is a concept in Sociology called deviation. The concept describes how persons who engage in unacceptable behavior would often find themselves on the rejected by society. A number of inconsistencies in the activities of our justice system become understandable when you view it as a mechanism of deviation.

    Our inane “War on Drugs” is an example. It is foolish to believe that we are making even the slightest dent on drug abuse, yet people are unwilling to consider any other approach. Why? The simplest explanation is that they are far more interested in stamping drug users with a scarlet letter than they are in actually solving a problem.

    Good sense would require that we do all in our power to see ex-cons gainfully employed, yet we actually make that a very difficult option.I contend that the system exists solely to deviate undesirables and that the system is intended to function as a one-way door.

  50. Craig says:

    I highly recommend Mark Kleiman’s “When Brute Force Fails”. He argues that we should treat crime like air pollution or disease or any other domestic policy issue. We should try to minimize it at the lowest possible cost. Obviously this has to be done within certain constraints such as protectiong the innocent, but by removing the emotion from the matter and focusing on what policies actually reduce crime at low cost, we can do a lot better than we currently are.

  51. Derek Dadey says:

    i find it interesting that here on what is a skeptical website we seem to have near unanimous agreement on the reality of free will, with all it`s inherent implications for `justice`.The traditional idea of free will is an idea with a mainly religious justification. Examined rationally the idea of true contra-causal free will, the idea that we can make free decisions uncaused by pre-existing physical conditions leading back in a chain of causation to our very origin, is silly. It`s as if we imagine some shimmering cloud of WILL hovering above our heads and occasionally intervening, uncaused and unaffected by the physical realm. With a more realistic view of free will in mind I believe we would move to a more rehablitative system of justice.

  52. Heliocles says:

    Prisoner #771782 remarks “There is no need to commit suicide. If you’ve lost only your fortune, you are fortunate indeed compared to those whom I’ve hurt. You may be unemployed; maybe even destitute. But you’re alive, able to make or lose some more.”

    The suicides related to the Madoff Scan probably have less to do with money than with trust. Like any pyramid game, many of Madoff’s victims convinced others to donate their money. If you have not only lost your own fortune, but inadvertently fooled your family and friends into doing likewise, life will be extremely difficult and shameful. If your friend’s family loses its house and their oldest daughter forced to quit college, it is dubious whether such damage could be reversed even in theory.

    If this doesn’t convince Prisoner #771782 of the lethality of Madoff’s action (it’s still free will), then there is harder evidence. Undoubtedly some of the ruined people will die before their time as they cannot afford the same health care anymore. A scam of enough money equals deaths, it is pure statistics.

  53. Kennypo65 says:

    When the state kills in our name, it makes us all murderers. Remember that the case is called “the people v so-and-so”.
    My position on the death penalty can be summed up in two sentences:
    1. Only God has the right to take a life.
    2. I am an atheist.