Unpopular ideas about crime and punishment

I’ve been compiling lists of “unpopular ideas,” things that seem weird or bad to most people (at least, to most educated urbanites in the United States, which is the demographic I know best).

Because my collection of unpopular ideas became so long, I’ve broken it into categories. Below, I focus specifically on ideas about crime and punishment. (Here are my two previous lists, on social norms and political/economic systems.) I’ll be posting similar lists on other topics and adding to each one over time as I find new examples.

Why am I making these lists? Even though I disagree with many of these ideas, I nevertheless think it’s valuable to practice engaging with ideas that seem weird or bad, for two reasons: First, because such ideas might occasionally be true, and it’s worth sifting through some duds to find a gem.

And second, because I think our imaginations tend to be too constrained by conventional “common sense,” and that many ideas we accept as true today were counterintuitive to past generations. Considering weird ideas helps de-anchor us from the status quo, and that’s valuable independently of whether those particular ideas are true or not.

[Because some people have missed this disclaimer in the past, I’m going to say again that I’m not endorsing these ideas, merely collecting them, and I disagree with many of them.]

Unpopular ideas about crime and punishment:

  1. Juries should be replaced by judges, especially in cases that are complex or subject to bias. (1)
  2. Non-retributive justice: Criminals are purely victims of genetics and circumstance. We should abandon punishment as a goal and instead focus only on preventing future harm. (1)
  3. We should provide prisoners, especially those serving a life sentence, with the means to commit suicide, and encourage them to do so. (1)
  4. We should send destructive drug addicts to towns away from society with free birth control, food, shelter and drugs. It would be less expensive to society than the crimes they commit and the cost of imprisoning them.
  5. Our current prison system mixes punishment with rehabilitation, and therefore does an ineffective job of both. We could get better results either by focusing solely on punishment, or solely on rehabilitation.
  6. Prison labor is just slavery, repackaged. (1, 2)
  7. Pre-punishment (like in Minority Report) would be effective and morally acceptable. (1, 2, 3)
  8. The death penalty is broken only in practice, not in principle. It wouldn’t be difficult to fix and should be kept in place for the worst criminals. Life imprisonment is extremely costly, dangerous to other inmates, and not much more humane than death anyway. (1)
  9. Prison abolitionism: We should get rid of prisons altogether, or reduce the size of the prison population to about five percent of its current size. (1, 2, 3)
  10. Police abolitionism: The benefits the police provide are not great enough to justify the harms and injustices they cause. (1)
  11. We should flog criminals instead of imprisoning them. Variant: we should offer convicts the choice between flogging and imprisonment. (1)
  12. Public shaming is often a more effective solution to crime than imprisonment, and should be more widely used. (1, 2)
  13. It should be legal to blackmail people over crimes they committed. This would provide an extra deterrant for criminals, and be cheap relative to policing. (1)