This post is based on a presentation I gave as part of an undergraduate course on Modern Political Philosophy.
Crime and punishment is a subject which should be taken into account by Space colonists. If one thing is certain, there will be crime and criminals in any future Space settlement. Therefore we should consider how to deal with issues of criminal law. However, in this post we will not pursue what act should be considered as crime, only that we believe that the harm principle should be used to construe crimes .
An important question is whether we should use imprisonment as a punishment. Although the modern prisons system has been invented in the 18th century as a more civilized punishment, it has been controversial ever since. The prison reform movement is in fact as old as the institution itself.
American professor of criminal justice Peter Moskos argues :
For most of the past two centuries, at least in so-called civilized societies, the ideal of punishment has been replaced by the hope of rehabilitation. The American penitentiary system was invented to replace punishment with “cure.” Prisons were built around the noble ideas of rehabilitation. In society, at least in liberal society, we’re supposed to be above punishment, as if punishment were somehow beneath us. The fact that prisons proved both inhumane and miserably ineffective did little to deter the utopian enthusiasm of those reformers who wished to abolish punishment.
Incarceration, for adults as well as children, does little but make people more criminal. Alas, so successful were the “progressive” reformers of the past two centuries that today we don’t have a system designed for punishment. Certainly released prisoners need help with life—jobs, housing, health care—but what they don’t need is a failed concept of “rehabilitation.” Prisons today have all but abandoned rehabilitative ideals—which isn’t such a bad thing if one sees the notion as nothing more than paternalistic hogwash. All that is left is punishment, and we certainly could punish in a way that is much cheaper, honest, and even more humane.
As an alternative Moskos make the following proposal in his book In defense of flogging :
I propose we give convicts the choice of the lash at the rate of two lashes per year of incarceration. One cannot reasonably argue that merely offering this choice is somehow cruel, especially when the status quo of incarceration remains an option. Prison means losing a part of your life and everything you care for. Compared with this, flogging is just a few very painful strokes on the backside. And it’s over in a few minutes. Often, and often very quickly, those who said flogging is too cruel to even consider suddenly say that flogging isn’t cruel enough. Personally, I believe that literally ripping skin from the human body is cruel. Even Singapore limits the lash to 24 strokes out of concern for the criminal’s survival. Now, flogging may be too harsh, or it may be too soft, but it really can’t be both.
Because not only does incarceration not “cure” criminality, in many ways it makes it worse. From behind bars, prisoners can’t be parents, hold jobs, maintain relationships, or take care of their elders. Their spouse suffers. Their children suffer. And because of this, in the long run, we all suffer. Because one stint in prison so often leads to another, millions have come to alternate between incarceration and freedom while their families and communities suffer the economic, social, and political consequences of their absence.
The benefits of optional flogging as an alternative punishment for prison are clear, both for the criminal as for society. The life of the convict is not destroyed as is the case with years of imprisonment, but is still punished for his crimes. For society the main benefit is the reduced costs of administering justice.
Of course, Peter Moskos realizes that some criminals should be locked up, although this is not for the sake of punishment upon the criminal, but in order to protect society against the most dangerous criminals. Moskos further argues that optional flogging can and should be used in combination with restorative justice.
Video interviews with Peter Moskos:
In Defense Of Flogging As Alternative To Prison (CNN, 4.18 min)
In Defense of Flogging: Controversy Over Prisons and Punishment (PBS Newshour, 6.15 min)
 We see the harm principle as a rule of thumb rather than as an absolute rule. We acknowledge that this principle will not work in some circumstances, however we believe it is appropriate as a general rule.
 Peter Moskos, In defense of flogging in The Chronicle Review, April 24, 2011. (Visited on April 6, 2013).
 See previous note.