Tag Archives: crime

The Case for a National DNA Database

In this post I will present three arguments in favour of a national registration of everyone’s DNA.  Additionally we will try to refute some counter-arguments.

The first argument for a national DNA database is the identification of dead bodies. One problem after a (natural) disaster is identifying the victims. If anyone’s DNA is registered, than the identification of bodies would just be a matter of collecting tissue samples. Not only after a natural disaster there are unidentified bodies, but also in ordinary times the bodies of murder victims are found. Sometimes the identification of these bodies is easy, but often there are clues about the victims identity. This is particular the case when only body parts are found, or the body has already been severely decayed.

The second argument in favour of such a database, is solving crimes. Criminals, not only rapists and murders, but also burglars, leave often traces of body behind at the crime scene. Too often investigators are able to collect these DNA containing samples, but can’t do anything with it, because the donor is not in the database. With a national DNA database more crimes will be solved, and hence the chance of being caught will be increased.

Our third argument is the verification of paternity. Every year many women get pregnant and become of this in financial problems, because the father is not willing to share in the costs of raising his children. In western societies these mothers often became dependent of welfare. A better idea in my eyes, is Robin Baker’s proposal of a “child tax“, a system in which a tax is levied at the non-caring partner to support his or her children. The problem with this idea this is that men can easily deny that they the father of said children. Without a national database, paternity test depend on the voluntary participation of people.

The major objection against a mandatory national DNA database, is the violation of privacy. The collection of one’s DNA is only a very small infraction of one’s bodily integrity, it only involves sticking a cotton swab in your mouth which doesn’t cause any harm. More fundamentally, people are afraid of abuse of data by the government. The question is then, what can the government really do with your DNA? In fact not much, tough one’s DNA contains much information about you, but for identification purposes scientists do not use the parts containing genes, but the non-coding parts.

And the information one extract from your DNA is not of much interest. It’s much more attractive for the government to track your credit or debit card records, which do not only tell what you have bought, but also when and where. Also one’s tax returns are much more relevant and detailed than your genetic code, which only contains some 20,000 genes. and of which most are the same as those of tomato plants.

This does not mean we should blindly trust the government. Any national DNA database should be supervised by an independent body, to make sure the data will only be used for the purposes it has been created.

Reflections on deterrence theory

Before we continue, we want to make a clear statement. It’s without doubt that social-economic factors play a key role in the occurrence of crime. As such improving social economic conditions and better education will be of great importance to reduce crime rates in future space settlements. However, even with proper social economic condition and subsequent low crime rates, some people will still turn to crime.

In modern theory on criminal punishment the concept of deterrence is a predominant one. First introduced by Enlightenment philosopher Cesare Beccaria, and latter refined and defended by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, deterrence theory assumes that criminals are rational actors. People commit crimes because they believe they will gain more than they will lose from these acts, and because the criminals believe that crime is the easiest way to get these gains.

According to deterrence theorists, the purpose of punishment is then simply to cancel the gains acquired by crime. In other words, due to punishment the costs of a crime will be greater than the expected gains (from the criminal’s perspective). Confronted with such an analysis  a rational person will decline to commit crimes.

If deterrence theory would be “true”, then we should expect that the mere threat of punishment would be sufficient to eliminate crime. But since it’s evident that despite the prospect of harsh punishments, crime is still an important problem in almost every society. Therefore defenders of this theory are facing a difficult challenge, since it seems that deterrence has failed in its objective.

As always the truth is these matters, is a little bit more complex than simply true or false. Let’s therefore look at the fundamental assumptions made by deterrence theory. First, defenders of the theory can make the following point. In order to be effective, the threat of punishment has to be credible. Aspirant-criminals has to believe that the government is willing to carry out the punishments it imposes on certain crimes. If however, the law provides high (maximum) punishments but courts hand out only lesser punishment, then criminals will less likely be deterred from committing crimes. This is even stronger the case if there will be no prosecution at all, and hence no punishment. Therefore simply raising punishments will not necessarily results in less crime.

Empirical evidence further shows that the probability of being caught is a more important consideration in deterring people to commit crimes than the severity of prospective punishments. Since we all know that the police cannot solve each and every committed crime, there’s always a chance that a criminal will get away with his or her crime. Consequently a rational aspirant-criminal will consider how likely it will be that the police will be able to arrest him or her, and the particular punishment (s)he might receive is only of secondary importance. Even if a criminal risks the death penalty, (s)he might still commit the crime if that person believes that the chance of being caught is quiet small.

Instead of raising the amount of punishment, governments should improve the quality of the police to solve crimes and to arrest criminals. The more crimes the police can solve, the less the probability of getting away with crimes will be. But again we hit a problem. Criminals do not act upon the actual probabilities, but on their perception of these chances.The authorities should provide the real probability of being caught, but it should also take care that potential criminals will believe those numbers.

This leads us to the most fundamental assumption of deterrence theory. Deterrence requires that all all people are able to rationally weigh the gains and losses of their actions. Unfortunately, we know that humans have a wide range in intellectual capabilities. Scientific studies have shown that the less intelligent a person is, the more likely it is that he will commit a crime. Less intelligent persons will have more difficulties with understanding and handling complex stuff such probabilities, and the impact of prospective punishments, than their more intelligent fellows.

There is no easy way to improve people’s intellectual capabilities, it would be great if there would be a drug which could raise your IQ with 20 points. In the absence of such drug, we have to face that a substantial part of the population might not be persuaded by the threat of punishment.

Free will and punishment

On several occasions we have published posts about criminal law on this blog. In general our position is that only acts which cause harm on non-consenting others should be prohibited, and should be punishable by law. What constitutes harm is subject to debate. However in this post we want to discuss another topic: whether the existence or non-existence of a free will is relevant in matters of criminal law.

Some authors have argued that if humans do not posses a free will, they cannot be held responsible for their actions and therefore society has no right to punish them. Some people have used the reverse reasoning to defend the existence of a free will: if people have to be held accountable for their actions, they should posses a free will; therefore a free will must exist. This latter argument is a fallacy, the so-called moralistic fallacy or the idea that the existence of A can be established from the moral desirability of A.

The most important argument raised against the existence of a free will is determinism. This is the ontological position that the order of events in the universe has been predetermined and consequently cannot be changed. There are many different types of determinism, but currently the most important one is the determinism of Laplace or Laplacian determinism. French scientist Laplace deduced from Newtonian physics that the universe should be deterministic at the end of the 18th century.

Central to Newtonian physics is the concept of force: a particle on which no forces are acting will either remain in rest or move in a straight line at a constant speed. In order to accelerate or decelerate, or to change its direction, you need to apply a force on it. The change in velocity and direction of the particle, is dependent on the magnitude and direction of the force acting on the particle. Laplace made the conclusion that if you would know the location of all particles in the universe and all forces acting on them at a given moment in time, and you know all laws of physics, you would be able to calculate the configuration of particles and forces at any other point in time.

Laplace’s determinism is based on the idea of a causal chain: cause and effect. Though Newtonian physics has been replaced by relativistic physics, determinism was still strongly established. After all, Einstein’s theory of relativity is no less deterministic than Newton’s theory. Even though many, if not most, physicists believe that quantum mechanics is probabilistic rather than deterministic, there are still many scientists who support deterministic versions of quantum theory.

Even if we, for the sake of the argument, assume that quantum mechanics is probabilistic and that random quantum fluctuations are capable of steering the human mind; the existence of a free will is still not proven. After all, we have no influence on the occurrence of these fluctuations and consequently we do not control their effects. Suppose that the human brain depends on a single quantum event: the spin of a particular hydrogen atom somewhere in our nerve system. The spin is either “up” or “down”, each with equal probability. If the spin is “up” the brain will choose action A, but if the spin is “down” it will choose action B. Since the spin of a hydrogen cannot be controlled by the brain, we cannot strictly speak of “a free will”.

We can conclude that a strong case can be made against the existence of a free will. So the question is now whether the non-existence of a free will matters in case of moral issues such as crime and punishment. I will argue it does not matter at all. Let we consider the following analogy: a game of pool. If a ball lies on a pool table, while no forces are acting on it, the ball will remain where it is. If a player pushes another ball with his cue stick. the second ball will follow a trajectory which is determined by the initial force (from the player) and friction. However when the second ball collides with the first one, the trajectory of the ball will be changed and also the first ball will move. But if the payer had not pushed the second ball, the first ball would have remained in rest.

Determinism is often misunderstood as that outcomes cannot be changed. But in fact, at least in Laplacian determinism, determinism only says that if you know the input, you also know the output: if you know that x+y=z, once you know both x and y, you automatically know z. However if don’t x, y or both, you cannot know z.

We can model the human mind as a function f of y and y: f(x,y)=z. Here are x and y what we can call external variables, and z is the internal state of the human mind. Now for every pair of x and y, there is one value of z; which makes this model a deterministic model of the mind. By changing x and/or y, we can control the state of the mind.

Even we do not have a free will, we can still suffer. Regardless of the (non)-existence of a free will, the reduction or elimination of harm is a good thing to do. By prohibiting harmful action and imposing penalties on such actions, we might reduce harm. How can this work?

First, punishment might act as a deterrent: the imposing of penalties might act as external variable which changes the state of mind z such that the person affected will not commit a crime. Even if the deterrence function of penalties only reduces the amount of crimes committed, it would be a good result. Secondly, punishment might change the way the criminal thinks: either the experience of punishment is such an unpleasant one, that he does not want to experience it again, or as result of punishment the criminal’s “mind function” is transformed from f(x,y) into g(x,y). Also in this case it would a good result, if crime is only reduced by some amount. Thirdly, punishment might remove a criminal from society (either by imprisonment or death), so he cannot commit any further crime.

None of these functions of punishment do require the existence of a free will. In fact the contrary is true, to some degree. In order for these function to work there should be some determinacy in the relation between punishments and criminal behaviour.

Space colonies and drug policy

If there is one thing we do not need in any future Space settlement, it is organized crime. One of the leading factors in organized is the prohibition of drugs. So if we want to reduce organised crime, we have to deal with drugs.

We have first to consider why the war on drugs has been a failure. American professor in criminology, Peter Moskos, has explained this as follows:

A child victim doesn’t go out searching for another criminal abuser. But that’s exactly what a drug addict does.

An arrest in the war on drugs usually creates a job opening. Arrest thousands of drugs dealers […], and other needy or greed will take their place. (Moskos p. 19, 2011).

The problem is that drug crimes are economic-demand motivated crimes. As long as there is a demand for illicit drugs there will be people who will sell drugs. And this trade in drugs is mainly controlled by criminal organizations.

Some people belief that using drugs is a victimless crime. They argue that since no third party is harmed if one chooses to do drugs. Therefore under harm principle drugs ought not to be prohibited. Although the principal “victim” of drug consumption is indeed the user, there are, however, serious issue related with drugs.

One is that drugs are addictive, if one uses drugs once they have a physical or mental need to continue using drugs. If a pregnant woman uses drugs, her child might be born already with a drug addiction. This certainly violates the harm principle and could therefore be prohibited or regulated. And being born with a drug addiction is not the only risk resulting from using drugs while pregnant. Children of addicted mothers suffer from several mental and physical development disorders.

Many (heavy) drug users are unable to function at their work, and hence get fired. Subsequently, they turn to crime to support themselves and finance their drugs. In this way drugs also causes significant harm to society. Heavy drug users also do harm by their behaviour. When people are under influence of drugs, they will behave in a different manner then they would otherwise. This is often asocial or violent behaviour.

Until very recently I was a fervent supporter of the global war on drugs, for the reasons mentioned above. I really believed that space settlement should prohibit drugs and should impose harsh punishment to enforce this prohibition. But I had a change of heart when I learned about the truth of the war on drugs in Mexico. Since 2006 tens of thousands of people have been killed in Mexico by rivalling drug cartels.

The Mexican Drug War is the direct result of the American war on drugs, since Mexican gangs are the main suppliers of drugs on the American market. In fact the war on drugs are causing much harm than the problem it ought to solve. Is this really what we want in a space colony?

Unlike some other proponents of drug reform, Republic of Lagrangia believes that drugs should be legalized in combination with regulation. How would our drug policy look like? First, we should treat drugs as a public health issue rather than as a matter of criminal justice. Drugs users who want to come clean should be helped by the government.

In order to prevent in influx of drug users, we should modify our immigration policy: terrestrial drug addicts should not be allowed to immigrate to outer space. If they can overcome their addiction, and stay clean for some years, we might welcome them as new settlers.

Although the use of drugs causes several social problems, violent drugs dealers are probably an even worse problem. The problem of drugs dealers is easily to solve: in order to have supervision on drug users, the state should consider to monopolize the trade in drugs. Since the state has no profit motive, it could offer drugs at cost price. The production of drugs is quite cheap, it’s prohibition which increase their market value. Because of this huge margin of profit, people become drugs dealers. If the state should offer drugs at low prices, then dealing drugs will lose its attractiveness.

Another benefit of state controlled supply of drugs, is that drugs users can be sure that the stuff they purchase is actually safe. It is not uncommon for ruthless drug dealers to sell instead of drugs, dangerous substances as wash powder. Because of the illicit nature of this trade, no fooled drug users will report those bastards to the police. Therefore these criminals get away with their fraud.

Also we believe that selling drugs to persons below 18 years of age should remain illegal.

References

Moskos, Peter 2011. In defense of flogging. Basic Books, New York.

Incest and Bestiality are NOT victimless crimes

Introduction

Republic of Lagrangia endorses the version of classical liberalism as have been described in On Liberty by John Stuart Mill.

The most important concept in this work is the so-called harm principle. What is this principle? The harm principle basically states that individual liberty should only be limited in order to prevent harming of others. In other words: a certain behaviour can only be prohibited by the government is such behaviour is harmful to others. This also means that the law should not make acts of self harm illegal. If some one chooses to harm himself without harming others, then we should not consider such person as a criminal.

Related to the harm principle is the concept of victimless crimes. These are crimes which do not have a victim. However, what is a victim? Some crimes such as murder, rape and theft, have clearly identifiable victims. But there are crimes in which the victims are less clear. An example is environmental pollution, which does harm person by destroying our environment. Only in case of environmental pollution it is often not clear who exactly has been harmed. Some wingnuts claim for these reason environmental pollution is a victimless crime, of course this is pure bullshit.

However, the harm principle does not state that some one has to be harmed intentionally by some act. If it is known that a certain act is harmful for some one, then this would be sufficient reason for prohibiting such act (or at least to regulate such behaviour).

Some people would argue that incest between mutually consenting adults is not a victimless crime. And people such as David Brink, suggest that bestiality is a victimless crime. In both cases, people argue that no one is harmed by such acts. In this post I will explain why neither incest nor bestiality is a victimless crime.

Incest

With incest we mean here: sexual intercourse between two consenting adults who are close relatives of each other. This definition excludes sexual relations between adults and minors and rape of a relative. These latter two act consist two separate crimes, since they are generally not considered as victimless.

One might argue that if two (or more) person consent to have sexual intercourse with each other, then there is no harm. In most cases, this would indeed be true. However, if two closely related persons have sex we have to take into account the children who might result from this act. And in case of two close relative having intercourse we have to deal with the risks of inbreeding.

It is a widely known fact that children of parent who are close relatives, have a greater change of having genetic disorders. Many governments are persuading pregnant women not to smoke or drink alcohol, because of the potential harm for their unborn children. Following this logic, we should also discourage close relatives to have sex with each other, in order to prevent harm to the children who might be conceived during an incestuous affair.

Inbreeding becomes even more serious when the children of closely related parents would have in their turn children with their relatives. For each generation that a family practices incest the incidence of genetic disorders will increase. And these disorders include very serious illnesses. There is incest certainly not a victimless crime.

Bestiality

Bestiality is when a human has sexual intercourse with a non-human animal. This behaviour is harmful in several ways.

First, we have to consider the harm done to the animal. According to Mill’s teacher Jeremy Bentham animals should have moral relevance because they can suffer, just as humans. Therefore animals are also covered by the harm principle. Although harming an animal might be justified in certain extraordinary circumstances, we absolute do not consider trying satisfying some (perverse) sexual urges as one of those.

Whether an animal will suffer of sexual intercourse with a human, depends on the physiology of the particular animal. However, even if an animal is not physically injured, an animal might suffer psychological damage from a unconsensual act.

A second reason why bestiality should be illegal is the problem of diseases which can be transferred from one species to another. By having intercourse with animal a human being might be infected by some disease. If such person subsequently has intercourse with a human, (s)he might infect other people. A new, potentially epidemic, infectious disease has been born. Or the zoosexual might infect other animals.

Scientists believe that HIV has been transmitted from apes to humans at some point in last century. We do not want just another of such disease. Therefore bestiality is not a victimless crime.

See also:

Space colonization and vegetarianism

Prison reform

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 [1].

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 [2]:

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 [3]:

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)

Links

Review of Peter Moskos’ In defense of flogging by The Economist

Interview with Peter Moskos in Salon

Notes

[1] 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.

[2] Peter Moskos, In defense of flogging in The Chronicle Review, April 24, 2011. (Visited on April 6, 2013).

[3] See previous note.