Tag Archives: Law and order

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.

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)


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

Interview with Peter Moskos in Salon


[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.

Dealing with piracy

My own country, the Netherlands, happens to be one of the few countries which do not allow private armed security guards on ships faring under Dutch flag. International law states that if a ship is in international waters the laws of its flag nation applies on board, in words such a ship is part of the flag nation’s territory.

A very big problem these days, are Somalian pirates who are threatening global shipping. Since a large portion of all cargo transit between (Western) Europe and Asia, goes through the Suez channel and subsequently come close to Somalia, this is an issue for almost every nation on Earth. It’s therefore not without reason that many nations has sent their navies to Somalia in order to combat the pirates. The Dutch navy is one of those.

Only the problem is that on the oceans there are huge distances between ships, commercial and navy. If a ship is attacked by pirates, it may take a few days before a navy vessel can come close enough to take action. Further there are far more commercial ships, and thus potential targets, than navy ships.

Since most Somalian pirates are operating in small groups and are relatively weakly armed, an effective remedy against pirates is to employ private armed security guards. Because these guard are on board of the ship they are protecting, this solution is much cheaper than relying on navy support. We, and many others, believe in a right of self-defense.

Of course, private armed security guards do not make navies unnecessary, they only help navies in combating piracy in international waters. That the Dutch government still refuses to allow them is something we do not understand. Fortunately a famous Dutch think tank on foreign relation and military policy, Clingendael Institute, has published a report urging the government to allow private security guards on Dutch ships.

You might ask why I address this point on this blog about space colonization. I do this because I strongly believe that when the humanization of space has become a reality, it will only be a matter of time, before space pirates will arise. In all societies there are criminals, Settlements in outer space will prove not be an exception. Some criminals will only operate within some space settlements, other law-breakers will try to exploit the advantages of outer space.

Virtually all space advocates agree on that the distances between space settlements will be large and that there be a lot of trade between space settlements. These two facts provide a perfect opportunity for space pirates. Since it may take weeks, even months, before the armed forces of any space nation may come to help, inter-settlement transport of both people and cargo is extremely vulnerable for criminal actions.

It will be clear that the crew of cargo spacecrafts cannot rely on the assistance of the official armed forces in case of any hostile attack. The only thing that is realistic option is to allow arms on these spacecrafts, so that the crew can defend themselves. Of course, the armed forces will do anything to combat these outlaws, actually the very existence of space pirates may be the prime raison d’être for the militaries of space nations.