Tag Archives: Peter Moskos

Fines and revenue

But punishment must by definition hurt in some way, be it emotionally, psychologically, monetarily, or physically. Punishment must cause pain. (Peter Moskos 2011, In Defense of Flogging, p.114.)

In modern legal systems fines and imprisonment are the most common penalties which can be imposed on crimes. In classic criminology three functions of punishment have been described since the 18th century: deterrence, rehabilitation and incapacitation. The latter category seeks to disable a criminal from committing another crime in the future, be it through imprisonment or execution. In case of rehabilitation, the aim of “punishment” is to reform the criminal, so he will no longer be willing to commit crimes.

It’s quite obvious that fines or monetary penalties at best can only serve as a deterrent, fines do not incapacitate or reform criminals. Additionally we could argue that fines serve a retributive aim of punishment, as expressed by the quote by Peter Moskos. However, in order to function as a deterrent a punishment should be considered by the would-be criminal as unpleasant.

Deterrence theory is not without severe criticism, but monetary penalties suffer from another “flaw” in this respective. In most legal systems fines are expressed in absolute terms, i.e. the law prescribes a fixed (maximum) sum of money to be paid for a certain offense. The problem of this is, from the perspective of deterrence, is that different people have different levels of wealth.

Suppose that a certain action, say not cleaning up your dog’s feces in public space, is punished with a fine of 50 Stella. Both Alice and Bob have a dog, and as good dog keepers they regularly walk their dogs. But Alice has a monthly income of, say, 5,000 Stella whilst Bon only earns 3,000 Stella. Assuming both person need 1,500 Stella to live from, Alice has 3,500 Stella to spend freely and Bob 1,500.

Now we know that neither of them really like to clean their dog’s feces, and being rational persons they estimate how many times they can afford to pay the fine. Alice can afford 70 fines a month and Bob only 30. Consequently Bob would be more willingly to comply with the law, because one fine constitutes a larger part of his income than it does for Alice. Basically for Alice a fine is (subjectively) cheaper than for Bob.

This example clearly shows a problem with fixed fines from the perspective of deterrence theory: people with higher incomes will be less deterred by fines. At least this would be the case if we assume that deterrence is indeed a valid concept, which is at best only partially the case. But even from a pure retributive point of view, there’s a problem: poorer people are punished more severely by fines than their more affluent fellows. Though fines might be equal to all, but their effects aren’t.

In a normal market this would not be necessarily a bad thing, only criminal law is not meant to be an ordinary market of goods and services. Certain acts are banned because they are harmful to others, and consequently no one is allowed to commit these acts regardless of their wealth. If fines should be part of our legal system, than we should equalize the effects of this kind of punishment. In other words we should make fines dependent on the income of the offender.

One method to establish income dependent fines is by introducing day-unit fines. The basic idea here is: if we put you in jail for one day, you can’t work for a day. Hence you won’t earn any income on that day. More importantly if we put a rich person or a poor person in jail for a day, the unpleasantness for both of them is more or less the same. However instead throwing people in jail, we could just as easily give them a fine equal to their income of one day.

This approach is called the day-fine or unit-fine. One unit is equal to one’s income of one day, and in the law the fine is not expressed in terms of precise monetary amounts, but in terms of such units. In our example this could be for example a fine of unit for not cleaning the feces of your dog, instead of a fine of 50 Stella.

Another important issue related to fines, what to do with the revenues raised by collecting fines? One thing would be to use this money just to fund the government, but this would lead to a perverse incentive to politicians: in order to fill their gaps they will simply resort to increasing fines, regardless of whether this would affect crime in any way.

A better proposal would be in our eyes to put this revenue in a fund for the victims of crimes. This idea is related to the concept of restorative justice. We could use this fund directly to pay financial compensation to crime victims or indirectly. A slightly different idea would be to use this money to undo the effects of crime or to use this money for crime prevention programs.

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.

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.