Everybody wants to live forever. “Life extension” is a current obsession for medical scientists and biotech companies alike, and it will be, at least until it works. Among other realms of society, longer lifespans would have interesting implications for criminal justice. If everyone could live for 500 years, for instance, what would that mean for life sentences? In a recent interview with Ross Anderson for Aeon, Oxford University philosopher Rebecca Roache talked about her ideas for punishment in the near and far future.
Roache told Andersen that she had initially started thinking about this when a woman and her husband were convicted of torturing and starving the woman’s four-year-old child in the U.K. in 2012. For such a heinous crime, she wondered, was a stint in prison for each of them punishment enough? (The U.K. uses the death penalty only very, very sparingly, and so Roache’s discussion does not dwell on it.) Maybe a radically extended sentence would be appropriate in some cases, if the medical technology existed.
“Some crimes are so bad they require a really long period of punishment, and a lot of people seem to get out of that punishment by dying,” Roache said. “And so I thought, why not make prison sentences for particularly odious criminals worse by extending their lives?”
So, on a post on her blog, Roache expanded on a number of ways that technology could make punishment worse; “radical lifespan enhancement” was only one of her ideas. Another was “mind uploading,” an idea based on the belief that it will be possible some day to upload human minds to computers, and run them at a superhuman speed. From her post:
Professor Nick Bostrom, head of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, calls a vastly faster version of human-level intelligence ‘speed superintelligence’. He observes that a speed superintelligence operating at ten thousand times that of a biological brain ‘would be able to read a book in a few seconds and write a PhD thesis in an afternoon. If the speed‑up were instead a factor of a million, a millennium of thinking would be accomplished in eight and a half hours.’ Similarly, uploading the mind of a convicted criminal and running it a million times faster than normal would enable the uploaded criminal to serve a 1,000 year sentence in eight-and-a-half hours.
That particular idea is, well, bonkers. But Roache is a philosopher, so it’s her job to think about the meanings and implications of such things before they’re actually possible. Slightly closer to an imaginable reality, though, is her suggestion that psychedelic drugs could be used to a similar effect. “There are a number of psychoactive drugs that distort people’s sense of time, so you could imagine developing a pill or a liquid that made someone feel like they were serving a 1,000-year sentence,” she tells Andersen in the Aeon interview. “[A] time-slowing pill would be a pretty radical innovation in the history of penal technology.”
Technological miracles of the future aside, there are, of course, pretty obvious ways to make prison experiences much worse for a prisoner already: extended periods of solitary confinement, psychological abuse, and physical abuse. The only limits to these methods are the limitations of a sadist’s imagination. But Roache explained on her blog, in response to a reader’s comment in this vein, that she does not advocate torture, or an “eye for an eye” mentality—even for the worst criminals. “I start from the assumption that it is possible to make the currently severest sentences more unpleasant for criminals without immediately entering the realm of torture or inhumane treatment,” she wrote.
On the other hand, one could argue that life sentences are already inhumane, even in their current, regular-old-boring-lifespan iterations. In his giant door-stop of a textbookWorld Criminal Justice Systems: A Comparative Survey, Richard J. Terill writes that every country has a different method of determining the appropriate prison sentence for a crime, but that “there are essentially four categories of rationales.” These categories include “retribution, isolation, deterrence, and rehabilitation.” There is one type of prison sentence in which that last category doesn’t apply, and that is life without the possibility of parole.
In 1977, the Council of Europe stated that such sentences were “inhuman” and are “compatible neither with the modern principles on the treatment of prisoners ... nor with the idea of the reintegration of offenders into society.” Life without parole has been declared unconstitutional in several European countries. But in the U.S., there are more people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole than ever before—and people are living longer than ever, as well.
According to research by the Sentencing Project, the rise in life sentences corresponded with the pattern of states’ abolishing the death penalty that began in the early 1970s. The “tough on crime” political environment of the 1980s contributed to that trend, as the public became more likely to think of prison sentences as a way to keep criminals off the streets than to think about it as a method for reform and rehabilitation.
The “lifer population” in the U.S. has more than quadrupled since 1984, with 160,000 people now serving life sentences—50,000 of them without the possibility of parole. In fact, in six states, all life sentences are life sentences without parole. There is no possibility of review or release for any life sentences there, so if you get sentenced to life in jail, you’ll die there. Life sentences are no longer just the punishment for homicide, either. Thanks to punitive “three-strikes” laws, even non-violent crimes such as robbery and drug offenses can put people away for the rest of their lives. And, according to the Sentencing Project, as of last year there were over 2,500 prisoners in the U.S. under 18 who were serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences kids to life without parole. Thousands more are no longer juveniles, but are sentenced without parole for crimes they committed when they were. Those kids won’t have to live 500 years, or take mind-altering drugs, for their sentences to seem “radically extended.”
Highly theoretical biotechnical advancements are bound to get a lot of attention, as Roache’s fascinating discussions rightly have. (She says she’s been overwhelmed by the response, especially after a few oversimplified and mischaracterizing takes elsewhere online.) Roache’s ideas inspire important debates about difficult questions: about how societies should punish their criminals, and what results they should prioritize and expect on the other end of those punishments. Here’s hoping all the talk about future fantasies attracts some light to the cold realities of current punishment, too.