Crime and a New Kind of Punishment

Posted on March 17, 2014 by


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Perhaps my mind turns by nature toward the morbid, but I found a recent article in the Daily Mail (UK) to be utterly fascinating. Scientists and ethicists appear to be considering the possibility of using drugs and/or altered states of biological reality to redefine punishment.

Dr. Rebecca Roache, who is at the center of this idea, thinks we might be able to use drugs to make someone “feel” like they have been in prison for hundreds of years. We may even be able to alter people’s perceptions so much that they could “experience” a significant internment while only being detained for part of a day.

Dr. Roache’s motivation seems straightforward. She references what she deems intolerably light sentences for heinous offenses, especially one case where a couple received thirty years for torturing and killing a young boy. She argues that under the current system the pair will be treated far more humanely than they treated the boy they killed.

Frankly, I am still noodling this whole idea of pharmaceutical or virtual punishments. But it seems apparent that Dr. Roache defines justice through proportionality. She believes there must be a connection between the punishment and the crime, and when that proportion is absent, justice cannot be served. At the same time, she defines the proportionality by how the criminal perceives the punishment as opposed to the nature of the punishment itself. So long as someone thinks they  have served time, that is sufficient in spite of the reality that they have not served much time. If their mind tells them they spent twenty years in prison, even though that feeling was produced by a drug-induced state, she assumes it is the same. What matters, then, is how the criminal subjectively relates to the punishment, but notice this says nothing about how others might perceive it. If a drunk driver, let’s say, kills one of your children in an auto accident, would it be sufficient for you to see the perpetrator released in eight hours even though they may have “felt” like they served twenty years? Is this the consequence of a simplistic relativism as applied to sentencing, or is the only operative standard the one that exists in the mind of the one being punished?

Whenever we consider temporal justice, we must always know that our justice, no matter how we mete it out, is just that–temporal. We can never achieve divine justice in the here and now, though we strive for it, so we, as Christians, must take some comfort in the hope that God’s justice is perfect even though we may not experience it. Dr. Roache, to a degree, thinks that we must extend punishment beyond the normal lifespan for the most terrible offenses, and I happen to agree with her. But I also think a sober conception of eternal punishment alleviates my burdens, while she feels the need to satisfy her own sense of justice because no other source of justice exists.