The US has the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world. 750 per 100,000 people. We have the largest number of prisons in the world. And the system can’t keep up. Jail and prison overcrowding is a ubiquitous problem. The prisons are becoming hell-holes to rival the legendary Black Hole of Calcutta. Police and politicians routinely use analogies to outright war to characterize crime, declaring our communities ‘war zones’ and ‘battlefields’ to justify an increasingly militarized police force.
Yet in the Netherlands and Denmark they are shutting down prisons for lack of inmates. In Scandinavia some prisons have become vastly more comfortable than the average American college dorm. In Norway there is a prison on Bastøy Island for some of the nation’s worst criminals where inmates live in group homes, walk freely about, and engage in sports activities. Recidivism rates are around 18%. In the US the average is somewhere between 40-60% depending on the information source. (being a highly politicized issue in the US, accuracy in this figure is more difficult) More then 3/5ths of the nations of the world have an incarceration rate of less than 150 per 100,000 people. Cuba—a nation long struggling with poverty due to the isolation imposed by the western world—has an incarceration rate in the low double-digits.
What’s going on here? Are Americans fundamentally more criminally inclined people? The suggestion seems absurd. And, in fact, statistical rates of victimization in the US aren’t really different from that of the rest of the world and have been in slow decline for most of the 20th century. Crime is NOT on the rise. It is NOT ‘out of control’. Our communities are NOT war zones or battlefields. But the attitude toward crime in the US is very different from that of the rest of the world. Public fear of crime is much greater, our reaction to it more extreme, and this fear is leveraged constantly by politicians and authorities for their own agenda.
For most every type of crime, our sentences are more severe than in the rest of the world. 41% of criminal sentences in the US are for terms in excess of 10 years. We incarcerate more children than any other nation. Foolish ‘three strikes’ systems put people back in prison for minor infractions at ridiculous taxpayer expense. In the US it is vastly easier to get arrested, you get put in prison much longer, and you get treated much more poorly there leading to a greater likelihood of repeat offense. We entrap people in a culture of crime that progressively escalates their criminal behavior with time. And, of course, this all applies disproportionally to minorities.
Basically, the US treats the justice system as a system of punishment rather than a system for the management and treatment of criminal behavior. We treat crime as rooted in a congenital/class/race predisposition or irreparable character flaw—a very Calvinist/Puritan idea (some are predestined for heaven, others predestined for hell)—while the rest of the world, to varying degrees, regards it as mental illness, often keyed to life situation, that can potentially be treated and prevented if we can understand the pathology. And, to be frank, there is an economic vested interest in maintaining this point of view in the US because we have now turned our prison system into a for-profit enterprise that incarcerates for profit and corrupts the justice system itself. We’ve caught judges in the US in kickback schemes with companies putting children into prison for profit. It doesn’t get much lower than that, folks.
Most crime is economic in nature. Crimes of economic desperation. Crimes of economic avarice. This has its roots in our monetary and economic systems as well as a culture that cultivates anonymity and rewards sociopathic behavior. They establish the situations that lead to this crime, which doesn’t absolve people of their responsibility but does mean that society, as a whole, shares some of that responsibility as well by creating the situations that encourage this behavior.
Other criminal activity is very clearly related to various kinds of mental illness and, though often dramatic in nature, are relatively rare in practice. As we’ve noted, the general rates of victimization—real crimes against people—are largely consistent globally and in slow decline, in part because, being mostly economic in nature, they are keyed to general economic security in society. As more of the global population is brought to middle-class status more people are living better generally, are under less economic stress, and are getting better health care leading to better intervention for mental illness. Again, we tend to deal poorly with this in the US because our Calvinist/Puritan logic leads us to deny the existence of mental illness as an excuse to absolve people of responsibility while interfering with our compulsion for revenge. Whatever we think justice systems and institutional violence are doing in respect to that—in terms of some sort of deterrent to aberrant behavior—is obviously not having any particular impact. Capital punishment is a well proven failure that says a lot more about the character of the societies that continue to perpetuate it than about crime or criminals.
Our general cultural approach to dealing with crime is simply irrational and, quite plainly, does not work. We all know this. Our system is constantly inventing crime—inventing new reasons to put more people in prison rather than ways of keeping them out. We’re obviously throwing a lot of society’s resources away and destroying a lot of lives—and their productivity—in the process for notions of justice rooted in primitive ideas of retribution. As a wise US prison warden once noted, we are stuck in a trend that ultimately leads to half the population sitting in prison with the other half guarding them. Is that the sort of future we want?
==Crime as a Failure Mode==
So how would things be different in our imagined stateless future? Without the top-down systems of authority, how does one deal with crime? Also, how does one deal with the increasing individual potential for destruction as it continues to grow with technology? Most certainly, these would be some of the greatest challenges future society may face. But we will have eliminated one of the single greatest forces behind crime in our culture; money.
As we noted, most crime is economic in nature; driven by a system that simply doesn’t provide adequately for people’s needs, a culture that compels people to desire things they don’t need, and compels them to take risks in crime for the sake of survival or what they perceive to be a chance to escape poverty or class barriers. Which is more cost-efficient? Police, an elaborate justice system, jails and prisons or just giving everybody enough? Bear in mind, also, that recent scientific study is increasingly demonstrating the health impact of poverty and how that influences potential mental illness. It is now a scientific fact that the conditions of poverty, the impact of stress, poor diet, poor health, lead to a reduced decision-making capacity—a chronic tendency toward poor choices—that itself helps to trap people in poverty and creates a subtle predisposition to criminal behavior. Setting aside the issue of ‘morality’, crime represents a kind of failure mode in society and we need to look at it that way if we are really serious about its prevention.
In our imagined future resource based economy, with its fully automated production web and integral universal basic income, most of the crime common to contemporary society—crime rooted in desperation—is just factored out. No one need struggle just to live in this future culture. No one has their life threatened by a lack of money. Consequently, better general health, better standard of living and quality of life, leads also to reduced mental illness that might predispose other kinds of criminal behavior. Property damage and loss? What wouldn’t be immediately replaceable free?
But what of crimes of avarice? Such crime depends on the essential generic fungibility of money as it exists today and the potential for people to exchange it anonymously. But even today, long before we’ve even begun to seriously supplant our monetary systems, these abilities are starting to be eliminated—for better or worse. Physical cash is being obsolesced because of its essential insecurity. By adopting the use of debit cards and other cashless means of exchange we’ve not only increased the security of money but passed upward much of the personal loss from minor theft to corporate service providers that have assumed, for a fee, the responsibility for security. Digital crime is believed to be rampant today, but doesn’t so much effect people individually as collectively. Identity theft can result in great persistent personal inconvenience, but the actual economic impact is spread across the system. Increasingly, goods are developing ‘spimes’ making their history and use digitally trackable. High-end goods like smart phones, mobile computers, automobiles, and the like all digitally report their own theft and aid in their tracking and recovery. Money too is now becoming ‘spimed’. Though government constitutions often guarantee a right to private monetary exchange, we are increasingly introducing third and fourth parties into this that potentially break-down anonymity.
Without a monetary system, what forms can avarice take? Most-likely, it would shift to people seeking to ‘game’ the digital systems of social credit that meritocratically afford people access to unusual resources. But this is use-specific and public. You might con your way to resources supposedly intended to build a hospital and then try make a yacht instead but the system, and the public, knows what those resources were intended for and the things you make would usually be ’spimed’. It would be a difficult feat to get away with unless you have some way to hide your resource gathering, your production, and subsequent use from the whole world or intend to completely disconnect from the civilization. That yacht better be a personal spaceship…
It would seem more likely that crimes of avarice would relate to professional communities and attempts to systematically destroy the reputation of professional rivals to eliminate them as competition for social credit or as barriers to personal objectives within adhocracies and communities. This, of course, goes on all the time in our contemporary corporate, political, and even academic communities, and we don’t even regard it as ‘criminal’ behavior…
But, obviously, eliminating economic crime isn’t going to eliminate all crime—particularly violent crime, domestic abuse, driven by emotion, substance abuse, and mental illness. And there will still probably be many ‘tort’ issues; not so much about money and property so much as civil rights and conflicts over rights. By rationally dealing with these problems as what they really are, we can greatly minimize their incidence. But there will, most certainly, still need to be means of social intervention, still be a need for some kinds of incarceration. The question of whether acts like murder or child molestation can ever be truly ‘forgiven’ by society and thus rehabilitation truly recognized is a very difficult question, and far beyond the scope of this article and project. We would hope that, by being more rational about crime, we can progressively better intercede before the ultimate act, which will indeed be increasingly critical as people’s personal destructive potential increases with advancing technology. By regarding crime as a failure mode, we can see it as a call for psychological and social intervention. Realistically, we cannot preclude every failure and must resign ourselves to better, more rationally, coping with their aftermath and learning as much as we can from them. We must look at crime not so much in terms of who to blame and punish but rather in the manner of a forensic engineer/scientist engaged in a crash scene investigation seeking future prevention through understanding.
But what we can anticipate is that, in general, the burden of crime will likely be greatly reduced in this Post-Industrial culture to where the need for the kinds of vast increasingly militaristic law enforcement, justice, and incarceration ‘industrial complexes’ that exist today become unnecessary. Indeed, without money to sustain them, could such complexes continue to exist? How many of those people really are there because it’s a calling and not just a job or a venue for profit? The effect of automatic negative social credit will be enough response alone for many minor infractions while other incidences of crime may be rare enough that communities can respond to them on-demand through the formation of temporary citizens adhocracies addressing them, relying on the previously described Open Source Law as a guideline and the assistance of professionals as guides and mediators without any vested interest in outcomes. We may need a new kind of professional society for criminal investigation, at once more like a scientific/academic community yet, applying their special knowledge, aiding in the intervention required within specific communities.
We will probably have no need for the kinds of gigantic prisons and jails of the present. Physical communities may have their temporary ‘brigs’ and ‘drunk tanks’ and little else. Maybe all the future will require is a few places like Norway’s Bastøy Island as asylums—and research laboratories—for those criminally insane we simply have not figured out how to fully rehabilitate and must humanely contain for the safety of the rest of society. And in the transhumanist future, with an ability to heal unimaginable today, an ability to secure life in many new ways, perhaps even such things as murder may not be culturally perceived as the same kind of crime we consider it to be today.