The first time I watched Star Trek and heard Captain Kirk utter the phrase – “Set your phasers to stun!” – it occurred to me that these future weapons featured a number of different settings.

While most people assumed a simple two-position switch with only “kill” or “stun” options, I found myself dwelling on the possibilities of an eight or ten-position switch and wondering what the other options might be. Perhaps they would include stun 1 (with pain), stun 2 (without pain), giggle (make them laugh uncontrollably), amnesia (forget what they’re doing), slo-mo (causing them to move in slow motion), suicide (making them take their own life), seizure (all muscles fire at once), overwhelming guilt (immobilized by guilt and self loathing), or overwhelming pity (suddenly they become your friend).

These may sound silly, but since today’s weapons only have one setting, we have a hard time imagining a technology with more choices.

Similarly, when people show up in court, judges only tend to have one setting for justice – incarceration. With our existing infrastructure built up around jails and prisons, we have a justice system that has a hard time considering other options.

With incarceration rates in the U.S. now reaching epidemic levels, I would like to take you through the exercise of envisioning a world where prisons are no longer an option. If judges no longer had ‘incarceration’ as a setting on their gavel of justice, what kind of world would we live in? Here are a few thoughts.

Our Current Incarceration Epidemic

The United States represents only 5% of the world population yet houses 25% of the global prison population. Nearly half of all prisoners in the USA are incarcerated for non-violent crimes.

During 2011, the total U.S. prison population declined for the second consecutive year, to under 1.6 million inmates or 15,023 fewer inmates than in 2010. This represents a 0.9 percent decrease in the total prison population.

The positive trend, however, is still only a small blip in a much larger problem. Statistics show the U.S. prison population rose by 708% from 1972 to 2008, a rate far outpacing that of general population growth and crime rates.

While 1 out of every 122 Americans is now actually in prison, 1 out of every 32 of us is either in prison or on parole.

This means that 7 million adult men and women — about 4.1% of the total U.S. adult population — are now very involuntary members of America’s “correctional community.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics the United States still has the highest documented incarceration rates and most overcrowded prisons in the world.

Punishment Vs. Rehabilitation

Our current criminal justice system has been developed around several distinct stages, including arrest, prosecution, trial, sentencing, and punishment, which usually involves some form of imprisonment. This is a very expensive process that employs millions of people throughout the entire system.

Rehabilitation is the idea of transforming a person who has committed a criminal act so they won’t do it again.

Rehabilitation can take place at any stage of the system. As an example, when a police officer makes first contact with a criminal, they can impose on-the-spot penalties and warnings. However, the sentencing and punishment stages of the process are where most controversy lies.

Advocates of the status quo argue that there is great value in punishment as a deterrent and even greater value in removing disruptive personalities from society.

The counter argument is that punishment actually leads to greater degrees of criminality, and that prisons themselves become something akin to a college for crime, and people leaving prison are worse than when they went in.

While good arguments can be made on both sides, there is little argument over the cost of maintaining the current system. Not only are taxpayers picking up the cost of police, attorneys, judges, and prisons, but hidden many layers below is the overall toll this system exacts on society.

Prisons separate wage earners from their income, parents from their children, and self-sufficiency from state support. In a paycheck-to-paycheck society, incarceration almost always leads to bankruptcy, and a “felony” offense on your criminal record most often leads to a life of poverty.

The purpose of this column is not to argue the merits of the current system. Rather, it’s to imagine something different.

A Note about Restorative Justice

Restorative justice is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders, as well as the surrounding community.

Crime is a larger issue than just how government deals with criminals. Since crime victims and the community bear the brunt of the crime, they too must be actively involved in the criminal justice process for a true change to occur.

Currently, many victims feel re-victimized by the criminal justice system itself because it excludes them from most of the process. Using a different approach, restorative justice victims take an active role in the process, while offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, “to repair the harm they’ve done—by apologizing, returning stolen money, or community service”.

Restorative justice asks that victim’s concerns be considered throughout the process. Victims need help regaining a sense of control over their lives, and they need to be compensated for their loss.

Rather than simply warehousing offenders, restorative justice system holds offenders personally accountable. They need to confront the pain they have caused to their victims and take the steps necessary to overcome their criminal behavior.

While restorative justice offers a positive step in the right direction, let’s take some of these ideas a few steps further.

The Death Row Question

Question: You find yourself on a jury, deciding the fate of some heinous criminal, such as Ted Bundy or Josef Mengele. You have the choice of either sentencing him to the electric chair or to total amnesia. Which would you decide?

Total amnesia involves wiping the brain clean and the people will have to start over from scratch, relearning how to walk, talk, and even how to feed themself all over again.

The question is a good one because it gets to the essence of what we value in human life. Do we value the life itself or the personality that exemplifies it?

I’ve asked this question of many groups, all of whom gave me different answers and different reasons for justifying their thoughts.

My favorite answer came from my son Kyler when he was 11 years old. After thinking about it for a while, he said, “I don’t think that amnesia thing is a good idea because people would still hate him and he wouldn’t know why.”

Envisioning a World Without Prisons

Let’s start with the simple question, “If prisons were removed as an option for working with criminals, how would we deal with them?”

In much the same way we considered different settings on a Star Trek phaser, how could we develop different ways of managing criminal offenders? As technology progresses, here are a few possibilities:

  1. Automated Monitoring: With drone technology progressing quickly, we will soon have the ability to assign a small inconspicuous hovering drone to 24/7 surveillance on an individual. Over the next few years drones will be able to lock onto a specific digital signature (perhaps a heat signature combined with tracking brain and energy waves) for every individual. Once we can track an individual, the next step will be to auto-analyze the person’s actions and take measures instantly whenever a violation occurs.
  2. Automated Correction: As we move into an increasingly transparent society, deviant behaviors will be increasingly easy to detect. As an example, pocketing merchandise in a store, breaking into a house, or hitting/killing someone will be very easy to track. For someone who is a habitual offender, the same drones that are used to monitor someone can be used to dispense warning shocks, Taser jolts, or other forms of stopping the aggression.
  3. Automated Punishment: When dealing with more violent individuals, people could be sensed to “electronic canings” where a drone randomly shocks someone a designated number of times over a certain period of time. One caveat for resorting measures like this would be that the punishment couldn’t put the person in harms way or cause problems for their family or friends.
  4. Punishment Matching the Crime: In the future we will have the ability to painlessly alter the function of the human body to closely match the punishment to the crime. As an example, a person who is a pickpocket will lose their ability to use their right arm for the next six years, or a burglar will lose their ability to use their legs for the next 8 years, or a rapist will experience a constant state of erectile dysfunction for the next 20 years.
  5. Brain Wipes: In extreme cases, as in the Death Row Question above, the only viable option may be to wipe the brain clean and start over.

The advantage of most of these approaches is that the offenders can still remain productive members of society and the costs will be trivial compared to incarceration today.

Yes, technologies like these will lead to many abuses. But as we peel away the onionskins of transparency and add new layers of technology, our options for auto-monitoring, auto-correction, and automated forms of punishment will yield unusual new alternatives for righting the wrongs of deviant people in society.

Final Thoughts 

This morning as I was scanning through headlines in the Denver Post, and came across: “Denver man, 85, with cane faces assault charge on security guard.”

Reading further down the article, the older gentleman became enraged after a security guard seized his handicapped-parking permit because it had expired.

Few cases, in my mind, are as worthy of hiring attorneys and spending time in a courtroom in front of a judge than this one. Of course I’m being facetious.

Incarceration is a system that breeds failure. People coming out are worse than when they go in.

At the same time, we live in a flawed world filled with flawed people. So some action needs to be taken.

I don’t believe it will ever be possible to find an actual “cure” for the excesses of human nature, nor should there be. But there is always room for improvement, and it’s very obvious that our current checks and balances are not adequately reining in the excesses of today’s bureaucracy.

For this reason, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is the current effort with restorative justice enough, or is there something better?

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

16 Responses to “When Prisons Become Illegal”

Comments List

  1. Ed

    I feel that there is a lot more to do, but yes in certain manner is enough, but also, good to see a better solution. You're right, putting people in jail is not the solution. Like you say Thomas, when you come out you're worse than when you enter. The solutions is not building jails to fixed the bad way...on a personal thinking, I feel that many on jails are for minors accident or doing what they didn`t,,and can have a quickly new oportunity on this life...see it a little more eternal for the good`s of all...meaning that many times people are confused on this life and they do things bad, but just for that ocasion,,he have good soul, etc..personal ok.. thaks for your comments... rgds Ed
  2. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Mark Wojcik</a>

    Tom, Nice introduction to the subject, but many of the possibilities you mention have already started. My company is a technology provider to the corrections industry, and I believe The decline in prison population over the past 2 years is just the start of a long-term trend. Much of our current prison population is a result of the so-called "war on drugs" and ill-conceived policy decisions such as "3 strikes and your out," even if those strikes are petty crimes. The idea that prison beds should be reserved for people that are dangerous to society, not those who just behaved badly or did something wrong, is being embraced by thought leaders on both sides of the political spectrum and throughout the ecosystem... including politicians, judges, administrators, probation and parole, lawyers, and law enforcement. New technology is being adopted at unprecedented levels, and behavioral and therapeutic courts are some of the biggest success stories over the past 5 years. These include DUI courts, drug courts, veterans courts, and prostitution courts. Rather than doling out punishment, judges who run these courts assemble a cross-functional team from the community and attempt to address the root cause of bad behavior. The California prison realignment is another example of wholesale change. Although driven by budget issues and a Supreme Court decision that California's prison system is so overcrowded it is inhumane, that population will be reduced by tens of thousands over the coming years. Some of this will be accomplished by shifting the burden to local jails, but much of it comes from the recognition that jail is no place for "low-level" offenders. The collateral damage is simply too great. I recently spoke with a Republican Texas Congressman who said the State of Texas will never build another prison on his watch because most of the folks in prison can still be very productive members of society. I think (hope?) the future is now on this subject.
  3. Anthony

    Making criminals repair what they have done is good, but if I was a victim of a crime, for example theft, it would be best if I could just be paid compensation instantly, even if the criminal wasn't caught. After that, I'm out of the picture getting on with my life, while the criminal pays back whoever paid me. I don't claim to know much about it, but I think one of the reasons why we haven't seen any changes to how crime is punished in say, in at least the last 200 years is because there is only one player in the market (the government bureaucracy), and no incentive, or legal ability for anyone else to test out new ideas. One idea proposed is to have private businesses who promise compensation / guarantee prevention in exchange for the right to punish the criminal. For example, they could catch the criminal, and then sell him off to the prison, who would pay a certain amount per individual based on the crime or estimated time to serve. This way, priorities of deciding which type of criminal could be kept in check, other than today when cops often feed on less important but easily catchable crimes such as speeding, with quotas. Then the time to serve would be linked via market incentives to the compensation/retribution price instead of incentive being tied to an arbitrarily picked fine, it would be more fairly linked to how much the crime is unwanted. Perhaps we could also deter criminals through economic ostracism depending on the preference of the victim. To be allowed back into e.g. shopping centres, they would have to pass a rehabilitation test from an agency who would perhaps insure damages which is in effect a promise that the former criminal won't do any harm. If they had actually rehabilitated him, then they would be able to turn a profit since they never pay out. Hopefully one day prison will be a last resort and used far less often. I would be worried about any of these technological measures being implemented today, because they would almost certainly be abused, which is evident with the extraordinarily high incarceration rate today, which most people believe to be for unjust laws such as drug use. On the bright side, violent crime incidences have always been on the downturn.
  4. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Jamie Edmonds</a>

    Great article and I agree: when your only tool is a hammer, all problems appear only as nails (though as a Trekker I find your phaser analogy far superior!) The key is to look at the root causes for "delinquency" and criminal behavior in our society and address the problem there, but we don't want to own our part it the problem itself. It reminds me of George Carlin's non-rant about politicians: [paraphrase] these crappy politicians didn't just come from some other reality to control our lives--they are a reflection of US. After looking deeply into this and other societal ills, I have come to the conclusion that the root of the disease can be traced largely to our slavish commitment to the monetary system. As Buckminster Fuller stated decades ago: through our technological ability to create abundance we can now provide for the needs of every human being on the planet. But we don't do that for a number of reasons that the tenets of the Zeitgeist Movement spell out quite well. The reason people are still "criminals" is that we have failed them as a society. It's like the war on drugs or the war on guns (referenced in another great George Carlin piece)--we have no hope of legislating these ills out of existence--but get rid of the demand and the supply will take care of itself. There is a new and growing way to consider how we create our "criminals". Dr. Martin Luther King said: "There are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize [ . . . ]" If it's not "nature" then we had better take a HARD look at how we "nurture" before we have more people in prisons than we can possibly hope to guard:
  5. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>dennis baker</a>

    Today the setting is on stun (to confuse the citizen), which you do well! First you bring the narcotics into the country, then you imprison the addicts! With the ability to snatch and torture anyone whom knows. By putting police in schools to protect children, (in between gun fights)have nothing to do but arrest children! These children then become prisoners for life! That's called SLAVERY! Prisons should be illegal.
  6. Stan VanderWerf

    Sir, Your statistics are wrong. Recommend you check your sources. It's not 1 out of every 122 people. 1.6M divided by 330M equals 1 out of every 206. And there is no discussion if this means we have over incarcerated citizens....or perhaps our system is simply more effective than other countries. You imply overincarcertion and therefore indicate a need to pursue a different paradym. Why? I might also add, regardless of whether prison inmates are on the rise or not, we should look at the root cause for why people commit crimes. The best way to reduce a prison population is to ensure our society embraces and instills in our children what is right and what is wrong. It is here where I believe we are really failing. The value of life of has been diminished in our society. The connnection between parents and children is weakened, and the connection between children and an extended family, where granda and grandpa could help teach morals to our children, is almost gone. While this is an enormously complex issue, I can compare this to Korea where I have lived. A deeply extended family base, where you bring shame to yourself, your family, your country, and your ancestors if you steal. Korea has about 1/5th the crime rate of the US and 1/10th the robberies of the US. Now in fairness to my comments, I have not "proven" my statements either. But I also submit that because we have a very high prison inmate number does not mean we need a new model, or we are incarcerating the wrong people, or that they should be released. And while I believe we DO need to determine ways to rehabilitate criminals so they can be law abiding and productive members of society, the values that drive those behaviors are usually set while still in your youth and not easy to change afterwards.
  7. Anthony

    @Stan VanderWerf You raise important issues. To add to what you've already said, I've pulled some statistics, that support the importance of a good family in reducing crime: - Among long-term prison inmates, 70 percent grew up without fathers, as did 60 percent of rapists and 75 percent of adolescents charged with murder. In comparison, only 27% of children live with one parent. - Kids who exhibited violent behavior at school were 11 times as likely not to live with their fathers and six times as likely to have parents who were not married. - Nationally, 15.3 percent of children living with a never-married mother and 10.7 percent of children living with a divorced mother have been expelled or suspended from school, compared to only 4.4 percent of children living with both biological parents. - Only 13 percent of juvenile delinquents come from families in which the biological mother and father are married to each other. By contract, 33 percent have parents who are either divorced or separated and 44 percent have parents who were never married. - Seventy percent of juveniles in state reform institutions grew up in single- or no-parent situations - The likelihood that a young male will engage in criminal activity doubles if he is raised without a father and triples if he lives in a neighborhood with a high concentration of single-parent families.
    • admin

      Anthony, thanks for some great stats. Yes, marriage and the involvement of the father are huge factors. At the same time, the idea of taking all the people who can't get along in society and grouping them all together in small spaces, only makes matters worse. Our current approach is not a good long-term strategy for a healthy society. It's not an easy problem to solve, but it is certainly worthy of much more attention. Tom
  8. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Bob Dove</a>

    As Mark W says, the future is now, as many are examining this issue and coming up with alternatives, based on the economics of the current system. It is economically unsustainable and therefore must change. I love your Star Trek reference for generating new thinking on the issue, but also see how elegant solutions can often be turned around to be future nightmares for all of society (Big Brother is Watching not just the bad people but all of us, 'cause we all have the possibility of larceny in our hearts.) As with many societal problems, this one can seem too large for the average person to get involved in, however there are things that each of us can do to help lesson the problems while larger solutions are being worked on. I sit on a Community Advisory Council (CAC) for the PA State Probation and Parole Board where we work closely with the issues generated by the current system including reintegration of all offenders into society (helping with basic needs; food, clothing, and shelter as well as someone who cares about their future), and employment issues. Connecting parolees to communittee resources is critical to stemming the tide of recidivism. Many of the folks on our regional CAC and others on CACs around the state work for organizations dedicated to helping individuals negatively impacted by the system. There are organizations that focus on Stan's points concerning a basic sense of right and wrong. We can't take people back to their childhoods and engage in "do over," but we can help them find religion where they can anchor themselves in a value system. Kairos is one such organization focused on Christianity, Alephe is one focused on Judaism, and there are also muslim groups working in prisons to this end. Kairos Outside, a Christian group that I support, is an organization focused on working with women who have loved ones in prison or who have been incarcerated themselves. This group works to build stronger family ties that, in-turn, create a support system that will give an ex-offender a fighting chance when they are released. I also work with PA State Corrections in implementing the ICDL (International Computer Driving License) basic computer skills training program. Since a lack of basic computer skills is one of the key reasons for the inability of people to find meaningful employment, we are working to have inmates gain enough computer skill to become gainfully employed when they are released. Yes, we are all part of the problem if we are not part of the solution. Sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves and dig in while the larger issues are being worked on.
  9. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Dalphine</a>

    I strongly believe that prison is really about free labor and the stock market. My website has a very nice little poem posted on it that addresses what a child needs. I agree with you completely. religion seems to have been taken out of so many of these equations.
  10. Nate R

    This is interesting, and reminds me of some information I recently saw published by Steven Levitt (from his Freakonomics series) where he posits that "Roe vs Wade" is responsible for a portion of the reduction in crime rates witnessed in the US during the 90's and through to today. The premise was that the more freely available abortion was, the fewer children were born to parents (or parent) that were not yet in a position to effectively raise children. This is reflected in earlier comments, where the correlation between single parent households (and communities) and the likelihood of someone to commit an offense is fairly accepted. Levitt's analysis showed that whilst the proportions of offenders was unchanged for individuals born before Rowe v Wade, those born after were significantly less likely to offend. Personally, I believe that a large portion of crime, particularly violent crime, can be prevented by improving the quality of life of individuals, particularly during their development. Programs to reduce child poverty, and to encourage children to actively participate in education, would be much more effective (and in the long run cheaper) than simply running prisons beyond capacity.
  11. Robert Young

    No one should be incarcerated for a non-violent crime, ever. The answer to much of our crime is to encourage birth control and to limit welfare to families we must require birth contol. Poverty is the fault of the impoverished, stop having children they cannot care for!
  12. Adelle Stubblefield

    Reading through the comments, the one thing we all agree on is that much of crime is preventable. That is children who grow up lacking basic resources, including nurture and guidance, continue to suffer long into adulthood. This article focuses on prison populations but that is only one of many destructive directions a child can grow into. Let us not spend so much time debating things beyond our control. Let us instead control what we can. We can reduce prison populations and welfare rolls by becoming active in our communities. We could volunteer, lobby for change, mentor a child or help a neighbor. These small acts come together to produce large gains. Thank you.
  13. Neville Berkowitz

    Anthony from Jan 6 those prison figures are interesting do you have a reference source? In South Africa we have a single mother statistic of over 70% , youth unemployment of over 50% and a high crime rate which, in the main, comes back to the lack of living with two biological parents as your prison stats reflect. It appears that in the majority of cases your die is cast depending on whether you are born to a single mother or to two biological parents whom you live with. Those brave souls who manage their way out of the poverty trap usually associated with the plight of single mothers and the neighborhood they have been consigned to live in and manage to become educated and attain a decent standard of living are the real heroes of our age.
  14. Butch

    I remember a time when I was a boy, if you did something wrong in your neighborhood, your friends parents would get on you just like your parents. If a teacher called your parents, they believed the teacher and you had to prove your innocence. Today, if a child misbehaves, instead of contacting the child's parents you call the police because if you call the parents, the parents will be upset with you. If the teacher calls the parents, the teacher has to prove their innocence or the parent will sue the school. The news loves to report on such petty problems, but who really benefits the most by our current system? Who advertises on TV that fi you are done wrong you should sue? Lawyers benefit more from the current system then anyone else. Lawyers have used TV ads to frighten you, following a news story that frightens you, then they suggest an opportunity to help you save you. It is true what most of you have said about our society, but who benefits most from this bad behavior? More people graduate from law school, than people that graduate from medical school each and every year. The lawyers have to have something to do to make a living. Our society is controlled by fear through news medias, attorney ads, political stances that worst case scenarios, and most of it is just not true. When our country wakes up and realizes that they have been lied to, then things will change. Until then,those of us with alternative ideas will be the crazy tree hugging liberals, not innovators.
  15. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Kiddo</a>

    Hi all Here is my question that involves wrongful justice in which the victim was arrested while the actual accused got away scot free. I have been fighting to get my life back as a victim, and countercharges the actual offender (assault, forceful confinement, animal cruelty, financial fraud if $24,000, perjury, and emotional damage). I was even forced to terminate my MBA when I only had one term left ($76,000) So far, despite trying fir two years trying to stay strong, justice is not served and my 2 BBY chihuahuas Do not deserve it. I have called lawyers, the police, RCMP etc. I even gave him a chance tipsy me back when I found out the first $6000 fraud. Instead, he went on to identity theft, possibly using his female friends to call Telebank (which i never do) and transferred another $5000 in 2 days (I found out after of course. this is how he did it: since I changed my cedit cards (every 2 months just to be safe) he had no way of taking cash advance, so he called and transferred from my visa to savings account (so he also has my regular bank card info as well). $5000, 2 days I hope by posting this, someone can network me to the right resources so I can prosecute this person. My life was completely ruined, my credit score also took an impact severe enough that I have not been able to get approved for any credit cards since. ALL IN 1.5 MONTHS TIME....... Feel free to forward this blog to anyone who might know what to do, any victims that I can connect with and support each other.... Human rights activists (school terminated a student after knowing the assault and used the reason that I didn't drop the courses by the drop deadline (WHICH IS THE DAY AFTER THE ASSULT!!!). And so Rotman purposely gave me FZ (fail) to significantly dro my GPA down to below 3.0, hence terminated me based on poor performance. The one course I didn't drop in that term when assault happened I received an "A" and that was t mentioned anywhere at all. I really hope someone can help. And i sincerely thank you for your support in the above matters

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