Is There A Cheaper, More Effective Way To Deal With Criminals Than Prison?

By David Grace (

I’ve been thinking about how we deal with criminals.

First, at great expense we try to catch them. Then we feed those whom we do catch into a slow, expensive and complicated court system, and, eventually, we lock them in warehouse filled with vicious people in cages.

The taxpayer cost of crime (police, courts, prisons) is between $200 Billion and $250 Billion dollars per year. Of course, the cost to the victims in both dollars and human suffering is far greater.

As if a cost approaching a quarter of a TRILLION dollars per year wasn’t bad enough, caging criminals has proven ineffective in deterring them from committing further crimes.

49% of former convicts are rearrested within eight years of their release. The median time to re-arrest is just 21 months.

I think almost no one comes out of prison a better person, a more law abiding person, or a more mentally healthy person than they were when they went in. My opinion is that locking people in cages with other violent people drastically worsens their lives, character, and personalities.

As a thought experiment, if we started with a clean sheet of paper and no rules whatsoever, what else might we do with criminals?

I thought it might be interesting to throw all the theoretical alternatives out on the table no matter how crazy, unorthodox or politically impossible they might be.

As a starting point, there are three basic strategies for dealing with crime:

  • Change criminals into people who no longer want to commit crimes (Therapy)
  • Make criminals stop committing crimes because they fear punishment so much (Deterrence)
  • Keep criminals away from their potential victims (Isolation)

Change Criminals Into People Who No Longer Want to Commit Crimes

Curing Addiction

A great deal of crime is rooted in drug addiction. People steal to get the money to buy drugs. They corrupt police and commit violent acts as part of the process of making, smuggling, buying and selling drugs. Those same drugs are used to addict women in order to turn them into prostitutes.

If you had a magic wand that could wipe out drug addiction you could probably eliminate thirty or forty percent of all property crimes. Just ending drug addiction would probably reduce the cost of crime by over $100 Billion per year.

As yet, there are no mechanisms that effectively, efficiently, and permanently cure drug addiction, possibly because there is no single cause of drug addiction.

In some people it is genetic. In some it is psychological. In some it is situational.

Unless scientists can discover and break one or more of key links in the chain that begins with the desire to take drugs and ends with the enjoyable physical effects produced by the drugs it doesn’t appear that curing drug addiction is a feasible goal.

If anyone is aware of any current scientific inquiry that may hold any hope for a quick, efficient and effective cure for addiction I would love to hear about it.

Intensive Counseling

Given the anticipated advances in Artificial Intelligence, I think that we should expect the creation of AI psychologists/counselors within ten years. I’m envisioning a holographic AI psychiatrist whose camera-eyes catch the patient’s every telltale body-language clue.

Suppose you installed a holo projector in every criminal’s cell and ran it continuously for four hours a day, seven days a week. The prisoner’s access to food and water might be contingent upon his cooperation with AI Dr. John or Jane.

Could such a system get to the root of an armed robber’s willingness to steal and redirect it to more socially acceptable pursuits? Can a rapist be counseled out of his desire to dominate and humiliate women?

I remain skeptical.

While intensive, expert counseling probably would benefit convicted criminals, not to mention quite a few other people whose occupations and identities will remain nameless, I doubt that it’s going to completely solve the criminal recidivism problem or turn violent criminals into model citizens.

Mind Wipe

This is a favorite of science fiction authors. In a future society the mass killer is caught and given the choice of death or mental reconstruction, commonly known as a “mind wipe.” While the process isn’t described in detail, it apparently involves two stages:

  • Wiping out the criminal’s memory, and
  • Reconstructing his personality.

The memory erasure part might be possible. People do very rarely suffer total amnesia, so, theoretically, it might be possible to create an artificial technique that would accomplish the same result.

The personality reconstruction is another matter. I asked a friend who’s a world-renowned expert in gene editing and genetic engineering if such a thing might be possible. He thought it was not, and I must admit that I’m having a difficult time even describing such a process.

Where does empathy derive? In fact, we might ask, “Where do all our emotional drives come from?” What is the source of impulsive behavior, the enjoyment of violence, the urge to dominate and control, and an exaggerated desire for revenge?

Do they all come from hormones? That doesn’t sound right to me.

Are they genetically based? If you have certain genes do they interact in some way to produce certain proteins which somehow make you care or not care whether or not your conduct hurts other people?

Are they founded in the structural web of the synapses themselves?

Are these personality traits derived from the neural protein soup that’s pumped out in accordance with programs in our genes? Is the source of our personality traits the wiring plan built into our brains during the first few years of life?

I think that unless and until we can figure out where personality traits reside, where empathy, rage, generosity, arrogance and envy are coded into a human being, and then develop the ability to modify those personality traits in a target individual, a mind wipe and a reconstructed personality are probably not going to be tools in the justice system arsenal.

As an aside, that sounds to me like a very dangerous sort of technology and one that could easily be horribly misused.

Curing The Sexual Motivation For Crime

As far as I know, no one is anywhere close to being able to cure rapists, pedophiles, sexual sadists, and other criminals whose crimes have a sexual motivation. Unless you can re-wire their brains it looks like there is no solution to these impulses.

Summary For Changing Criminal Personalities

It doesn’t look like there are any technologies on the near horizon for reducing crime by changing the personalities of the criminals so that they are no longer prone to or willing to commit crimes.

Make Criminals Stop Committing Crimes Because They Fear Punishment

What other types of deterrence might be more effective than monetary fines and incarceration?

Conditional Execution

This plan relies on increasing the stakes for crime in such a way as to increase deterrence.

Each crime would have a point value much like moving violations on your driving record. Every point earns the criminal some quantum of punishment. The more points, the more punishment. Old points would expire at a set rate over time.

Jack Vance imagined something like this in his novel, Emphyrio:

“. . . at the Welfare Agency are trays of small rods, each numbered, each representing a man. I am represented by such a rod, as well as Amiante and yourself. Most of the rods are pure inactive iron; others are magnetized. At every offense or delinquency a carefully calculated magnetic charge is applied to the rod. If there are no new offenses the magnetism presently wanes and disappears. But if offenses continue, the magnetism augments and at last pulls down a signal, and the offender must be rehabilitated.”

In a point system, maybe one or two points would be awarded for a driving under the influence, five points for shoplifting or breaking into cars, twenty for an armed robbery, forty for a rape, fifty for a murder, and so on with the “Death Level” set at 100 points.

The judge and jury might have leeway in assigning the number of points depending on the circumstances of the crime. For example, the armed robbery points could be anywhere from ten to thirty with the actual amount imposed being set by the jury.

Of course, you would have to deal with the question of multiple crimes during one event. If you rob twenty-five people at a night club is that one robbery or twenty-five? If you set fire to a building, do you get separate points for arson, assault and murder or one point score for the event itself?

Difficult questions.

In the end, if you hit the maximum number of points, if you “max out,” then you’re killed.

In short, society says, “Everyone gets a lot of chances but when someone demonstrates that they are just a bad apple, we’re just going to get rid of them.”

The “quantum of punishment” for each point would probably be imprisonment for a certain number of months per point but it wouldn’t have to be. Theoretically, other types of punishment might be adopted.

Perhaps while conditional execution would apply to a maxed-out criminal, more mundane crimes might be subject to electrical punishment as discussed below.

The hope would be that this plan would materially deter people from picking “criminal” as a career choice. Maybe.

The problem with this system is that criminals are typically short-term thinkers. They aren’t going to say to themselves, “If I shoot this guy then I’ll get XX points which means that I’ll only be YY points away from The Big Sleep. I guess I’d better not do it.”

The more distant the punishment the less deterrent effect it will have, and a point systems is a really long term sort of enterprise. I just don’t see the “If I do this and I later do some other crimes then ten years from now I might get executed” as a realistic mental process for most criminals.

If this system were adopted there would, of course, be the question of the mechanism of execution. I’m thinking that perhaps death by nitrogen might be the preferred choice.

For more on this topic, see my article: Hello, Inmate 43947. I’m Ron, Your Executioner. Your Choices Tonight Are Death By Lethal Injection, Electric Chair, Or Nitrogen Gas.

Electrical Punishment

Yes, I know, the Eighth Amendment decrees that neither cruel nor unusual punishment may be inflicted. Still, the Founding Fathers knew nothing about addictive drugs, mass murder, electricity and stun guns. Perhaps if they had we wouldn’t today have the Eighth Amendment in its present form.

Assuming that it might be possible to amend the 8th Amendment to take current conditions into account, how might we use electricity as part of our criminal system?

Right now we lock people in cages for months or years on end. I consider that barbaric and horribly damaging. Wouldn’t it be far better for everyone — society, taxpayers, victims and criminals alike — if we abandoned caging as the punishment for low-level crimes and adopted a more immediate and less damaging system?

I’m thinking of high-voltage, specific duration, electrical applications. In short, zapping criminals with a stun gun instead of locking them in a cage with other violent offenders.

I outlined such a plan in my column: Lawyers & Juries. Make Way For The JusticeBot 1000.

In it I said:

The key to deterring crime is swift punishment. Justice delayed is justice denied.

When you’re housebreaking a new dog you don’t swat him on the rump a month after he’s pooped on the carpet. No, you rub his nose in it and immediately whap him with the rolled-up newspaper right then and there.

That way he connects the bad act with the penalty.

Immediate punishment. Yes, that’s the ticket!

I went on to propose a summary system where set number of electrical jolts would be applied to various locations on the criminal’s body as the sole punishment for such minor crimes as shoplifting, driving on a suspended license, public intoxication, disturbing the peace, driving under the influence, urinating in public and the like.

There would be several variables in such a scheme: the number of jolts, voltage, duration, interval, and bodily location, depending on the criminal and the sentence.

A teenager who stole a candy bar might get one two-second, 10,000 volt jolt on his butt. A gangbanger who stole a car might get eight 100,000 volt four-second jolts in various locations, one hour apart, on each day for three consecutive days.

The deterrence from such a system cannot be denied.

The cost would be a fraction of that of incarceration.

Finally, it would be far less barbaric than locking a young man up in a cage with violent predators for months or years. Wouldn’t you rather take your jolts and get your punishment over with rather than enduring months of anal rape? I sure would.

Summary For Deterrence

While the Point System has a definite appeal I doubt that it would be politically possible to adopt an arithmetic approach to capital punishment. I mean, we’re already having a hard time executing child murderers. How are we going to be able to put down some guy who only got convicted of burglary ten times?

I must admit that I am a fan of Electrical Punishment, but we’d have to amend the Constitution to make it work. I don’t see that happening any time soon, if ever.

More’s the pity, but what are you going to do?

Isolate People Who Cannot Be Deterred From Committing Crimes


The first problem with banishment for federal crimes is finding a country that would take our criminals, but perhaps we could pay some poor island republic to accept them. Maybe Suriname that has a population of about 550,000 people and is located off the East coast of South America would be a candidate.

Or, Tuvalu. It’s someplace between Hawaii and Australia and has only 10,000 citizens.

There are certainly other poverty-stricken locations in the Caribbean, Pacific or Africa that might be willing to accept a serial burglar, car thief, or the like in exchange for a $50,000 one-time payment, which is about what it would cost a state like North Dakota to lock him up for a year. Heck, we could double that to $100,000 and still be ahead of the game.

One and done. After that he would be somebody else’s problem.

I know what you’re thinking: Wouldn’t he just come back?

Probably not. Most burglars, car thieves, low-level drug dealers and the like don’t have any money. Good, forged papers and transportation from the middle of the Pacific ocean back to the USA is expensive, not to mention the fact that their fingerprints would be in the border and customs control system.

They’d first have to get into Mexico or Canada and then run the border. Also, not cheap.

Obviously, this would not be a solution for a rich criminal, but it could be very effective for run-of-the-mill felons and it would be relatively cheap. It would accomplish the same purpose as prison — keeping the criminal away from potential victims, at least away from American potential victims. And I suspect that life in the criminal’s new home would be no picnic compared to here.

Banishment might also be an alternative at the county and state level.

Imagine if San Francisco banished anyone caught breaking into parked cars or smashing store windows. Sure, lots of them would come right back after the first time they were banished but once someone who was banished was caught back in the jurisdiction a really serious penalty could be imposed, like a couple years in jail or maybe banishment to a foreign country where returning would be much more difficult.

The rule could be that if you get caught violating county or state Banishment then you get sent to Tuvalu. Your petty thief isn’t likely to have the resources to come back from there.

Devil’s Island

Now, I know some people are thinking that banishment is too good for criminals, that it’s too easy on them. You want to send them to a prison colony, a modern-era Devil’s Island.

Yes, there is some psychological appeal to picking a remote location and dumping the prisoners there, a sort of penal “out of sight, out of mind” solution. Unfortunately, such a system would be plagued by several pesky problems.

First, you would need to provide some sort of system of food, shelter and medical care. Otherwise, people would starve to death, and if killing them is your solution you can do that much more cheaply without the whole “send them to a desert island” thing.

And since you wouldn’t want children born into that environment you’d have to sterilize them first.

Because the population would include a fair numbers of killers, rapists, and armed robbers it would quickly devolve into a truly vicious society. Hardly an improvement over the brutality of prison.

I have to say that I don’t think Devil’s Island is a very viable solution.

The Rip Van Winkle AlternativeA Medically Induced Coma

Who’s to say that criminals need to be conscious during their incarceration? Why couldn’t “Bob The Bank Robber” serve his ten year sentence in a medically induced coma? Now, don’t be too hasty dismissing this idea.

Firstly, it would be cheaper, MUCH cheaper, to warehouse criminals if they were under 24/7 sedation.

Second, consider the purposes of incarceration:

  • Quarantine the criminal away from society, and
  • Impose a punishment that will deter this and other potential criminals from committing criminal acts.

You’re twenty-five years old. What if you know that ten of the best years of your life are going to be taken away if you stick up that mini-mart? What if you know that if you’re caught you’re going to lie down on a bed and the next thing you know you’re going to be thirty-five years old? Your friends and family will have all moved on without you, and your whole world will have moved forward while you’ve been left behind.

Sure, maybe when you thought about robbing that store, ten years in a coma didn’t seem like such a terrible punishment, but now, after it’s happened to you and ten of your best years are gone, how anxious will you be for that to happen to you again? Do you want to wake up the next time in a fifty-year-old body?

And let’s look at it from the other side. Someone you know gets grabbed and goes away. The next time you see him he’s ten years older and everything he knows is ten years out of date. Maybe his health isn’t the greatest after that ten-year coma. How anxious will you be to do something that gets you the same treatment?

Of course there would have to be some experimentation. Maybe try it on a selected mix of criminals and see how they react when they wake up. I would think that a five-year nap would be enough to develop some useful data.

The Brain Box

Some years ago I wrote a short story called Chain Gang in which the prisoners’ consciousness was transferred to a machine for the term of their sentence. Here’s an excerpt:

First the techs put her under, then tied her in with the MultiBit’s life-assist software. Next her conscious thoughts, then short-term, medium-term and long-term memory and lastly everything else they could squeeze out of her subconscious were transferred to the fifty centimeter cube of crystal which would function as part of her mind for the ten years of her detention.

Twin one-micron lasers crossed at 5000 points per centimeter or 1.56 x 10(16) points. Wherever they crossed they deformed the lattice and added a bit of data. A different wavelength laser could repair the deformation and erase the data.

By alternate scanning of data and software and multiplexing erasures with the addition of new bits of memory the device functioned quite well. Much of the computation and reasoning ability and all of the I/O ports were coded into another standardized fifty cm. cube of a type that was etched in large numbers to mimic the computational systems of the human brain. When this standardized cube was abutted to the outputs of the memory cube, the “person” was transferred to DECENT [ California Central Detention Facility]. You can do a lot with 1.6 quadrillion bytes of memory.

An intriguing idea to be sure, but unless and until scientists achieve what is called the “singularity,” that is the ability to transfer a human personality into a machine, this alternative to caging prisoners will have to remain solely in the realm of science fiction.


While banishment sounds good in principle, I think it would be ineffective in practice. We don’t even have the resources to grab up the people we already have warrants for, leastwise catching all the people who violate a banishment order.

Devil’s Island is even more unlikely to be a viable alternative to incarceration.

I’m not sure you can keep people alive for ten or fifteen years in a medically induced coma. And if they did survive, what would be the state of their general health when they woke up?

The brain box is another Sci Fi pipe dream.

I don’t see any realistic, practical, politically viable alternatives to incarceration, though I must admit that I am drawn to the Electric Alternative.

When your child shoves his hand into the cookie jar, you slap his wrist. When your dog poops on the carpet you whap him with a rolled up newspaper.

When some punk grabs a six pack and runs out the mini-mart door shouldn’t we just zap him with 100,000 volts and then let him go?

Yes, that’s the ticket.

–David Grace (

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David Grace

David Grace

Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 16 novels and over 400 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.

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