Daniel Bergner has an Op-Ed in The New York Times about the trend toward natural life sentences for criminals.
Across the country, at least 31,000 state and federal inmates are serving terms of natural life. That means they have been put away forever, without opportunity for parole. Except in the most unusual circumstances, we need never think of them again. And though national support for capital punishment may be softening, this does not mean that fewer people will be sentenced to die in prison. A decade ago, according to the Criminal Justice Institute, the number of natural lifers was about 12,000. Then, 31 states had adopted the sentence; now, 46 have chosen the safety of permanence and the luxury of not thinking.
Bergner happens to be opposed to the practice of natural life criminal sentences and it sounds like he's opposed to capital punishment too. But let us put aside the question of whether natural life is a fair or necessary criminal sentence under current circumstances. The natural life sentence is the more problematic when we look decades into the future. Once someone is dead (assuming we do not immediately cryogenically freeze them) we do not face any future decisions on what to do with that person. But as biotechnology advances the existence of long-serving inmates will present us with a number of problems.
One set of questions will come from the development of rejuvenating life extension therapies. I share the view of Aubrey de Grey that it will be possible to develop Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) that will allow us to become young again and to stay young more or less indefinitely. Well, the first question that will arise with natural life prisoners is whether they should be eligible to receive treatments that cause aging to slow down to a negligible rate. If such treatments are withheld from prisoners serving natural life sentences then the effect will be to sentence them to slow death from old age. But if they are given such treatments then they would be faced with the prospect of effectively "unnatural life" prison sentences that could literally last for centuries (provided the human race lasts that long and the imprisoning government continues to exist - two big ifs).
Bergner describes the case of Wilbert Rideau who has been serving a prison term for over 40 years for grisly murders but who many prison officials think has changed so much that he is not a threat to anyone. Well, certainly there are older convicts who are no longer dangerous. Some people go thru intellectual and emotional growth, reflect upon who they were, and make profound changes in how they look at life. But some become less dangerous as they age simply because their hormone levels decline, their energy declines, and they just have less energy available with which to be aggressive. Suppose those latter types of people, sentenced to natural life terms, are made young again. In at least some cases the effect will be to make them very dangerous once again. Even if they are kept imprisoned they will become more dangerous to fellow inmates and to guards. Should they be made youthful again if that will make them more dangerous?
Another set of questions will come from the development of permanently mind-altering therapies. Eventually we will discover how to identify and manipulate biological factors that contribute to criminal behavior. Should someone serving a natural life sentence be told that they can receive therapies that will reverse the aging process only if they consent to alterations in their brains that make them less dangerous? Should those serving natural life sentences be given the option to have their minds altered as a condition of parole?
The development of rejuvenation therapies and the development of techniques to alter brains to change behavioral tendencies will each present us with basic questions about criminal justice. The death of criminals from old age will no longer be inevitable. The mellowing of violent youth with age will similarly no longer be a process that we can rely upon. Some will become less dangerous because of changes they go thru in their thinking. But what should we do with long-serving prisoners who are "bad to the bone" once aging becomes fully reversible?
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2003 June 17 01:42 PM Bioethics Debate|