June 17, 2003
Natural Life Criminal Sentences And Life Extension

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


Comments
Gerrik said at August 24, 2004 9:24 AM:

why should we give those convicted of violent crimes a chance at creating even more problems? You have to give up certain rights when you violate the rights of others and the latest and greatest in bio tech should be one of them, assuming this can really happen. Death is a natural part of the human expereince and without it, life itself is negligible in meaning because we can always put"it" off till another day. No thanks, like the late great Ray Charles sang in a song, "I'm tired of living but Im scared of dying" and one day the tired part will when out.
Hope to see him again in another time and place

ParagonX said at September 19, 2004 10:49 PM:

"why should we give those convicted of violent crimes a chance at creating even more problems?"

It is also a chance to become a better person who could be beneficial to society. The punishment should fit the crime. If the convict beat someone, I say they should be able to have a second chance. If the crime was murder though, you don't want to give someone a second opportunity to murder, so you'd have to be certain before giving such a criminal a second opportunity. Thing is, I doubt you could ever be certain. There are ways they could contribute to society from prison, so let them.

"You have to give up certain rights when you violate the rights of others and the latest and greatest in bio tech should be one of them, assuming this can really happen."

Not necessarily true. There will be a point where this isn't the "latest & greatest" in biotech, and will be a normal part of life. At that point, it may be considered a necessity, and would not be denied to prisoners, except those sentenced to death. Read the article, it points out why it's an issue.

"Death is a natural part of the human expereince and without it, life itself is negligible in meaning because we can always put"it" off till another day."

I fail to understand people who think this way. It is not death that gives life meaning, it simply makes it all the more precious. There are creatures who have no natural lifespan, like sharks and crocodiles. They do not die of old age. Even if we eliminate death from old age, there are still other causes for death, such as disease and accidents. Either way, life still has value, and is not lessened by a lack of a natural lifespan.

Anonymous said at November 16, 2005 3:37 PM:

"why should we give those convicted of violent crimes a chance at creating even more problems?" Example If a person committs a crime repeatly while on parole such as a criminal sexual assault then there punishment should be the Natural Life Sentence. Because they tend to repeat the same act over and over again until someone end up died. I have no sympathy for them at all. Matter of fact they should be up under the jail.

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