Sunday, July 17, 2005

Hammurabi's Code for the Modern World

I've been thinking a bit about a variable penal code that would align punishment with the values held by those involved in a particular crime. What I am about to describe only applies to those crimes where individuals are both the victim and the perpetrators. It does not apply to any crimes that involve a corporation, the state, or any establishment.

How often have you felt that a sentence handed down to a criminal following a conviction was either too lenient or too harsh? How often have we heard people argue about the morality of the death penalty? This proposed penal code will help mitigate the intensity of the debates that spring from such questions.

First, assume the existing penal code will remain in effect for for all crimes that are not committed by an individual upon another individual. Now, with that assumption in mind, here is how the proposed penal code would work. At the age of 18 (or whatever the legal adult age may be), an individual will be allowed to specify the punishments (number of years in prison, number of hours of community service, death penalty, etc) for all the different individual against individual crimes. These would include crimes such as grand theft, petty theft, aggravated assualt, different degrees of homicide, etc. For those crimes that they did not speficy their own punishment, the current penal code would act as a default.

Now, we basically have assigned what we feel should be just punishments for various crimes against individuals committed by other individuals. We should very much set these crimes in accordance with our own moral standards. When a crime is committed by Individual A against Individual B, and Individual A is convicted of that crime, then the customized penal code would be looked up for both parties involved. The harsher of the two penalties will be imposed upon the convicted. If more parties are involved, the harshest of all penalties will be imposed.

What this does, in effect, is force everyone to live up to their own standards. In our current system, if a car thief has his car stolen by another car thief, the convicted car thief in this particular case would face what the state felt was the appropriate punishment for car theft. However, in the world of those involved, car thievery is not so big a deal. Why must the current system force a sense of hypocrisy into this incident? In this proposed system, the car thieves would have likely set a fairly light sentence (or none at all) for grand theft auto. However, if you know that you would never steal a car, you would likely set a penalty based on how severe you thought the crime was. Being unsympathetic to criminals, I would simply assign a life sentence to grand theft auto. But, I would definitely not assign a life sentence to vehicular manslaughter. It is conceivable that I might be tired at night one day and run a red light due to my weary state, which ultimately causes someone's death.

If I happen to have caused the death of someone who shares my personal ideals, then I would receive exactly what we felt I deserved. If that person did not feel that vehicular manslaughter was that horrible, then I would get what I deserved, and more than what the victim thought I deserved. And, finally, if the victim felt that vehicular manslaughter was worthy of a death sentence, then I would be punished according to what the victim felt I deserved. Even if it was too harsh a sentence in my own view, who is to say that it truly was the case?

Our justice system would remain unchanged, except that the judge would not issue a sentence based on what he felt. The sentence would be based on what the participants of the incident felt about the particular crime in question. Of course, the custom penalty should be kept a secret until the day of sentencing. This would allow the jury to act in an unbiased manner. This is something that our current system does not handle well. A particular juror might feel that the death penalty is immoral, and that juror could possible sway away from his/her duty, and ultimately, hang a jury in a death penalty case.

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but, in a modernized sense. I know that many of the ideas above might not be perfectly clear. It would take some time to flesh out the details. But, what's been said could serve as a good starting point for discussion. What are your feelings on such a penal code? Would this constitute fairness?

Someone mentioned that your views on life would change over time. So, as an afterthought, I should mention that your penal code selection is not set in stone. You would be allowed to update it as you pleased.


Anonymous said...

You wrote: "Being unsympathetic to criminals, I would simply assign a life sentence to grand theft auto. But, I would definitely not assign a life sentence to vehicular manslaughter. It is conceivable that I might be tired at night one day and run a red light due to my weary state, which ultimately causes someone's death."

Based on the above highly-reasonable logic, here's one possible degenerate strategy, that many people may wish to use: This only applies to crimes with a pre-meditated element (that is, crimes which are not crimes of passion or accidental crimes, such as vehicular manslaughter). Assign a maximum life sentence to all possible pre-meditated crimes. In the future, right before the individual plans to commit a specific crime, he/she could simply change his/her penal code selection to a light/no sentence. If enough people use this strategy, this creates a situation where issued sentences would likely be either extremely harsh, or extremely lenient, exactly the situation the new system is designed to avoid.

Anonymous said...

You could even change your own codes while in the process of taking part in a crime. Say you're in the process of being beaten to death, and during this you change your sentences to death for beating someone and/or killing them. That isn't fair, since last night when you were beating your wife you had the sentences at nothing.

One problem is that the "problem" being addressed isn't a problem. The problem is that a lot of people (myself included) have a huge problem with assigning any sentence to anyone given that the current legal system makes far too many mistakes as far as conviction goes. If the conviction is wrongful, any sentence above nothing is too much. People would still complain about OJ, since he'd still have gotten off (and most people think he was guilty, I don't care either way myself).

Oh, what other problems are there...

Any woman that doesn't pick the death penalty for rape is stupid, since they can never (almost) commit it. Any crime that you're incapable of commiting, for whatever reason, should be the death penalty in your book. You lose nothing that way, and gain everything.

This legal code thing, as well as that "stars" idea could be incorporated into an MMORPG to see if they'd work at all. You'd see them degenerate (if they would) very quickly in that environment.

An interesting project would be to come up with a model of a "typical" human that would behave as a human does in an environment of other humans. Then jam 50,000 of them into an area, give them these rules, and see how they operate. You'd need some aberrant humans in there too, but it seems like a project that would bear some fruit. Maybe not predict the future, but to help find all of the singularities where these systems completely break apart.

A final point - the blind application of laws without regard to the possible sentences is evil. What punishments fit what crime are what define a society. Once it turns into blind convictions irrespective of the possible sentences, well, it isn't a society anymore. Nobody agrees on anything, and people are punished randomly, as far as everyone but the 2 involved can tell.

With capital offenses, there is a lot more rigor in the trials solely because the punishment is so severe. This is where the system has it right. It still screws up, but if a guy might get killed if convicted, they try a bit harder to make sure they got the right guy. This system makes that impossible if the jury/judge must be blind.

The legal system is imperfect, but it's the sort of system that won't benefit by further complexity. Simplicity is where it's at, as then it's tougher to screw up.

Brute Force said...

I definitely see the flaws in the proposed system. Both of you pointed out the obvious one, which is the sudden changing of a penalty in anticipation of committing a crime.

I agree with Duke in that the major problem with our system has to do with convicting the correct person. But, I do feel that the subjectivity of sentencing at times is also a problem, albeit a minor one.

When I first thought a bit about Hammurabi's "eye for an eye" code, I felt that it did not properly value what was at stake. If someone had a good eye poked out by another with two bad eyes, would it be fair that the convicted lose an eye? The eyes aren't equally valued. This misalignment of values creates a notion of injustice with respect to penalty.

It was this misalignment of values, whether they be moral or otherwise, that I sought to fix with this new penal code. I've failed miserably, but I still think that this is an interesting topic.

I am not yet sure if I agree with what Jim says about a degenerate strategy leading to extremely harsh and extremely lenient punishments. There are certainly those who would never opt for the death penalty, due to their view on capital punishment. Would it truly be to your best interest to punish petty theft with a life sentence? From an economic standpoint, definitely not.

I was thinking of improving the current system in the pareto-optimal sense. That is, I would like to improve this one aspect of the current system (severity of criminal sentences), while not making the rest of the system worse. I still think that it would be best if there was some way to align the values of those involved in any criminal incident. Unfortunately, I was unable to come up with one that works. Any suggestions? Or is this a futile endeavor?

Brute Force said...

To add one other point... perhaps individuals who have assigned little or no punishment to murder or some other violent crime could be red-flagged. This reminds me of Minority Report and the Pre-Crime Unit. But, then you might not choose penalties as you truly valued the crimes due to possible governmental repurcussions. Interesting.