Radical life extension is coming. That means future societies will have to do a dramatic rethink of our ideas about how long offenders should be imprisoned and — more crucially — the ways they'll be rehabilitated.
I'm not going to spend any time arguing on behalf of the science that's driving the efforts behind radical life extension. For those new to the topic, I highly recommend checking out the work of Aubrey de Grey, Cynthia Kenyon, Michael Rose, and Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman. For the purposes of this article, I'm going to assume that indefinite lifespans will eventually be achieved, and that life extending interventions will become both widely accessible and commonplace.
Which brings up issue number one: Should prisoners even be allowed to have access to life extending medical technologies in the first place?
Therapy or Enhancement?
Some bioethicists draw a line in the sand when it comes to pending biotechnologies, arguing that some should be classified as therapeutic (like curing a disease or fixing a broken limb) while others enhancement (like increased intelligence, memory, or physical capacities). Some thinkers, like bioethicist Leon Kass, have made the case that life-extending technologies belong to the enhancement camp because they significantly alter and augment normal human functioning. A human body that doesn't age, they argue, is something that has most certainly been enhanced.
But on closer scrutiny it's an argument that doesn't fly, especially when we consider how many technologies exist today that prolong life — like medicines that keep our cholesterol down and surgeries that fix or replace damaged organs. These are truly life extending technologies, it's just that we don't perceive them that way. They've been integrated into standard medical practices — and the same thing will happen to biotechnologies that slow down and even halt the aging process. In the future, physicians will simply prescribe the latest treatments — interventions that appear quite radical by today's standards.
So, a strong case can be made the life extending technologies are not superfluous, and that they'll eventually fall within the therapy camp of medical technologies. Today, prisoners are allowed access to medical treatments, so there's no reason to believe they won't be denied access in the future.
And in fact, denying prisoners access to these medical interventions — therapies that would be considered standard care outside of prisons — would be considered a violation of their fundamental rights. It's a scenario that will seem all the more cruel and unfair given that many prisoners will already be undergoing life extending therapies.
So, given all this, we should assume that prisoners, like the general population, will be equally long lived.
The Sentencing Problem
Sadly, while dramatic increases to our lifespans may be possible, it's probably safe to assume that crime will continue to exist well into the future. We're still going to have to put people in jail.
But given that people will live significantly longer, how will that affect the length of prison terms?
Indeed, the whole premise behind many philosophical and legal doctrines is the idea that life is finite. Because we're mortal, and because we place such a high value on our time, we punish offenders by depriving them of this important resource. As noted by legal experts A. Ashworth and E. Player, "Death is a certainty for everyone, and it can therefore be argued that all prisoners must inevitably experience an irreplaceable loss of time."
At the same time, however, there needs to be a proper sense of proportionality. In their groundbreaking — but ultimately flawed — paper, "Immortality and Sentencing Law," Richard Haigh and Mirko Barbaric noted that, "Sentencing law and practice will need to change to account for increasing human longevity to ensure that sentencing continues to fit the crime committed." Sentences, they argue, will need to reflect our sensitivity to fluctuations in the human lifespan.
Indeed, punishment should be commensurate with the seriousness of the offence. It's an important precept that prevents excessive, arbitrary, and capricious punishments by requiring that the punishment doesn't exceed the gravity of the offence. But this balance is set to be upset with the onset of human superlongevity.
To that end, Haigh and Barbaric argue that prison terms should be lengthened. "When [the resource of time] is abundant, it logically follows that for the same intensity of punishment to be inflicted a longer sentence must be imposed." As an example, a 20 year term of imprisonment is likely to cause hardship in the context of a 60 year lifespan, but it would register as a mild inconvenience in consideration of a life that could last 500 years.
Haigh and Barbaric say that we'll eventually need to account for this "relativity" by tying the length of the penalties to increases in human lifespan. So, "offences which attract a 10 year term of imprisonment in the context of a community where average life expectancy is 80 years, should be increased to 15 years when the average life expectancy is 120 years."
They also say that an entirely new range of criminal sanctions will be required to make up for any deficiency in jail terms, like annulling or suspending an offender's academic qualifications, or preventing them from work or being enrolled in an educational or vocational pursuit.
There's also the very important issue of punishments in consideration of indefinitely long lives: Should punishments be more severe when someone kills someone who — for all intents and purposes — was immortal?
Regrettably, Haigh and Barbaric's analysis falls short owing to their fixation on deterrents and punitive justice. Their argument leads to some pretty absurd conclusions, especially when taken to the extremes.
First, even in the presence of radical life extending technologies, it's difficult to predict a person's lifespan. A person who, in theory, is predicted to live 500 years, may actually be set to live an indefinitely long life given future advances. Second, there's always the possibility for an untimely, accidental death. Looking even further ahead, the Earth could get smuckered by an asteroid or a gamma ray burst. And as we all know, the universe will eventually come to an end.
Another problem is the issue of punitive proportionality and the assigning of longer sentences. As Haigh and Barbaric write, "Even a one thousand-year term of imprisonment is inconsequential in the context of an immortal life." But if a person could live, say, 10,000 years, and they get an 8,000 year sentence, such a length of term would seem excessively cruel. And as noted above, it's also arbitrary. There's the subjective length of time to consider — even if it's just a hiccup in the larger scheme of things.
Relatedly, longer prison terms will also be excessively costly, potentially prompting some to argue for the death penalty — perhaps even in less severe cases.
Taking all these factors into consideration, this is why in the future we'll need to be more concerned with rehabilitating prisoners than punishing them.
To learn more about this particular issue, I spoke to sociologist and futurist James Hughes who works out of Trinity College in Connecticut. He makes the case for "neuro-rehabilitation" model of care in which offenders will be re-integrated into society through the application of both traditional and high-tech interventions.
"Neuroscience continues to find ways that the brains of the criminally prone are different, with damaged capacities for self-control or empathy," he told io9. "We are also beginning to understand what it would take to repair some of these faculties, although it will be a while before we can accomplish brain repair with drugs, or genetic or tissue engineering, or with brain-machine devices."
Hughes sees this as a very exciting prospect as it would offer criminals the opportunity have their brains repaired in exchange for shorter sentences and an improved chance of not re-offending.
The neuro-rehabiliation model already exists today in nascent form in debates around the chemical 'castration' of pedophiles and rapists. Testosterone-lowering implants reduce sex criminals' compulsive sexual urges, and their criminal recidivism.
"Some civil rights advocates have charged that even offering this option to sex criminals violates their civil rights, a position I don't understand," he told me. "But, since the prison system is very expensive and there is great social benefit of reducing criminality, states would have an interest in making neuro-rehabilitation mandatory, which would raise civil liberties issues."
But there's also some concern. Hughes imagines a slippery slope in more authoritarian societies where "moral enhancement" was used as a tool of coercion against dissidents and to impose "good behavior" on non-criminals, as psychiatry was used in the Soviet Union.
What's more, he says that chemically castrated pedophiles also don't have an easier time reintegrating into society, and the chronic underemployment of neurologically rehabilitated criminals would have to be addressed through aggressive social services in order to be truly successful.
"But that would be a great way to spend some of the money that could be saved by emptying our prisons of neurologically rehabilitated ex-cons," he says.
Indeed, there's more to this issue that just "fixing" the brains of offenders. In many , if not most cases, offenders are the products of social circumstances, like having to live in abject poverty. It would make a lot of sense, therefore, to think about this before tweaking brains.
But at the very least, the neuro-rehabiliation model is a much more nuanced approach to just throwing someone in jail for an eternity.
Top image: WilleeCole/Shutterstock.