An Electronic Conscience


A Cheaper Way of Preventing Crime

Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it.

- Albert Einstein

In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place.

- Mohandas Gandhi

Social Conscience


by David Jones

Imprisoning criminals is an expensive way of preventing crime.  A cheaper scheme is to fit each offender with a radio "tag" to report suspicious movements.  So far, this has not worked very well.

The old-fashioned way of preventing crime was to equip all citizens with an internal inhibitor called a "conscience."  It was routinely established at an early age.  You waited till the child did something you didn't like, and then you shouted at it or hit it.  At all other times you were kind to it.  This simple procedure worked well, and is still used with great success on domestic animals.  It depends on standard conditioning theory, which requires the punishment to follow the crime so swiftly that the subject instinctively learns to associate the two.

Modern enlightenment has abandoned such barbarity.  Punishment can now be meted out, if at all, only after slow and complex routines of authorisation - by which time the offender has long since forgotten its connection with the crime.  Unwarned and undeterred, he goes on to commit more serious crimes.  Daedalus is now devising an electronic tag which applies its own instant conditioning.

His "smart tag" records a lot more about its wearer than his mere position.  Sensors against his skin register his temperature, blood pressure and pulse rate; a microphone records his speech and the sounds around him; a set of accelerometres senses his pattern of movement.  After a little experience, the tag's neural-net processor can instantly deduce what he is up to.  The physiological and kinetic signatures of (say) burglary, or mugging, or breaking into a car, or spraying graffiti, are highly individual and easily recognised.  When it spots such activity, the smart tag ceases to be a mere passive observer of its wearer.  It transmits a signal to the police; more to the point, it also emits a startling high-pitched scream and delivers an instant, painful electric shock.

Even the dimmest criminal will rapidly learn, by direct association, that crime does not pay.  Daedalus's "electronic conscience," with its minor but instant and certain punishment, will prevent crime far more efficiently than the law, with its drastic, expensive, but highly uncertain and always long-delayed retribution.  Even better, the tag's steady conditioning will gradually establish an old-style conscience in the wearer.  In due course he will be so well conditioned against crime that his electronic conscience can be removed; his newly acquired internal one will do the job.  Only sociopaths and hopeless recidivists, incapable of reliable learning, will need to wear it permanently.

Source: David Jones' "Daedalus" column Nature Vol 376 17 August 1995

I think "smart tags" sound deceptively positive but are firmly located on the proverbial "slippery slope."  Keeping their use confined within strict limits might prove difficult.

Another Way of Preventing Crime

The Unkindest Cut: The Science and Ethics of Castration

by Atul Gawande

With surprisingly little fanfare, four states recently passed laws calling for castration - either chemical or surgical - of sex offenders.  Last month, prompted by two prisoners who actually wanted the treatment, Texas Governor George Bush signed a law letting judges offer castration as an option for perpetrators of sex crimes.  Florida, California, and Montana have all enacted more stringent laws to order involuntary chemical or surgical castration of these criminals.

The technology for castration has evolved considerably, and there is evidence that, in some circumstances, it can dramatically reduce the likelihood a sex offender will strike again.  Nonetheless, there are strong reasons that court-ordered castration is a bad idea.

Americans remain frustrated with the inability of the justice system to control rape and child molestation.  Dozens of states have enacted so-called Megan's Laws requiring that the public be notified when released sex offenders move in nearby, but people complain that it doesn't help much to know that your neighbour is a pædophile if you can't do anything about it.  More states are turning to doctors to solve the problem for them.

Compulsory castration has been used as a punishment for crimes in all cultures dating back thousands of years.  In Europe in the Middle Ages, the "eye for an eye" philosophy of jus talionis included castration as punishment for adultery or rape.  In the 20th century, castration has been practiced in the Netherlands, Germany, Estonia, Iceland, Switzerland, and Scandinavia for rape, pædophilia, and homosexuality.  After World War II, its use in Europe was dramatically scaled back, probably because of the increased awareness of humanitarian concerns prompted by the Holocaust.

More recently, research has produced powerful drugs, such as cyproproterone and medroxyprogesterone, which reversibly block testosterone production.  The drugs' primary use in men is to control prostate cancer, but when injected daily or weekly they reduce testosterone to castration levels.  Side effects include serious allergic reactions and the formation of blood clots that can kill patients.  The drugs also appear to alter thinking enough to increase suicide rates.  The Czech Republic and Germany have reintroduced castration in this modern, seemingly humane form, although only among sex offenders who volunteer for treatment.

Surgical castration is less mutilating than it once was.  Orchiectomy, as it is called, is a day-surgery procedure done under local ænesthesia.  Each testicle is removed through a small scrotal incision similar to the kind made during a vasectomy.

Three of the four new state laws call for sentencing rapists to be castrated, but with some variations.  Florida requires judges to impose either injections or orchiectomy for repeat rapists.  California does the same, but only for repeat child molesters.  Montana allows, but does not require, judges to impose chemical castration on offenders who commit rape or incest after even one offense, if it is particularly heinous.

Legislators argue that castration is justified and appropriate, and that by controlling sex offenders' irresistible urges to rape or molest again, the operation allows them to be released without endangering the public.  Studies of the European experience suggest they could be right.  Of more than 700 Danish sex offenders castrated after multiple convictions, relapse rates dropped from between 17% and 50% to just 2%.  A Norwegian study showed the same for selected male and female sex offenders (the women had their ovaries removed).  In smaller studies of cyproproterone in Scandinavia and Italy, chemical castration was equally effective in some groups of volunteer prisoners, with the most dramatic reductions among pædophiles.

These studies suggest the common argument - that rape is all about power, not sex, and therefore castration won't work - is wrong.  Interestingly, a German study found that up to half of the castrated men still could have erections and sex, but their desire was weakened or even extinguished.  Over 80% no longer masturbated; 70% gave up sex.  As Fred Berlin, a Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist and expert on treating sex offenders, points out, castration works "mainly in those who are sexually aroused by their crime ... sadists and pædophiles."  Castration takes the impulse away from those with an aberrant sexual orientation, often to their relief.

So what objection could there be to castration of sex offenders?  Well, none, if it is carefully applied to the narrow group of repeat sadistic or pædophiliac rapists who accept the treatment.  But the court-mandated castration proposed in Florida, California, and Montana raises serious problems.

The laws are wrong to apply castration indiscriminately.  The studies show that castration is effective in criminals with multiple offenses, especially if they are motivated by sex.  But proponents are wrongly using the data to justify mandatory application across the board.  In Florida and Montana, all rapists are targeted, even though sadists and pædophiles are only a small percentage of the total.  Most rapists appear to be motivated by hatred or anger, not sex.  Montana lets judges order castration after just one offense.  Dr Berlin argues that the laws impose "a medical intervention in the absence of evidence that forced treatment is likely ... to be effective" and make "no effort to medically assess whether [castration] is appropriate for an individual."

Forced castration is difficult to administer.  First, the state must find doctors willing to do the job.  (Heaven's Gate members had to go to Mexico for the operation because no California doctor would perform it on them.)  California's law suggests letting state workers give the injections without medical supervision, but the serious side effects, and the need to ensure that appropriate doses are given, make this approach foolhardy.  It also raises the question of what to do with people who can't take the drug because of the side effects.  Would they have to go back to jail?  Bringing in released convicts for injections is even more difficult.  The longest-lasting drug, medroxyprogesterone, still must be given weekly.  Making sure that rapists and pædophiles turn up week after week for an unwanted, potentially lifelong treatment may prove impossible.

Forced castration is immoral.  In 1985, the Supreme Court recognised this when it ruled that involuntary surgical castration constituted cruel and unusual punishment.  The court may be persuaded to let chemical castration stand because it is theoretically reversible.  If this line is crossed, politicians would have little to stop them from seeking forced treatments to control other behaviours, such as adultery (for which castration has historically been a punishment), prostitution, or the consumption of pornography.  As medicine's arsenal expands (we already have drugs to limit libido, hunger, and depression), it is conceivable that laws could mandate even wider uses of medicines to control the population.

Many people see rapists as a special case, though, having no objections to extreme measures to stop them from raping again.  The crime is so repugnant, they say, that it is hard to treat rapists as people deserving of any concern.  Prisoners, after all, give up their rights for having committed such crimes.  But as bioethicist Arthur Caplan points out, while "prisoners are excluded from moral life," losing the right to vote, "Americans have not reduced them to non-human status."  Unlike Iran, Turkey, or Nazi Germany, the United States accepts prisoners' rights to free speech, legal representation, and health care.  We still reject using prisoners for organ transplants or slave labour.  Requiring castration for rape means we have decided it is acceptable to treat prisoners as less than human.

While the laws elsewhere fail to counter these fundamental objections, the narrower castration law in Texas seems more appropriate.  It does not mandate castration, instead reserving it for repeat offenders who seek the treatment.  Larry Don McQuay could be the first to whom it is applied.  He admits to molesting children at least 240 times.  Having completed his sentence for his one conviction, he is set for release.  Fearing his urges, he wants orchiectomy.  It should be done.

Atul Gawande MD writes a regular column on science and policy for Slate

Source: Saturday 12 July 1997 © 2001 Microsoft Corporation

Eye Contact

by David Jones

A modern state needs to identify its citizens constantly.  Many of them are a potential threat - benefit fraudsters, terrorists, drug pushers, bogus asylum-seekers, elitists, smokers.  The citizens even need to identify themselves, both to the authorities and, in their financial dealings, to each other.  Yet identity cards are easily stolen, fingerprinting is messy, DNA sampling is intrusive, and none of them work at a distance.  Daedalus now has a new idea.

Portraits taken with small cheap cameras are often spoiled by 'red-eye'.  The light from the flash enters the eyes of the subject, is reflected from the retinal blood-vessels, and makes his or her pupils appear red in the photograph.  What a splendid way, says Daedalus, of obtaining the blood spectrum of a distant subject!  DREADCO opticians are devising a camera to maximise the red-eye effect, and to record its spectrum over all the wavelengths that can enter the eye, from near ultraviolet to near infrared.  One team is combining a frequency-swept flash with time-resolved charge-coupled-device imaging; another favours a broad-band flash source and a dispersive or Fourier-transform spectrometric detector.  Meanwhile, the company's biochemists are exploring the individuality of a blood spectrum.

For a start, it should encode detailed blood-group data: not merely A, B and 0, but all the dozens of lesser blood antigens.  The plasma polysaccharides and proteins will also tell their story, partly hereditary and partly medical.  Indeed, direct indices of criminality, such as metabolites of alcohol, cocaine or nicotine, should show up usefully in the blood spectrum.  While not as specific as DNA analysis, red-eye spectrophotometry should still be a powerful identifier.  The blood spectrum of every citizen will rapidly be acquired from normal passport or identification-card photography.  The resulting database will transform surveillance.

Motorists in speeding cars, rioters in the street, burglars entering protected premises, all will be literally identified in a flash.  In daylight the flash might not even be noticed.  Counter-measures are possible; but a modern data-dictatorship is used to outflanking them.  Just as the police stop any car without a licence plate, and the British government, in its plans to intercept the whole nation's e-mail, will demand that we decrypt for it any message it can't manage to decrypt for itself, so the authorities will arrest anyone wearing dark green glasses.

Source: Nature Vol 405 15 June 2000

Considering the fact that proper dark glasses protect the eyes against UV rays and, if everyone wore them, they would significantly reduce the incidence of cataracts (thus saving governments money) I foresee a serious conflict of interest here if some government attempted implementation of this plan.  As usual, it's an interesting idea, however and could be utilised by ATM machines and large retailers without too much trouble to cut down on card/identity theft.

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