Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why not optional exile?

[Posting will continue to be light in the near future]

The point of a prison is twofold. For one, prison is no fun, so the threat of imprisonment is a deterrent against crime. For another, locking criminals up keeps them from committing additional crimes.

The thing is, imprisonment is expensive. By contrast, exile sort of accomplishes both of the above effects -- it's less fun than not exile and it keeps prisoners from committing additional crimes against people in our society -- but we don't have to pay for our prisoners. It's sort of a jerk move towards the rest of the world, but (a) that hardly implies Americans wouldn't do it, and (b) the exile need not be unilateral.

Exile could simply be used as a sentence.  Or the prisoner could even be given a choice: optional exile, or prison term -- so it's not unfair to them.  Alternatively, we could just make escape easier for people awaiting likely imprisonment. (allow bail, don't nab them at the airport, etc).  But instead we usually get bummed out when a criminal manages to skip town. (Darn!  We almost had to deal with this guy for the rest of his life!)

Exile need not be indefinite; like prison sentences, a term can be specified.  Amnesty can even be granted for those who have escaped and been gone for a long time.  Exile could be a decent substitute for shorter-term prison sentences (they can't be so severe that exile isn't a comparable deterrent). It is obviously not the answer for everything, but I'm surprised it's not more popular, especially on those occasions when the prisons get so overcrowded that the Supreme Court orders a mass release of inmates (into not-exile).

Sort of curious why I never hear talk of this.  (Or maybe I've just missed it).


  1. Exogenous CombustionJune 28, 2011 at 5:26 PM

    There is one other reason for imprisonment that I can see: justice. We might imagine a social planner with pareto weights on each individual. When an individual violates the law, their weight drops very low. In addition, when they violate the law, others would get utility from their punishment (through some sense of justice, vengeance, or any other number of channels).

    Then a low pareto weight and their actions help cause their disutility perhaps being a net good to the social planner.

    I think there is some headline evidence of this with Roman Polanski. He eventually entered exile, but lead a pleasurable life. I think that this strikes one as an undesirable outcome for a child rapist. I see people as having some sense of justice (or whatever) that demands more than just exile.

    However, there is some good historical evidence of what you are talking about: Australia as a penal colony (British convicts were also given a choice of being hung or sent to colonial America as well, during early colonization). Seems to put them to productive use for generations to come.

  2. EC,

    Mind link. I was going to raise justice at the end (albeit I called it "revenge"). I had a sentence and a half, but as you can see, it was 5:01 so of course Kris was already all packed up and rearing to go home. He made me leave the library. He's a real enemy of justice, that one.

    In theory, exile could offer an equally punishing option as imprisonment, as long as the imprisonment weren't too severe. That is, it is probably *not* a good substitute for Roman Polanski if, as you say, his life is significantly better in exile forever (rather than prison for a time and then complete freedom to go wherever he wanted).

    Interestingly, the average person probably far underestimates the long-term quality of their life in exile, just as we seem to overestimate the effect of California on our happiness. Would this imply that exile was a good deterrent but a poor deliverer of justice?

    I also knew you would mention Australia. Did not remember about America tho.

  3. There's one other reason for imprisonment (at least in theory) that comes to mind: "reforming" the criminal so he won't do it again. As my impression is that recidivism rates are pretty high (not surprising because crime has a strong rational component and the incentives are similar when he gets out), I don't believe too strongly in this one, but this is an argument that people put out there.

    Now, it's not imprisonment per se that is supposed to lead to reform. Isolation, time to think, the possibility of counseling and easy access to the criminal to impose that counseling probably do the trick (at least this is what a strong proponent of this view might say). Exile could isolate and give time to think, but it misses on the access part... unless we plant counselors in the exile colony ... on the other hand, if we think the criminal can be reformed, why don't we just sign him up for counseling without buying his food and giving him an uncomfortable cot?

  4. Tony, good points. I too am somewhat doubtful that prisons do a whole lot to reform criminals. Overall prison seems like a hardening/embittering place to me, not a softening one...but I also find plausible the opposite story, that many criminals come out of prison having "learned their lesson."

    If the latter, I doubt exile would be a good substitute for prison life in terms of reforming. But if prison actually makes people worse, that would be a big advantage for exile.