After watching the film minority report, (set in the future where crime can be accurately predicted and the criminals punished before the crime is committed) a thought struck me. If a crime has not been committed, are you a criminal? Even if the crime was certain to happen, if the criminal is detained before the crime does happen, then surely the person is not a criminal, but merely has criminal intent.

Furthermore, this method of catching criminals may also incorrectly predict a crime and thus an entirely innocent man may be arrested for a crime he had no intention to commit.

So, if you were to be punished in such a way, what sort of effect would it have on people if they thought that the law enforcement could see into their minds and detect intent for a felon, and would the majority of people view this as morally correct for such persecution?

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    $\begingroup$ Hi Behavior. I really don't see how this question relates to worldbuilding, so I have put it on hold for the moment. Can you please edit your question to make it more clear how this relates to worldbuilding? If you edit the question during the "on hold" period, it will automatically enter the reopen review queue to be looked at. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Sep 4, 2015 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ He is theorizing on what a world would look like that would allow for such convictions. What would the beliefs and knowledge have to be about such things as causality, fate, guilt and innocence. $\endgroup$
    – user11864
    Sep 4, 2015 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, on how the world would progress if even thinking about committing a crime equates to being convicted $\endgroup$
    – Behavior
    Sep 4, 2015 at 13:06
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling - please take this off hold. With the comments and the edit that has been made, It should not be on hold any more. $\endgroup$
    – user11864
    Sep 4, 2015 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ @GiliusMaximus This was taken off hold by community vote before I got to it after the edit. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Sep 5, 2015 at 11:08

6 Answers 6


Czech Republic

Yes. Check your own laws, though.


Say you hate this answer and want to take it down, big time. So you start getting people and material to get to Stack Exchange data center and blow it up. If police catches you while still in preparation, they can detain you.

Saying, "But I didn't blow anything up!" will not suffice.

There could be an exception that differs from Minority Report.

Consider murder. You hate this answer and this time plan to kill the authors. The "all-seeing" police detect your intentions and lock you up.

But (sadly for me), you would not be charged for a murder, but for plotting the murder.

United States


From Justia:

A direct step requires more than merely planning or preparing to commit murder or obtaining or arranging for something needed to commit murder. A direct step is one that goes beyond planning or preparation and shows that a person is putting his or her plan into action. A direct step indicates a definite and unambiguous intent to kill. It is a direct movement toward the commission of the crime after preparations are made. It is an immediate step that puts the plan in motion so that the plan would have been completed if some circumstance outside the plan had not interrupted the attempt.

From Avvo:

Planning a crime is not illegal, but conspiracy to commit a crime is. If the planning involved more than one person, and any steps were taken toward carrying out the plan, a conspiracy exists.

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    $\begingroup$ "Check your laws" - nice one. Put a smile on my face. $\endgroup$
    – user11864
    Sep 4, 2015 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ @GiliusMaximus Even though I am really fluent in English, sometimes I am creating Czech sentences, but translated into English, just word by word. Will try to rephrase that :) $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 12:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Pavel Janicek The English is perfect dont worry! I think its because check sounds like Czech. :) $\endgroup$
    – Behavior
    Sep 4, 2015 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ Pavel, your English was perfect. I thought you were intentionally using a pun, a very well constructed pun where "Check" could mean to verify or could also mean to compare them against "Czech" law. Since they both sound alike, it was a beautifully constructed pun, even if you did not intend it. I truly meant this as a compliment. $\endgroup$
    – user11864
    Sep 4, 2015 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ @GiliusMaximus So, I finally get why so many tourist souvenirs from Prague say "Czech me out" :) $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 13:50

The concept of justice, and thus the justice system is predicated on the concept of freewill. Precognition challenges the notion of freewill, so justice will be challenged accordingly. Whether justice survives is not clear.

A test case I like to use is when an individual with Disassociative Identity Disorder is charged with a crime. Or is it two individuals? What if the personalities do not accept responsibility for each other. Where is the line of "individual" drawn? Is it "just" to jail an innocent personality for the acts of another? If so, is it valid to charge someone for crimes committed by a "them" that will never be given a chance to occur?

I think it is more likely that the concept of justice will go away as an artifact of the times. In the end, the philosophical rationalization for justice is never an excuse to go punish people. It's a way to further your own goals in by removing asocial behaviors. I would expect any technology that allowed for precognition of crimes could be used vastly better outside of the criminal justice system. The criminal pursuit approach for such technologies is rather ham handed, if you think about it. Simply arresting people before they commit the crime is a lazy solution. A more realistic approach would involve the higher powers (governments, religious leaders, etc.) using these technologies to try to identify the best way to further humanities goals (or, in the worst case, further their goals). Why send a chopper full of guys in black armor to go arrest someone, when you can arrange to have a phonecall from a friend delivered at an opportune time to sidestep the murder.

And like DaaaahWhoosh points out, there will be a great deal of control here, almost like a jail. If you are a particularly troublesome individual, you may find yourself pressed into more and more disadvantaged positions, as the system tries to restrain you as efficiently as possible. But, given that you are talking about starting from a premise that violates your own concept of agency, jail may be the least of your concerns.


You can actually be arrested now, because plotting to commit a crime is in itself a crime.

In a larger sense, your question is about Mens Rea; the "Guilty Mind". In many jurisdictions there are two parts to a criminal act, the Actus Reus, or "Guilty Act", and the Mens Rea or "Guilty Mind". There are plenty of examples of actions which have adverse consequences, even including death, which are not criminally prosecuted since these acts were undertaken with innocent intent and the outcome was unanticipated (if there is prosecution, it is usually under negligence, or as a civil suit to recover damages).

On the other hand, should it be discovered or proven that the act was undertaken with the intent to cause adverse consequences, including death, then the law takes a much different view and prosecutions are ramped up accordingly. Your car rolling out of the driveway and killing someone because of a faulty parking brake could get you charged with negligent homicide at worst, but if you had intentionally sabotaged your brake system and then pushed the car out of the driveway (or otherwise arranged for the car to roll out at a particular time) then there is clear intent to do harm, and you will be charged with murder.

Incidentally, this is quite different from the issue of car insurance. There the rates are chosen based on statistical data (much like the actuarial tables which determine your premiums for life insurance), so while you might not be individually a greater risk, statistically you belong in a group which has a greater risk. Since there is no way to determine in advance how good or bad of a driver you are (or for that matter, determine in advance the date of your death), then you need to be grouped and charged accordingly.

As a BTW, this sort of statistical analysis is also the basis of "profiling" of communities for criminal behaviour. Civil libertarians hate it because it goes against the idea of Mens Rea, but it also works, so is a double edged sword.


From a philosophical perspective, punishment for crimes is mainly used as a deterrent to further crimes. You don't cut off a thief's hands because they've been a bad boy, you do it so they don't steal again and so other people will be too afraid to steal at all. Now, whether such punishment actually lowers crime rates is debatable (not the hand-cutting part, I hear that works wonders, but things like prison), but I would say if we lived in a world where we knew who was going to do what, and when, punishment would be replaced by prevention.

Let's keep going with the hand-cutting analogy. Say someone is going to steal; instead of cutting his hands off after the fact, just put him in handcuffs before he does anything. Since you know what crimes are going to happen in the future, you just detain him until you know he's not going to steal any more, or until he appeals for release (because of 'minority reports', you're going to want to give the wrongfully accused a chance to go free). For more heinous crimes, you might have to keep the suspect detained for longer periods of time before their futures become bright enough to set them free (now this is beginning to remind me of the anime Psycho-pass). Perhaps the government can provide counseling for these suspects (remember, you're innocent until proven guilty, and you can't prove someone guilty when they haven't committed the crime), in the hopes that they will think better of their criminal plans faster.

I'd think that many of these cases will look like imprisonment, but won't feel like imprisonment. If the government knows about and can stop all crimes, no one will ever have the chance to become a hardened criminal; they'll simply get arrested at a young age, then released once they've learned the error of their ways. The only problem you run into is when people need to commit crimes, such as poor people who need to steal in order to survive. In these cases, though, if the people are in jail, getting food and shelter, and not surrounded by terrifying people, then maybe it'll actually be a pretty good solution to poverty.

The main problem I see with this is the public's reaction. If you can get this system up and running, people may end up being fine with it (oh, you think I'm too stressed out and about to kill my boss? You're going to take me away from my job for a few weeks, so I can rest up and reevaluate my life? Sounds great!), but the biggest problem is getting it started. There will be a lot of cases that appear to not make sense, where innocent people are incarcerated for seemingly no reason. Plus, there will still be really bad guys in the prisons, so it's possible what started as a preventative measure will turn decent people into even worse criminals. And since you know what people are going to do, someone you put in jail for thinking about stealing might end up staying in jail their entire life, as each day they think of a new way to kill you for holding them so long.

There's also the problem of giving the government so much power. If the technology behind it is sound and the people using it are very transparent about their methods, it might be okay, but people generally don't like it when the government knows things about them. Maybe if there is another large terrorist threat, people might give up some freedom in exchange for safety, but due to the problems I've already mentioned I don't think they would get used to the changes before deciding to abolish them.

So, long story short, the end result sounds pretty good to me, but I don't think it could ever get started without pretty much everyone opposing it.

EDIT: I would also like to point out the case of car insurance. People my age (early 20s) don't think it's fair that they get charged more just because they're more statistically likely to get into accidents. Insurance is a really great example of pre-crime-punishment in modern society, as people have to pay for things they may never actually do. And I think people's reaction to insurance is a pretty good indicator that this kind of crime prevention system wouldn't really work.

  • $\begingroup$ Actually I think that an insurance are forbidden to charge more given parts of the population based on their age (or anything else) in some countries. I am pretty sure it is enforced, at least for healthcare, in Switzerland (since the legislation is messy and I am not a lawyer, I can not be 100% sure). $\endgroup$
    – Kolaru
    Sep 6, 2015 at 16:01

In practice I'd question how such a thing would be possible. If the psychics can foresee that a person is going to commit a crime in the future, and the police then prevent the person from committing the crime, then the psychics' prediction is, in fact, wrong. The person never commits the crime. And if the police are 100% successful in preventing these crimes, then the psychics' predictions are 100% wrong. People are regularly being arrested and imprisoned for crimes they never committed, because someone said that this person would have committed a crime under some hypothetical set of circumstances that, in fact, never happened.

So ... why does anyone trust the psychics? How would we know that their predictions are accurate, and not just random, baseless accusations?

Even if people generally trust the psychics, wouldn't there be very good grounds to fear that the process could become corrupt? What if a politician decides to get rid of a political opponent by paying off the psychics to say that he was going to commit a crime? What if a psychic has a personal animosity toward someone -- the other person stole his girlfriend or cheated him in a business deal or whatever? (If more than one psychic is involved, perhaps he convinces the others to go along.) There'd be no way you could prove your innocence. The fact that you never committed the crime and never made any preparations to commit the crime would presumably be declared irrelevant, or the whole system would fall apart.

For the system to work, people would have to be convinced that the psychics were infallible and incorruptible. Whether that would happen would presumably depend on where these psychics come from and how their powers work.

  • $\begingroup$ The psychics prediction could be "If this person is not arrested then he will commit a murder". The psychic would then be 100% correct - unfortunately this would just be a vacous truth - so the trust issues remain and would not be easy to resolve. "We'l just ignore a random portion of the predictions" is going to cause a fairly large outcry if the psychics turn out to be correct in as little as 50% of the cases. $\endgroup$
    – Taemyr
    Sep 24, 2015 at 10:37
  • $\begingroup$ Corruption is a crime, so if a politician want to pay the psychics, the psychics can predict it and have the politician arrested $\endgroup$ Jan 15, 2016 at 10:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Gianluca Sure -- if the psychics are incorruptible. But that's the question. If the psychics are willing to accept a bribe, then whether they can predict that the bribe will be offered in advance or they don't know until it's actually offered, so what? $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Jan 15, 2016 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Jay To work the system must be infallible and the psychics incorruptible, else the system (or the society itself) is doomed. Since there is no trial after the accusation it is the only way it can work. $\endgroup$ Jan 15, 2016 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Gianluca Yes, that was my point. Oh, and not only must the psychics be infallible and incorruptible, but the people must know that they are infallible and incorruptible. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Jan 15, 2016 at 15:52

Forget psychics. Imagine that we invent a time machine that looks into the future. Quantum entanglement across time has already been proven, so one could imagine that messages could be transferred across time (although that is not how quantum entanglement works, the layman won't know the difference and the physicist will grant that if quantum entanglement across time is too weird for them to say something like this is not possible through some other quirk of quantum physics we have not yet discovered).

A police agency in the future is charged with sending messages to the past saying "so and so just killed so and so"... So now in the past we can change things to avoid that happening. Arrest the guy, warn him or warn the victim, take your pick. But then if that future is avoided, where did the message come from? The whole infinite universe thing, created by volitional branches, does not convince me. And what does this do to causality? Can we really arrest the guy and call it "justice". My sense is that a process could be devised that would attempt to change the course, but at some point it would be decided that the problem was insolvable short of locking up the accused. Given communication to the future, I can see such a process being devised, even if it was only one way (future to past) communication.

EXCELLENT BOOK that does a great job of presenting a possible view of time-space while telling a pretty good yarn about this very "what if": Thrice Upon A Time

You have to read that if this question interests you at all.


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