Imagine a world just like this one. In a highly developed country (like US):

  • No one could (ever - from the beginning) own a gun (or a harder weapon).

  • All penalties (including the death penalty) would be much more often and more strictly imposed (Say the lowest border for the death penalty would be a grievous bodily harm.)

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Are you increasing all penalties (i.e. the penalty for a traffic ticket moves in the direciton of jail time), or are you trying to sharpen them (perhaps hitting someone with an open hand is a fine, but hitting them with a closed fist is the death penalty)? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Nov 15, 2015 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon I'm increasing both intensity and number of penalties, but about the ticket I would let it be, I wouln't impose penalties for "crimes" which are not considered to be crimes (they do harm only on the private companies - nobody harms your basic rights). $\endgroup$
    – Coala
    Nov 15, 2015 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ In the US, the law is structured to catch criminals, but there are cases where the process of catching them causes normal citizens to break the law. There's arguments that the average person commits 3 felonies a day. How would that change in your system? Like all good worldbuilding questions, a lot of the answers depend on the context. See also Minority Report or 1984 and their concepts of thought crime. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Nov 15, 2015 at 20:13
  • $\begingroup$ Felony is for example crossing on the red? Yes, this would be also punished more hardly. About how people would behave - that's what I would like to know, what I'm setting in the question is just a change in law. $\endgroup$
    – Coala
    Nov 15, 2015 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ This seems incredibly, massively broad - could you narrow the scope? What are you most concerned about? $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2015 at 3:47

8 Answers 8


In the UK in the 18th century there were over 200 capital crimes. The death penalty was not always carried out for the less serious ones but a robber could expect to hang if caught. One counterproductive effect was the rise of the cut-throats. If robbery carried the death penalty, a robber had nothing to lose and much to gain by killing his victim ( ie remove the witness). A robber would also have nothing to lose by violently resisting arrest.

  • $\begingroup$ Very valid point. Heard the same argument during a tour in Dublin's famous prison. $\endgroup$
    – Ghanima
    Nov 15, 2015 at 20:13
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A third effect was that juries would go out of their way to avoid convicting someone even if they were obviously guilty in order to avoid imposing the mandatory death penalty. This likely means a breakdown of the entire system long-term. $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2015 at 1:11
  • $\begingroup$ A case of dead men tell no lies I take it? $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2015 at 2:02
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Leushenko: although beware the "end of history" fallacy, that the current system represents some kind of stable endpoint and "therefore" any difference is unstable. Every system breaks down long-term, by the second law of thermodynamics if not sooner. Clearly by the late C18th, English law was well out of line with English public opinion and therefore couldn't last much longer, but the death penalty for highway robbery and horse theft dated from c.1540, which means they lasted almost 300 years: longer than the USA has so far! $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2015 at 2:03

The punishment for crimes has several different purposes.

Some are about the criminal:

  • Punishment restrains the convict from (some) future crimes, by locking him or her up, or worse.
  • Punishment deters the convict from future crimes, by showing the consequences of being caught. If the convict is not killed outright, that is.
  • Punishment rehabilitates the convict, by putting him into an ordered place where he can learn self-discipline and a trade. If the prison offers order and training, and not a jungle which teaches survival of the meanest.

Some are about the victims:

  • Punishment gives the victim a sense of vengeance and closure. Some societies don't like to admit that, but it is generally a factor.

Some are about society at large:

  • Punishment deters other would-be criminals from future crimes, again by showing the consequences of being caught.
  • Punishment reaffirms the values of society by showing that lawbreakers are punished.

Different societies put different emphasis on the various aspects. But keep in mind that quite a lot of adolescents break the rules of adult society. Most grow up to become sober citizens. And raising a baby to adulthood is a massive investment by the parents and by the society as a whole. Would a society prosper if it abandons juvenile delinquents at the first sign of trouble?


This depends on whether the punishments have been gradually raised or have simply been there from the beginning.

If the punishments have been like this from the beginning, it would simply be… stagnant? might be a good word. Older societies punished more harshly and more readily, as nigel222 mentioned. Crime and punishment would simply be a bit archaic. In the modern world, you would likely see a rise in police brutality. Consider: more people resist arrest, the police become more accustomed to fighting, the police become desensitized to killing, when already they are taught to kill when a person represents a "minor threat." If the country's mores had advanced, though, you might see them searching wider and more diligently for unbiased juries, and perhaps they would give more rights to the defendant… or… not.

Plea bargaining, which has already been widely criticized for generating more false convictions, would probably not be an option. There's no reason not to defend yourself in court if your other option is the death penalty. This would massively increase the load on the court; over 97% of all federal criminal cases are resolved with plea bargaining in the United States. Because only a 10% drop in guilty pleas in the United States would double the caseload, there would be immense pressure on judges to move quickly through trials. This quickened judicial process may lead to wrongful convictions, which may eventually escalate to what I desrive below.

If the punishments have been gradually increased (or suddenly increased) from the level of US today to what you're describing, you're probably going to be looking at an armed rebellion within a few years, barring a 1984-like government/society. Assuming a truly developed country with access to the internet, people will know that their government is suddenly punishing them more harshly. Teenagers who make stupid mistakes may be imprisoned for years, or even executed if they resist arrest, which spikes ire even in the most totalitarian of countries. The Tiananmen Square protests are a good example of this... the deaths of (rebellious) youths at the hands of the government still shakes China sometimes. The court caseload would increase, the number of cutthroats (and crime, without plea bargaining to allow law enforcement to go after serious offenders, according to some) would increase, and courts may start sentencing people who shouldn't be sentenced to harsher punishments.

This could lead to a North Korea/Oceania scenario, where things remain this way and become steadily worse, with labor camps and such, over a long period of time. Or, given that this is a developed country with access to the internet and the knowledge that this is not the only way… well, it could theoretically spark a rebellion quite quickly. It might be harder, without a legal way to access guns, at least at first, but people are resourceful. Criminals may be using crossbows or illegally obtained guns from across some border. And if your developed country is a superpower, then I'm sure some other superpower country would be willing to back the rebels, take out their competitor, and just generally sow chaos.

There might be a way to make it work and last without oppression, but it will require a lot of resources and a lot of time to ensure fair trials for all of the defendants who've got nothing to lose. But then you'll need more law enforcement, and more law enforcement means more brutality, and eventually martial law… even a good government would be standing on the edge of knife with these policies.


o.m. gives a very good start to answering the question with his list. I'll use it as a basis for my answer so, you really need to read it first.


This is the strong point of such strict systems and the most likely reason for having strict system in civilized country. If you have high crime rate then moving to stricter penalties will result in the crime rate dropping fast as criminals are removed from the streets. Unfortunately this doesn't really remove the original reasons for the high crime rate, but it does stop the crime from snowballing out of control and it can hide the effect of some social problems. An example would be criminals coming from very bad family backgrounds. There is a limited number of such people so if you kill them they do not get replaced any faster. This results in a real reduction of severe violent crimes.


This can be problematic. While harsh penalties are fairly good at guiding how crimes are committed, their ability to deter people from committing crimes is limited. This is because they do not generally do anything to remove the reasons for crime and most criminals believe - sometimes to an irrational degree - that they won't get caught. Because of this harsh penalties are generally better used deterring specific forms of crime than trying to drop the overall crime rate.

Imposing harsh penalties overall would reduce the cases where criminals can choose to be smart - evryone wants to be smart - and reduce potential penalty by committing their crimes in less damging ways. Instead the smart thing would be to do anything to minimize the chances of getting caught. Criminals would wear masks, kill witnesses, and act in armed groups capable of fighting off encounters with the police. They would also try to avoid having witnesses and encounters with the police, but you'd still have heavily armed gangs of people willing to break the law and kill people while doing it.

Even more problematically since your society bans weapons this would create a large demand for illegal weapons and infrastructure capable of providing them. This would totally happen since the need to act in groups and plan your crimes in advance to avoid capture would already drive in the same direction. So your criminals would be organized and disciplined. Expect a code of silence, revenge killings and all the other cliches from the movies.

The reason this is problematic is that organized and disciplined criminals are much less likely to get caught. That obviously drops the deterrence value a lot. Organized crime also increases the chances of police corruption, which further reduces deterrence by reducing the credibility of the system.

closure and reaffirmation of values

Would start off good and be popular. Over time if the police force gets corrupted, people will get disillusioned. Also, if the criminals get organized people getting convictions will probably be just common soldiers who did what somebody else told them to do. No closure will be available in such cases.

note on organized crime

At this point you are probably wondering why the system would be that bad in fighting organized crime, when ability to fight organized crime doesn't really map to harshness of judicial system in the real world? The reason it doesn't map is because dealing with organized crime effectively requires special measures. So the general harshness of the system does not directly impact it. Unfortunately one of the more common and effective of such measures is to give much harsher penalties for crimes connected to organized crime. And you can't do this if the system is already treating unorganized crimes very harshly. Thus there would be no incentive for criminals to not organize and strong reason to do so.


While there are very good answers so far, there's another problem that would crop up in the context of a modern society, and that's the scope of criminal law. Originally, criminal charges strictly required mens rea -- that the defendant not only committed the act, but committed it knowingly and intentionally, or more directly, "with a guilty mind". While this is still true for the traditional, common-law crimes (such as murder, larceny, and the likes) -- many of the more modern additions to the criminal law, what I'll call "technical crimes", often carry strict liability -- even if you unwittingly or unknowingly violate the law, or honestly believe that the act you are committing is legal, you're still on the hook for criminal charges.

Furthermore, these "technical crimes" are not offenses that can be deduced from basic moral rights, unlike the traditional common-law crimes. This means that it is very easy for someone who isn't a specialist in the regulatory field in question to find themselves on the wrong end of the strict liability stick -- at the moment, mere prosecutorial discretion is what keeps most folks who do run afoul of criminal regulatory offenses out of court.

As a result, attaching harsh sentences (especially capital ones) to strict-liability technical crimes is likely to yield a swift pushback, much along the lines of the reactions to US v Swartz.


You should consider what might cause both politicians and the people to create this situation in the first place, where punishments are harsher than in the US (living in the UK, I would say even harsher than in the US).

Consider why it is that the US has harsher punishments than Europe, and why the American people support prison terms and death sentences that Europeans on the whole would not (here in the UK we've just dropped below 50% in polls in favour of the death penalty at all, never mind sentencing as many people to death as the US does today). I don't say I have the correct answer to that question, or even that the situation in your fiction must be extrapolated from a real difference between real countries, but it does at least provide a starting point.

So, one or more things must be different from the US and that could include:

  • crime is worse, so the desire for deterrence is greater,
  • people are more afraid of crime,
  • people are more bloodthirsty, and like to see criminals punished more harshly,
  • the people who support strong sentences have less respect and empathy for the people most likely to be convicted of the crimes (for example perhaps a sharp class divide, in which the rich make the rules and the poor are more likely to be caught stealing and cannot hire a good lawyer),
  • the people have less influence on the government, and the harsher punishments are the whims of a small elite that doesn't care at all about playing to the crowd,
  • there is little or no belief in rehabilitation or in giving people more than one chance,
  • extension of the most misguided aspects of the "War on Drugs" to other forms of crime, creating a situation in which almost any criminal is considered part of an existential threat to society,
  • less respect for individual rights, and therefore less protection of the individual criminal with respect to the need of society to protect itself from crime (in the US at the moment, prosecutions can be affected or dropped entirely over due process issues, where the suspect's rights have been violated. If this were not a concern then the system as a whole would be harsher on the criminal),
  • greater respect for the law, and therefore a stronger belief that law-breakers should by rights be punished harshly, regardless of whether the general level of crime represents a serious practical problem or not.

I will not comment as to which of the above I think are genuine differences between the USA and Europe ;-) Probably all of them are true of Mega-City One, except that the last is perhaps only honestly believed by Judge Dredd himself, many of the Judges are hypocrites or at any rate less fanatical than he is.


No guns

This sounds a lot like Japan. The laws against everyday citizens owning weapons in Japan are very old. Basically, lords and their samurai were able to have weapons, but others could only be armed at the lords' discretion. Guns (and swords) are generally illegal in Japan now. Their level of gun ownership is miniscule. Even police officers don't take their guns home. They leave them at the police station.

Japan has very little gun violence. Part of this is simply that they have no guns. Part of this is that simply carrying a gun (or bullets) is illegal under almost all circumstances. Part of this is their lack of an exclusionary rule. In Japan, you can't argue that a search was invalid and have the results thrown out. You can sue for an invalid search, but if the search is successful, then the search is generally considered valid. Regardless, if evidence is found, it can be used.

Harsher penalties

There are four reasons to imprison someone:

  • Incapacitation. To keep the person from committing more crimes.
  • Retribution. To keep the friends and relatives from collecting their own justice.
  • Deterrence. To keep others from committing the same crime.
  • Rehabilitation. To keep this person from committing more crimes after release.

The death penalty only provides the first three. It's quite effective at incapacitation and retribution. But then so is imprisonment. It may be mildly better at deterrence--results are mixed. It's utterly ineffective at rehabilitation, but the incapacitation improvement may be enough to overcome that.

Neither imprisonment nor execution are particularly good at deterrence unless the prospective perpetrator expects to get caught. In fact, no penalty is effective unless perpetrators expect to get caught. People don't decide to commit crimes because they are willing to accept the penalty. Criminals expect to get away with it.

The truth is that even small penalties like a few months in jail have most of the deterrence value of longer sentences. So the truth is that this society would probably be a lot like Japan. Yes, harsher sentences, but this won't matter so much. Convicted criminals will be less likely to engage in more crimes because of incapacitation rather than through psychological effects, but only slightly less likely.

Successful deterrence

If you want to deter crimes, you need to catch more of them. This is one of the bases of "broken windows" policing. If you don't think that you can get away with small crimes, then you don't take the bigger risks of larger crimes. So if you want to deter people from committing crimes, change their perspective on the likeliness of being caught. And the easiest way to do that is to catch them.

In theory, harsher penalties could compensate for ineffective prosecution. But the problem is that to the criminal, a 30% chance of the death penalty is not worse than a 100% chance of a one year sentence. And even if the criminal has a 30% chance of getting caught, the criminal will think that it's more like 3%.

Another issue is that you want to deprive the criminal of the benefits of crime. Not so difficult with theft. Just take back what was stolen. More difficult with violent crimes.

There would be very few crimes if there was 0% chance of benefiting and 100% chance of punishment. This is almost regardless of what the punishment is.

Exclusionary rule

Another interesting question is how much it would matter if this country did have an exclusionary rule. With an exclusionary rule, it is much easier to carry contraband, including guns. If Japan introduced an exclusionary rule, would criminals smuggle guns as well as other contraband (e.g. drugs)? How long would it take to get a society more like Chicago where few law abiding citizens have guns but many criminals do?


I would expect this society to be a lot like Japan. The harsher punishments would have little effect. Japan already has these kinds of gun laws and very little gun crime. So long as the laws are enforced similarly (e.g. no exclusionary rule), the results should be similar.


The government would eventually turn into a tyranny. Taking guns/weapons away from the populous would take away their ability to defend themselves and empower the government, which is never good. The people should not fear the government, the government should fear the people.

  • $\begingroup$ If it comes down to an arms race between the government and the citizens, the society has already lost. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Nov 16, 2015 at 6:21

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