The question in short is: How would a community in a post-apocalyptic world punish a criminal that was a member of that community?

Setting details
Apocalypse is a one-day event somewhere in 2014~2016, up to 70% of all human population is lost in the following chaos.

Three Eastern Pacific tribes--A, B and C--of human beings emerged in Western Canada after 20 years of recovery, each has a population of about 500,000 inhabitants and are mutually intolerant due to ideological differences, they are separated so: A is on the Victoria Island, B is East of the Rocky Mountains, C is below the American-Canadian boarder and on the west coast.

Question and concerns
If a person is convicted of crime--say murder--in one of these tribes, what realistic form of punishment may be imparted? The followings forms have been considered:

  1. An eye for an eye--execution/maiming: This method of punishment, while cheap and clean, may be rejected because of cultural reason, because it is the tendency and the desire of society to move its punishments away from retribution.
  2. Imprisonment: This method, while appealing because it resembles the method used in the pre-apocalyptic civilization, may be too expansive to enforce--facility and security personnel are needed, and a post-apocalyptic tribe may not be able to afford these.
  3. Force-labour camp: This on the surface seem to be a more economic variant of the second method, but the need to oversee the criminals outside of enclosing facilities (prison), may offset any benefit from the product of such labour.
  4. Banishment: This seems particularly undesirable as the criminals may choose to join one of the other tribes, thereby not only receiving little punishment but also strengthen the rival tribes with information and manpower.

What then, may be an appropriate treatment of criminals in such a setting?

  • $\begingroup$ Is food or any other resource rationed out to the populace? $\endgroup$
    – Lumberjack
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 3:34
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ 30% of the human population is still quite high. There are many countries now with functional legal systems with 30% or less of the population density of other countries. Aside from an extreme paranoia that whatever caused the event would happen again, I don't see why things would be any different? $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ @colmde 100% agreed. 30% of 7b = ~2.1-2.5b people, or the world's population 70 years ago... $\endgroup$
    – BlueBuddy
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ First please. why would it be unrealistic to make the punishment for anything death, or lifetime servitude? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 18, 2020 at 22:30

11 Answers 11


Why are people punished?

You need to take a step back. "How people are punished?" is not your first question. "Why are people punished?" should be at the forefront of your reasoning here.

The following answer I gave to another question that deals with this: A society without law enforcement?

Quoting part of that answer:

Law Enforcement is — generally speaking — fulfilling the following needs:

  • Protection. Hindering people from acting unlawfully (or — to be precise — making sure people are not acted unlawfully upon).
  • Prevention. Making people not want to or need to act unlawfully.
  • Retribution. Exacting revenge on people that have acted unlawfully.
  • Rehabilitation. Giving treatment to people so that they will not act unlawfully again.
  • Reparation. Making sure that people that have been acted unlawfully upon are compensated for their pain and/or loss.

Dive into the science and philosophy of justice and these are the founding principles you will find.

So, before you ask about realistic punishments, you need to figure out why people are punishing each other in the first place in your post-apocalyptic world. What are they seeking to achieve? Do they even bother with asking that, or do they punish just because "it's what we have always done"?

When you have an answer to that, we can start discussing the forms of punishment.


I can only think of the death penalty for very major offenses and a system that only works under very specific circumstances, for minor offenses: IF provision of resources within the community is set up such that each citizen recieves their ration of staple foods and very basic neccessities; distribution of those is organized by the administration of the community; people who have recently been convicted of crimes get nothing besides the amount of these basic foods required to survive; People who have not done anything wrong recieve a slightlty larger amount of staple foods, plus also a certain amount of luxury foods (such as fruit, animal products, nicer kinds of vegetables, things that are candy or can be made into candy, and stimulants). They also get access to medical care and education, and have the right to attend all public social events, some of which convicts are barred from. When convicted, wrongdoers are branded/tattoed with a sign or number that marks the future date when they will get their privileges back. The length of the ban should vary based on the siriousness of the offense.


Legal systems vary. Even among the United States, there are significant differences.

There are trade-offs in all of them.

Banishment is dangerous as you describe. If the banished can prepare and go, the punishment is certainly less severe than if it involves sending them out naked into nasty weather.

Maiming reduces a person's capacity to help the tribe and mitigates the threat posed to it. Blinding makes them less useful but less dangerous. Losing a hand is similar in that regard.

Branding hurts but does little to pacify a person. Beating, whipping, and such are similarly brief effects. For corrective punishments, this or fines can work.

(Branding an offender to mark a crime for which the successive punishments grow more severe makes sense if the population grows large enough.)

Chaining the slain to the back of the murderer was reserved for special cases. Crucifixion or beheading was more common in Roman models.

Vikings would simply declare certain folks fair game. It isn't murder to kill an outlaw. Of course it wasn't murder, exactly, to kill and own up to it: in that case, you had to pay a blood price based on how important the victim was.

Slavery requires some means of keeping the slave in check. This has often been as simple as allowing an out. In general, slaves that could buy their way out were not convicts, though. Debtors, however, weren't even particularly despised in ancient cultures if they worked hard. Slavery was a popular legal approach to their cases.

Imprisonment requires a lot of resources. Work camps can combine slavery and imprisonment to recoup some of the expenses.

Pillory, stocks, displayed cages, and public marches are all humiliations for convicts. These have rarely been applied as punishments for severe crimes like murder... at least, not on their own. They are usually reserved for shaming of something considered a crime against the community.

Stoning deserves special notice because it turns the delivery of the punishment into active participation by society.

Hanging, drawing and quartering, and things like that are significant because they convert an execution into a spectacle. Some audience participation was encouraged by displaying the convicted leading up to the final site. (spitting, rotten fruit, etc.)

How to proceed

Pick what a people would theoretically accept and then contrast it with what individuals actually accept. (lex talionis is nothing if not just and balanced. Most people accept that as sufficient.)

Consider what the consequences of these choices usually is and what a good and bad example look like. Then suss out what corrective measures the people would insist on. (vs. accept)

The result will be a system that, as far as you understand human nature, would work. You'll also have a good grasp on its limits.

If you want extra eyes on the result, come back with something more specific; we can help you flesh it out.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I believe a one-handed person is still more useful/dangerous than a blinded one, isn't he? $\endgroup$
    – user8808
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 12:09
  • $\begingroup$ A case can be made either way, actually. Two hands to fight with or weave, say versus one hand but the ability to watch. Grappling blind isn't a big weakness. Poisoning blind is hard. $\endgroup$
    – The Nate
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 15:33
  1. The eye for eye method is the one used most through out history in low tech societies. Originally Prison was not punishment for a crime, it was just a place for you to be kept while you had your trial. The idea of prison it self been a punishment is was very uncommon until recently. In a post apocalyptic society I could see this sort of thing becoming common again.

  2. Imprisonment impractical across the board, but exception could be made for special crimes or special criminals.

  3. Forced labor: possible for a kingdom maybe but I don't think that a tribe would have the resources to keep a large group of forced labors.

  4. Banishment: only possible if the other tribes agree to view the criminal as a outcast and wont take him in to the community. This certainly possible if the tribes are peace with each other, would excepted a dangerous criminal into your tribe? probably not. Have Banishment seems a little extreme for petty crimes, It would probably only be used for serious offences.


If the tribes are mutually intolerant then exile WOULD be effective, as it is highly unlikely that another tribe would take in A) a known trouble maker (who earned exile) and B. someone from a culture they didn't like on principle anyway. Banishment was very prevalent in older societies as it removed the offender without the trouble of imprisonment or execution.

Consider the concept of Weregild (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weregild) where crimes have a price that must be paid. This creates a system of interdependence between families that can also limit retribution and feuds. It doesn't reduce your labor pool like maiming or execution does, but obviously can only work in a society that doesn't hold life and some concepts like human dignity as "priceless" else murder, rape, etc wouldn't be covered. It certainly favors the wealthy, but that is pretty common across all justice systems.

How developed is the legal system? Without a system of lawyers and judges to arbitrate it, the societies would probably have a pretty simple set of "Do NOT do this!!" laws like the 10 commandments with everything else being handled on an individual basis by a small set of elders/rulers with no set precedent and pretty short time to make a decision. So fixed punishments for specific crimes with everything else being negotiable.

Long term imprisonment is unlikely outside of wealthy/influential prisoners who can be extorted for resources/held for ransom as the costs of imprisonment probably exceed the damages they did to merit imprisonment. Same with labor camps, unless there are brute labor projects that need to be done and the society has no other way of financing them (via captured enemies, slaves, common laborers, etc). Administration costs can easily exceed the value of the project, especially if the rulers can just compel labor from the society as part of civic duty or a means of taxation.


If this is happening just 20 years after the disaster, most people making decisions would be people who grew up in the same world as we live in. I would think that people would be very likely to cling to the same ideals as us and that they would struggle to go against them even when it would be pragmatic to do so. Keeping a sence of identity can be as crucial to survival as any skillsets.

If people originate from areas with a strong support from capital punishment they would probably still execute murderers. If people come from more moderate areas where there is less support for capital punishment they would probably go to great lengthts to avoid it.

If competing groups have different views of capital punishment the importance of maintaining their own view of what is right will be even more important. Like, "we don't do that, we're not barbarians like those people over at Victoria Island".

As for prisons, depends on whether they can afford to feed people who are locked up or not. Keeping people as indentured servants might be a more economic way of having them pay back to society.

More moderate groups might be interested in conflict resolution than punishment. they might look into why somebody killed and try to stop it from happening again.


The best solution, at least in my mind, would be to use your first idea. Revenge is a natural human instinct and is the most likely to remain after the world ended.


This question could be far more loaded in response than it is currently.

Currently we have a society that is starting to be afraid to offend or talk about, let alone think about taboo topics. By then, things may be different. But the question is being asked now with our current societal partiality.

The vote system here is a prime example of crowd think in our current society. We each have a voice with our own personal beliefs based on how we were raised and the influences of our lives. I am not trying to downplay anyone's opinions, it is just a factor in the answer I am giving. We all sit in relative comfort and are able to think it through without worrying about the next major "storm", where our next meal comes from, so on and so on. Some may be able to think outside the box here, and that is awesome.

But here I go, a not very currently socially acceptable example/scenario.

Take into account that it is post-apocalyptic. The nature of what caused it I think would have a very substantial outcome of society's values at this point. If it was man made and the people that survived were the lower class. This would be the class that struggled the hardest in pre times, they could have learned and become very intolerant of repeated trends.

Now with that in mind, how do we treat animals we breed for food currently? For example, the chicken. If a rooster is aggressive they are killed and not allowed to breed for fear of passing along aggressive traits. If a chicken is sick and takes too many resources to "cure" or maintain a happy life, it is also killed.

I could easily see a post society that has knowledge of the screwups of our modern age, and maybe some resentment towards it getting that far adopting this method to humans in crime and medical care.

Survive or die is the motto in expanding from ruins.

Criminals could be culled and their offspring along with them to preserve the type of society that they want to rebuild.

The sick could be as well to promote the strong genes.

After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Our modern knowledge of the past would logically lead a post society to learn from mistakes if not bound by political correctness.

Next scenario, the "elite" of our modern times survives. I have no doubt that they will adopt a cull the sick program. But I am unsure of how to approach the criminal side. It could very likely be similar to the above scenario, but under different reasons. I have no experience living in the mind of someone who has power over a mass of people. So I can't objectively fill out this scenario.

Lastly, regardless of what social class survives, if it was nature caused destruction. I see man kind repeating the same mistakes of our time. As we will have nothing to reflect on thinking it was us that caused it. It would likely be something of a rebuild as was. They might start off just like our age did and was pointed out in other answers. But I am afraid nature would remove an important lesson for man kind to learn from to change anything.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think culling has a very limited usefulness. If you execute criminals, you lose some people that you could otherwise use - for medical studies, or physically demanding work, or, if they're cooperative, scouting the dangerous places, etc. If you execute their families, too, people would be more likely to cover others crimes, since reporting a crime == killing several innocents. And executing the sick is an awful idea: in dire situations NO ONE would be taking any risk, knowing that a broken leg == death. $\endgroup$
    – user8808
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 12:36
  • $\begingroup$ Also the commentary about how you're taking risks with your answer adds nothing but word count. $\endgroup$
    – The Nate
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ Killing the sick and disabled to strengthen the breed rather went out of fashion after 1945 $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ Roux nice comment there. I was thinking more along the lines of severe birth defects and such. Good point about crime cover ups. The only issue I see about "using" criminals is the manpower, resources, expense of overseeing them. Would a post society want to even bother? Especially if they harbor resentment towards the "old ways". $\endgroup$
    – Dan V
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ Separatrix, your comment is exactly why I explained the scenario of my answer in the beginning. We sit in relative comfort assessing "what would we do" we are not in the scenario, we have time and peace to think about it. While the people living in the scenario do not. I think our conclusions and what it would be are colored by this very fact. I just think that the most dramatic and conclusive actions of history can repeat themselves regardless of how "in fashion" or not we determine it to be. $\endgroup$
    – Dan V
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 20:38

I think legal punishments vary depending on the size of the tribe/group and the culture in contrast to the nature of the crime. The smaller the group and the more harsh the overall living conditions, execution would be more favorable as a means to secure the rest of the tribe from said offender. Also locking people up would require infrastructure/a settled tribe. If resources are scarce, execution might also be more favorable to secure survival of the tribe. The more secure, settled and sophisticated a tribe is, the more it can and will focus on rehabilitation of the offender. As to cultural views on specific criminal acts, it's very difficult to say anything specific as cultures are very complex by nature. For example if the tribe is constantly low on food, stealing or wasting it would be a big offense. A post-apocalyptic tribe would probably harshly address human nature of betrayal and value and praise honor. Therefore deceit and dishonesty would be big offenses.

At last I'd like to add a notion I find interesting as a punishment. A "second chance scenario" where an offender will be put into an almost impossible, life-threatening situation, where "great strength and honor" and effectively a man worthy of saving/being re-accepted into the tribe would be the only type to be able to survive it. Examples for this could be being left alone in the desert or trial by combat.


The big issue here is in an extreme post apocalyptic environment, the very concept of "law" will have changed to things like "whatever behaviours the tribe approves of because it is conducive to survival" or "whatever to local sovereign lord decides".

Law and law enforcement simply will exist in the confines of whatever territory the tribe can control, so in intertribal areas, where there is no sovereign to I'm pose his will or tribe to have created a series of "norms" to protect the tribe and ensure survival. then "Mad Max" is the rule of the day.

WRT tribal rules and laws, they will mostly be enforced in a relatively informal manner of being decided on by the tribal elders, and (especially given the difficulty of surviving in a post apocalyptic era), most likely be designed to restrict privileges and harness manual labour rather than inflict the death penalty. After all, more hands on deck mean more opportunities to survive, so killing people will be reserved for the most extreme crimes or outrageous breaches of tribal customs and taboos (most of which have evolved to ensure survival of the tribe).

Outsiders will be observed with suspicion by either tribes or local strongmen as potential threats, so once again, the concept of law and law enforcement will be vastly at odds to what we know and understand today. Being imprisoned for entering a territory where you don't belong might be the least of your worries, you could simply be enslaved, or even preemptively killed if there seems to be a risk of you importing an infectious disease or other existential threat to the tribe or group.

Best brush up on your survival skills, especially if you intend to travel. For the most part, you are the law, until you run into contact with a larger group.


With populations as high as 500,000 you could be looking at something that's more post-post-apocalyptic than true post-apocalyptic. It's down to population density and whether you've passed crisis point and moved back into redeveloping a civilisation.

If the country is largely uninhabited and the people are in high concentration areas then you should have centralised criminal justice. This is very much the setup for the years of the bloody code in England, basically every crime was punishable by hanging but law enforcement (police on the streets) as you would currently think of it was unknown. Only Royals and Nobles are exiled as they have loyalty and duty to their country, peasants are worthless, hanging is quicker and cheaper and serves as a deterrent (it doesn't but that's another matter).

While you probably want to avoid large numbers of executions, it's a risk of the type of autocracy that's liable to develop should a small number of people be allowed to accumulate wealth and power.

If the country is basically settler enclaves, very low population density and decentralised then you have three punishments available. All applied by local justices (or lynch mobs): Stocks, Banishment, Execution, in order from low to high severity.

  • The stocks are basically somewhere for the local rowdy drunk to sober up, anti-social but non-destructive behaviour.

  • Banishment is for destruction and theft. This could in practice be time limited, but depending on what's "out there", losing the protection of the town could effectively be a death sentence in itself.

  • Execution is for highwaymen, bandits and capital crimes. Note that the threshold for executing outsiders is lower than for executing your own.

Forced labour is a thing apart. It would be more suitable for debtors to become indentured labour to their creditors than as punishment for a crime. The master is wholly responsible for the wellbeing of the servant in such cases.

Imprisonment is out, unless you do it the old fashioned way and make the prisoner or their family pay for it or even directly provide food. Your population can't support many inactive members so will not be able to support long term incarceration of prisoners.

Forget maiming, the only thing worth the hassle of cutting off is a head.


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