In modern society the main punishment for a crime is either imprisonment or financial penalty. Even if you're a billionaire, a 20 year prison sentence isn't something to brush off, and a large fine may be a big disincentive.

Suppose people could live arbitrarily long lives. Now a fixed term prison sentence (of any duration) can be shrugged off by many people since there's always another 200 years where that came from, if the person wants it. A monetary penalty can also be shrugged off, they can build up a new fortune some way or another in the next 150 years. A variable length sentence ("until no longer a risk" or "X strikes and out") is trickier but most crimes don't get that nowadays, and its tricky to assess rehabilitation. And of course most crimes don't merit death.

In this question I'm sticking very close to current society, so the kinds of crime and punishment seen are quite close to today's. As arbitrary lifespan is now almost universal, criminals are becoming noticeably more relaxed about 5-15 year prison terms for assault, or 8 years for hacking and spam emailing, or yet another sentence for shoplifting, which lack the deterrent and protection ability they used to have. The Law Society or some other body puts out a consultation paper seeking public input how criminal sentencing should respond to this.

Human rights mean that, as happens today, a persons health isn't a valid target for punishment, so limiting their 'natural' arbitrary lifespan or otherwise targeting their health isn't going to be allowed, and of course too-cruel punishments probably won't be allowed by legislators either. The expression "life sentence" is a particular issue as life duration is arbitrary and at the criminal's choice; they may not be viable any more, or not in the same form (also its too close to "imprisonment until person commits suicide": imprisonment until death may be technically viable but the courts may see it as unreasonable in most cases as it's too arbitrary and raises the question of death by what means). Overall they're probably looking for evolution not revolution in their response, if possible, but are also looking for whether prison and financial penalties can actually work as they have in the past.

What kinds of plausible responses might be received, and what plausible ways could formal criminal punishment adapt to arbitrary lifespan, especially for less dramatic and "everyday" crimes?

Update - the arbitrary length lifespan itself is "just how it is", so there are no drugs or medical procedures maintaining it to target, and targeting health wouldn't be seen as acceptable anyhow (as said above).

(If it helps, I think an acid test for any answer might be the thought experiment "Suppose this was an actual formal consultation by the Law Society, in current society.....", which should help to separate relevant and even revolutionary answers from answers that don't really fit the criteria. But maybe not)

  • $\begingroup$ I imagine they would make the criminals work. That's productive for the society and they can do the jobs not so many people are willing to do for a long amount of time. "You stole 30$ worth from the super market? That's ten years [insert job you would not want to do here]!" $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Apr 13, 2017 at 12:05
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    $\begingroup$ The only reason you won't care about missing 20 years is if you're a 100% anti-social loner shut-in. Otherwise, you'll be missing 20 years of what your friends have been up to, 20 years of your kids growing up, 20 years of current events, 20 years to education and career building, etc. After 20 years in jail, you're effectively starting a new life. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Apr 13, 2017 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ Another, possibly bigger, issue for your justice system is actually housing prisoners. In the UK we're already struggling for space for prisoners, if you had 30 or 40 year sentences for simple offences the prison service would collapse. $\endgroup$ Apr 13, 2017 at 12:20
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    $\begingroup$ 20 years prison are not a joke if you want to remain a member of society, no matter how long you are going to live afterwards. Imagine a person entering jail in 1997 (when mass internet was barely starting, mobile phones were a high end product and IoT was just a dream) and coming out today, and asking somebody to send him a fax with a contract... $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Apr 13, 2017 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ 20 years prison is not a joke, there's a very real chance of death, maiming or going crazy during that time. People who have done lengthy periods of jail are totally different people from the ones who went in. However in some countries they also flog people and amputate bits and pieces for crimes. Australia and bit of French Polynesia were used to serve a sentence after serving which you didn't get to go home, you stayed out there. So penal colonies are another method which removes the criminal forever. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Apr 13, 2017 at 21:40

7 Answers 7


No punishment, only "Reconditioning"

If punishing a criminal doesn't work, why not try to fix the behavior? If you have nearly immortal people, counselors could be assigned to work with these criminals who will have all the time they need to work on someones misbehavior. Classes will be provided, and a person cannot get out of internment until their assigned counselor deems them "Corrected". (Now I realize that this sounds super "police state" and shady, but any utopia society always get's a bit juicier with a bit of dystopia sprinkled on top) Mind you these counselors and their staff would likely have monumental work loads, but hey, they're immortal, they'll get around to it!

Say a person got caught littering - Now they need to go through classes and programs about environmental effects until a counselor signs off that they think the person is unlikely to do that again. If needed, that litterbug will come out of the program a fully certified environmental engineer.

Say someone commits murder - LOTS of work to be done; If they have any addictions, they don't get out until their clean. If they are violent, they work with psychologists until their outlook on life is adjusted.

Basically since we have an infinite amount of time to work with here, maybe your people could adopt the policy of "anything and anyone can be fixed given enough time".

  • $\begingroup$ Try this out as a "thought experiment" in current society. Do we think that pure reconditioning would be seen as a valid response to crimes by enough of society to make it the law? Would it be sure enough? I doubt it, looking around society now. So I don't think it would gain acceptance as a response to the problem as society stands, even if it might in some cases work... $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Apr 13, 2017 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ several societies focus heavily on rehabilitation instead of american style focused only on punishment, they tend to have better outcomes (lower recidivism, better reintegration), becasue of it. Punishment does not work well with severe crimes. Look at Norway's success with restorative justice.restorativejustice.org/restorative-justice/… $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 13, 2017 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ @ Stilez @John - It would work but there is a catch. Norwegians can keep a serious criminal until he is no longer a threat, which for Breivik could mean a life sentence with low chance of parole. A society of immortals can keep a criminal until he is reformed, even if it takes millenia, which may be a motivating factor, while in most cases look so enlightened... $\endgroup$
    – Shadow1024
    Apr 13, 2017 at 19:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Shadow1024 there is no reason the fictional culture could not do the same. Remember that in the Norwegian system "no longer a threat" means having been rehabilitated not having died of old age. Life sentences are all but impossible in their legal system. permanent Preventative detention could easily be replaced with execution, since it is so extremely rare (around a dozen people in the country's entire history). $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 13, 2017 at 19:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Shadow1024 That should say 76 in the country's entire history, many of which were voluntary. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_imprisonment_in_Norway $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 13, 2017 at 19:57

Your premise has a pretty serious flaw. A year locked up is a year locked up regardless of how many years you have.

And being locked up is unpleasant, even without deliberate additional punishment.

Jail doesn't generally work as a deterrent, not because it isn't sufficiently unpleasant, but because people generally don't think they're going to be caught.

Why would they think that? Probably because they've gotten away with it before, or they know people who have, or they're not the sort of person who really thinks things through.

Or they're not the sort of person who has other options. Desperate people do desperate things regardless of the consequences.

So with that in mind, you probably won't really see a significant change in crime due to arbitrarily long lifespans.

People who require life sentences will be locked up for a much longer time, but in reality life sentences are more about protecting a society from a dangerous individual who isn't likely​ to rehabilitate, than about deterring crime. Do you really think there are serial killers out there who don't kill, for fear of prison?


I think the key term here is "Justice". Black Mirror's episode "White Christmas" presents two forms of punishment. I don't think I'm spoiling anything and I highly recommend the show.

One form is blocking someone using implants so the blocked person is fuzzy and can't be understood. It's not a bad idea but I'm not sure if the victims will feel like this is justice.

The second is isolation. I like the idea of isolation. Just boring food and boring exercises and no human contact. For some this will help with rehab because they have nothing to do except deal with their guilt. For the others this will be enough punishment to make them not want to commit a crime again. A long enough sentence will also force them to learn to tolerate their mind without needing to hurt someone.
I think the victims will consider this one justice.


If fines and jail-time are negligible as a punishment, you could refer to other incentives humans generally have. One example could be community belonging. In our world private companies already may refuse to employ you if you have criminal record. You could extend that to being banned from a certain profession for certain amount of time - if the social system was some form of syndicalism. Similarly, your criminal actions could take away your right to live in a certain neighborhood or city - if the foundation of your society was community cooperatives rather than individual household as in ours.

The former (syndicalism) might be applicable to white-collar crimes, but preventing corruption is a whole new topic. One solution I can see is making a distinction between the money individuals use on personal needs, from the money governments and business use to trade. That way it'd be harder to incentivise politicians financially. Also, public office could be a duty rather than a privilege (as in ancient Athens) or you could remove private businesses from your social system.

The latter (cooperative society) could work for misdemeanor, etc, where the community itself would write and enforce the law, as well as judge low-level crimes. I'd hope the community would recognize systematic problems - where the shoplifter was genuinely unable to provide to his/her family by any other means, and focus on employing solutions rather than punishing the person. Similarly, addiction sufferers should be first and foremost helped, and made (even forced to) recover the losses caused when they're able to. But, that's for the community to decide, and the neat aspect of giving this authority to communities is that the most effective systems and approaches would be selected and spread organically - just like evolution works in the nature. Moreover, like-minded people would tend to cluster so there would be less friction between dogmas and lifestyles. Communities housing terrorist groups, cults, etc., would be kept in check by economic sanctions and coalitions - like governments do in our world.

As for violent crime assessed to be caused by hereditary factors, you might consider sterilizing the criminal. We're entering nazi territory here, but it'd definitely serve as a strong deterrent. However, if in your world the longevity is due to genetic-engineering, rather than pills or nano-bots, the solution to this is obvious.


To send someone to Coventry is an English idiom meaning to deliberately ostracise someone. Typically, this is done by not talking to them, avoiding someone's company, and generally pretending that they no longer exist. Send to Coventry - Wikipedia

Robert A. Heinlein used this idea In short, a person who does not fit into society for whatever reason, and refuses 'reconditioning -- a 'brainwipe' of sorts, is sent to Coventry forever. Coventry in this novel is a large piece of land, surrounded by a barrier where it is possible to live out one's life -- if the other residents don't prevent it. The person is allowed to spend what s/he wants to outfit himself -- the caveat being he must carry it across the barrier on his own. Coventry is anarchy. There is nothing there to help, protect or provide any service to the community. It is a one-way trip; a true life sentence.

In this novel -- even stealing a loaf of bread would cause 'reconditioning'. Crime is (supposedly) non-existent because the punishment is all or nothing. The few who do a crime generally select reconditioning instead of the life sentence.

  • $\begingroup$ Within the premise of the question, I'm not sure that society would allow this (try to imagine the Law Society agreeing to recommend it as a response to crime of any kind, it's not plausible). Good idea for an entirely fictional universe but not really a good solution for the premise of this question $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Apr 13, 2017 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Stilez I think the premise puts us into this idea as a possibility. What would we really do if our worst offenders had to be fed and housed for centuries? Kill them, recondition them, or put them away for their entire life but in a way that costs society minimal dollars. $\endgroup$
    – WRX
    Apr 13, 2017 at 16:29
  • $\begingroup$ #wilow that's the whole point. At present criminal justice relies heavily on time and money as limited resources. If they weren't, then how would criminal justice deter and/or punish, in current society (is without changing much else about the present day world). Would we feel that prison still served its use, would it be limited and something else used in more cases (if so what), would we lengthen of change sentencing, would it (or how we used it) change in some ways.... I'm interested in how we would respond as a society, so the Q sets it firmly in today's world (barring the one change). $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Apr 13, 2017 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, this might be a circular discussion. I took this "Criminal justice if people could live arbitrarily long lives", to mean: "How do you think the system would change?" I think we'd either start 'reconditioning' them -- no matter what method, or we'd execute them, or we'd put them someplace they had to look after themselves with as little cost to the rest of society as possible. I liked this question, btw -- but it is possible I did not understand it. $\endgroup$
    – WRX
    Apr 13, 2017 at 20:06

The concept of "justice" that we mere ants have loses some of its meaning as the years grow long. "Punishment" wears out even faster than "justice."

When you can live to be 1,000,000..000..oh-im-going-to-stop-adding-zeros-now, your concept of what matters simply must be different than it is for us. For us, Hitler's actions, particularly the genocidal gassing of many groups deemed inadequate in his world, seem like the most evil thing in the world. For the upteen-billion year old, that seems like a Tuesday. Far less horrible than the day that, due to random chance, a meteor wiped out an entire clade of the tree of life, Dinosauriformes. If you want evil worth punishing, consider the sentient black-hole entity that enslaves an entire galaxy by threatening to wink every star out of existence, turning that energy into the production of new black holes to spread throughout the universe. Now we're talking evil.

Our concept of what needs justice is very much tuned to the sort of lives we live.

One key requirement of our justice is for it to be swift. We can't stand the idea that we might have to wait for justice. An upteen-billion year old would more than happily wait a few millennia for the lineage of that bastardy group of heretics to get their just deserts for insulting you. Any system of justice for an arbitrarily long lifespan creature is going to naturally include arbitrarily long times for deliberation.

You'll also find its more fluid. You won't see the hard edged rules we like in modern Western legal systems. This is for one reason, which is best demonstrated by the pitch drop.

Pitch drop

The pitch drop is a fascinating experiment that shows that many things we consider to be solid are actually fluid on long time scales. The pitch in the upper container appears to be solid to any reasonable observer, but over the course of 80 years, 8 drops of pitch have fallen demonstrating the fluidity of the material. As it turns out, when the experiment started, it was not actually known whether drops would form or not. Other attempts to replicate the experiment have failed to produce drops (presumably due to different grades of pitch). Our concepts of what is rock solid and what is liquid is not always valid on longer timescales.

On long timescales, hard-edged written law like we are used to just doesn't fly because there's not many things that are actually sufficiently solid over those times to act as a foundation for that hard-edged law. There won't be some cosmic ledger that says the penalty for causing a star to go supernova is 3 trips around the event horizon of a black hole (4 trips if you sterilized a recorded form of life). Instead, each event worth dealing with would be worth dealing with in its own right. The "punishments" would be dealt out with great deference to what matters to that individual.

That being said, I would expect punishment to be very unpopular. It turns out that, when you start dealing with fluid timescales where stars can be born and die, wasting your energy just to make sure someone else is unhappy is about as wasteful as it gets. You have better things to do. Instead, the focus would be more forward looking. You would not be punished for, say, raping every female organism on an entire planet for 2 millennia. Punishing someone for that is petty. However, it would be very natural to say "you know, someone like that really shouldn't have any power. We don't like all this rape, and we don't want this person to rape an entire galaxy. So we'll take their power from them, not as punishment for what they did, but because its the natural thing to do, thinking forward, to prevent future maladies."

Now you or I might look at that and think that a punishment was handed down, but it was really just sound business practice. Once a sentient entity has revealed what sort of entity it is, the other sentient entities respond to make sure their desires are taken care of. You and I might find that a justice system based on punishment protects our desires, but when you get to the really long game, other systems are far more effective.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes time is a very relative thing, but being relative, sometimes things that only last a few moments feel like they stopped time. Rape is one of those things that stop time. Ask any one of the female organisms on that planet you mentioned. $\endgroup$
    – apaul
    Apr 14, 2017 at 3:24
  • $\begingroup$ @apaul34208 I did choose that example to elicit a response. We consider rape to be something in a very special category of bad. Murder too. Killing something is considered to be the ultimate evil bad thing. Now, how bad did you feel when you stepped on an ant by accident last year? Or how did you feel when you intentionally ended the life of a mother mosquito just taking care of her young. Did you even think about her young, or were you to callous for that? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Apr 14, 2017 at 3:28
  • $\begingroup$ It is interesting, however, if one is a big fan of "punishing the bad guys," it actually turns out to be far harder to defend it as a rational course of action than it might appear at first. It's especially hard if one makes the assumption that our particular definitions of what is bad and what is evil must be sacrosanct, even among those far larger or longer lived than us. I think there's a good reason why so many major religions include a primary figure that preaches forgiveness over punishment, and that figure is typically shown finding ways to forgive the worst offenders. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Apr 14, 2017 at 3:31
  • $\begingroup$ It's not about the feelings of the offender, it's about the feelings of the victim. I'm sure if the justice system was run by ants or mosquitos they would have something to say about those offenses. Just as we have something to say about the actions of a sociopath. The offender lacking empathy makes little difference. $\endgroup$
    – apaul
    Apr 14, 2017 at 3:35
  • $\begingroup$ @apaul34208 Now that's an interesting line to take. It suggests that we are a race of such sociopathic individuals that we would intentionally choose to hurt someone just for the sake of making ourselves feel better, knowing full well that the act of hurting that person cannot undo what they did. Quite the dark outlook on us indeed! $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Apr 14, 2017 at 3:36

Three goals of punishment

There are three main goals of punishment, and you can't get away with ignoring any one of them and still have a stable society.

  1. Deterring agent that will prevent new people breaking the law for the first time.

  2. Rights of the victims, they need to feel that their pain was punished if you don't want them to go and lynch offenders on their own.

  3. Prevention of recidivism and returning convicts to society. This one is optional if you don't plan to return them to society, ever, or if you care about stability more.

The problem with current jail system is that whist it surely cares about 3. it seems to ignore 1. and 2. Some guy on the streets beats you, takes your phone, and all he gets is free food, free accommodation, free courses to change occupation to something profitable, and if he owns some real estate, then state will take care of it and return it to him, free, when he is out of the jail. In the meantime, you have to pay for all that things, sometimes even including the medical bill for the trauma he gave you.

the only way that prevents huge social unrest, riots and lynches is that offender pays with something he is never going to get back. Still, we have situations when homeless intentionally commit crimes to get to jail for winter - because in some respects people in jail have more rights than free citizens. This is getting worse and worse, and your setting removes the one and only thing that prevent this bomb from exploding. So you need some ways to address all three, or at least 1. and 2., if you want to have a stable society.

Make them grow older

If all your citizens are stuck with 20 years old bodies, make prisons administer drugs that would make them age normally during the sentence. That way your criminal will look and feel 25-35 years old. Not something that's easy to ignore, especially if you will have to live forever with your new age.

If you can, you could also accelerate this. Someone is sentenced for 15 years? Just take him to "prison" for a week and age his body 15 years, done.

By taking some of their "youth", you are taking something they will not get back, so it's basically like taking their time now.

Note that targeting their lifespan and age wasn't forbidden in the question at the moment of posting this answer

Make the prison unpleasant again

Saudi Arabia has lashing, stoning, very unpleasant prisons and crime rate around 1 per 100000 citizens. Great Britain has resocialization programs, human rights and over 2000 violent crimes per 100000 citizens. That's not politically correct, but that are the numbers. Even if Saudi Arabia is actually hundred times worse than reported, and even if GB is actually ten times better, then still Saudi are better at stopping crime.

Seriously. Make it a nightmare. Work. Food that's adequate but boring, with no taste, no texture. Each day just like any other. Maybe daily dose of pain. Cruel? Maybe. But would serve purpose as deterring agent and would make victims feel that some kind of justice happened.

This solves 1. deterring and 2. impression of justice. May be bad for recidivism, but you don't get riots in the streets and don't have suspects lynched, so it may actually be a fair trade.

Don't make jails anymore, just resocialization

This is what, in theory, humanity aims at already. Probably you don't want them punished, not really. You need some deterring agent to stop others, but what you ultimately need is lawful citizens. So put them in VR tank with resocialization AI controlling the process, brainwash them, what have you.

Mark them

Ten years with "Fraud" or "rapist" temporarily tattooed on the forehead, or on a well visible collar, should do the job for many. Just make sure that acts of discrimination against such people are legal. This worked well for us It's both a form of deterring agent and resocialization - convicts learn the hard way why they need society.

This would be lighter form of house arrest / electronic monitoring, except that in current model you are both marked as a convict by the ankle monitor and movement is limited. When time is not a factor, you want them to move, and you want them to see what they are missing.

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    $\begingroup$ -1 for "make prison unpleasant" and "mark them" evidence suggests that if you treat prisoners badly it builds resentment and makes them substantially more likely to reoffend, but if you treat them well and give them access to books and time outdoors, the % of reoffenders drops off dramatically $\endgroup$ Apr 13, 2017 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Cursed Marking only denies them some freedom, like not going to this "no convicts" Cafe. If imprisoned, they wouldn't go there, either. And of course everyone knows he is in prison. So marking is like a much less strict version of home arrest. And you totally ignored two very important aspects: deterrent, making it scary to commit first crime; and making victims feel that offender got punished. If jail is just free school and accommodations when rest of the society has to pay, you're guaranteed to have unrest and crimes committed with the sole purpose of going to jail and getting benefits. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Apr 13, 2017 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ I'll add this to my answer as soon as I'm home, I thought It's obvious but sadly it isn't. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Apr 13, 2017 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ My main issue with marking is the concept of "mob justice", if everyone can see "rapist" tattoed on your forehead, A) you will not be able to get a job at all, and B) your social life will die and C) certian random people may just beat you up and make your life hell $\endgroup$ Apr 13, 2017 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ I think I'd allow targeting youth in theory (as opposed to lifespan/health), but I'm thinking of a world where arbitrary lifespan is just how it is, so there may not be a 'drug' or whatever to do that, just like there isn't one IRL now. Also I've kind of assumed that indefinite life means "in general good health"; they aren't going to experience years in a decrepit state. So while it might be allowable, its doubtful whether it is practical - after all the aim is to remove the deterrent effect of limited lifespan, so "in good health" would be a prerequisite of that extended life. $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Apr 13, 2017 at 23:29

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