One of my favorite quotes is (falsely) attributed to Winston Churchill.

If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.

I find myself wondering if my viewpoints are becoming less liberal as I get older. This thought came up again when I read this article from FiveThirtyEight about the use of statistical analysis in defining prison sentences for criminals.

The theory is that those that are young first time offenders who are in circumstances where they are unlikely to reoffend should be given lighter or even non-custodial sentences so they are less tarred with the “criminal” attribute as they go through life. Older, potentially multiple-recidivist, offenders should receive longer jail times in order to protect society and, ideally, give them more time to be influenced by in-jail rehabilitation schemes.

Of course this has been done in an ad hoc manner for centuries. Those found guilty for the nth time are much more likely to get the upper end of the range of penalties as a punishment. The difference now is that such decisions are not about punishment but about the realpolitik of whether this particular offender, given their specific set of circumstances, is statistically likely to reoffend.

The younger, potentially more liberal, version of me would have been outright horrified by this idea. The concept that someone would be judged on a statistical curve – on the basis of things they hadn’t even done yet – would be an anathema.

However, the older more pragmatic me is starting to wonder if that view is all there is. Is there a public good in arranging for those who are mathematically more likely to commit future violent offences to stay in prison longer?

Like so many political things it’s a very complex area with a mixture of scientific and philosophical inputs. Unfortunately, again like so many political things, it looks like it has the potential of being implemented piecemeal without any national debates as to whether this is the kind of state we want.

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