Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-02-09
I can’t condone calls for capital punishment of arsonists who’ve caused death or left people with nothing but the shirts on their backs. However, there are some things that could be done as well as conventional prison sentences.
The first is obviously the seizure of all assets (unless there are dependents, which is not usually the case with arsonists). Admittedly, this couldn’t happen until after a conviction.
Many items could be handed over to the Red Cross (or similar organizations) for distribution to families that have lost everything: everything from clothes to washing machines. By the time of conviction, it might not be able to help the victims of the arsonist’s individual actions, but it would be ready for the next lot of people who need help, whether from disaster or day-to-day economic problems.
Other items, such as music and video collections could also be given to the needy – although they might also be exchanged for funds at places like Cash Converters and earmarked for charitable organizations or government agencies. Often the arsonists are typical "losers" and are very attached to things like their videos, electronic equipment, etc.
Larger assets, such as cars, could also be given to victims of disasters that need it. Houses could be immediately turned over to social welfare agencies, either for use by normal families, as emergency shelters, or as half-way houses. (If there is a relatively small amount left on a mortgage, it is a bargain for the government.)
It might not be restitution to victims of that particular crime, but it does help victims get on their feet again.
When the arsonist eventually does get out of prison, they’ll have to start rebuilding their goods and chattels all over again. This would give them a taste of their own medicine, and might be a more effective deterrent than simple prison time.
The asset-seizure approach has few downsides and presents no major ethical problems.
On the other hand…
The nastier side of me would go more into "Clockwork Orange" mode, attempting to prevent similar behaviour by extreme aversion therapy and instilling phobias to fire: so strong that the arsonist would go into a full-on panic attack when seeing someone light a cigarette across the road. (Combining this with a nicotine addiction would be really evil.)
Then again, apart from being an ethical minefield, the problem with the "Clockwork Orange" approach is that the antisocial tendencies, perhaps heightened by the "treatment", will manifest as other behaviours just as damaging.
There is also the question of aversion therapy for arsonists once convicted of crimes with less-damaging outcomes, but before they’ve caused loss of life or millions of dollars damage in a subsequent crime. But that’s a problem not just for arson, but for any violent crime, and it is another moral and legal minefield – and I’ve got strong and conflicting thoughts on this, so I cannot even suggest an answer.
All I can say is that I hope there are no politicians using the recent tragedy to score brownie-points with the public by being "tough on crime". The politicians should concentrate on ensuring preparedness for, and responsiveness to, natural and unnatural disasters.