Friday, 1 June 2012

On Using Prisoners for Medical Experiments

     This morning, one of my friends on Facebook shared an image which was basically just the following text: "Why test on Animals when we have Prisons full of Pedophiles?"

     It's an attractive idea. The the posting from which it was shared has, as of this moment, 44,463 shares and 3,169 likes. Of the hundred or so comments I skimmed through, a significant majority were enthusiastic approval, and only a tiny handful expressed reservations. Of those, all of them were based on a vague notion that cruelty and revenge are barbaric, and those were invariably criticized with almost as much venom as that directed against the pedophiles themselves.
     But as viscerally appealing as it might be to try to extract some positive benefit to society from people who do so much harm, it's a terribly dangerous idea, and so much more so because the danger is so subtle. I mean, on the face of it, what's not to like? Evil people suffer, good people benefit with medical cures.

     What's not to like is the insidious corrupting effect this idea will inevitably have on the administration of justice. The only consideration in finding someone guilty or not guilty of a crime should be whether or not the evidence points beyond a reasonable doubt towards guilt. A person should never be found guilty for reasons other than actually being guilty, and the danger of turning convicted criminals into any kind of valuable resource, whether it be labour, medical test subjects, or organ donors, is that someone will have an interest in seeing people convicted in order to realize the benefits of that resource.

     Imagine, for instance, that you are a judge or juror in a system where those convicted of serious crimes are executed and harvested for organ transplants. Imagine also that you have a child who will die without a liver transplant in the next month or so. The case before you is a man accused of a particularly nasty violent crime, and the evidence suggests that he's the most likely suspect. How much doubt is reasonable, when that doubt potentially costs your child a liver?

     That sounds like an extreme case, and we don't (yet) harvest criminals for organs in North America. (In Canada, we don't even execute them, so it's less likely to be a problem here unless we reinstate the death penalty.) And sure, the potential benefit from a cure found by experimentation on a single accused is so remote that it shouldn't influence the decision making in a single case, right?
     Well, not necessarily. The beneficiaries of a policy that made convicted pedophiles into test subjects wouldn't immediately be the patients whose diseases might one day be cured, but the pharmaceutical (or cosmetics?) companies looking for test subjects. There's value in that, monetary value. Profit. And where there's profit as an incentive, it'll find a way to grow.
     Consider the case of Mark Ciavarella, a judge in Pennsylvania recently convicted of receiving around a million dollars in "finders fees" from a for-profit detention center. This organization receives a fee from the state for every person committed to its care, which is how it earns its revenue and hence profits. Evidently they considered it a worthwhile investment to provide Mr. Ciavarella with a financial incentive to find juveniles guilty and sentence them to terms in its facility; more teens in care meant more profits, so up the conviction rate.

     Oh, but that's outrageous corruption, you might say. Obviously, judges who do that sort of thing should be charged and convicted, and just because someone does something illegal doesn't mean the system is bad when it's run by people who obey the law, right?
     Well, no, but there are lots of ways money can influence the system when it has an incentive to do so. And if it's in the financial interests of anyone, whether they be pharmaceutical companies or private prison operators, to increase the conviction rate then they will do so by whatever means is most cost effective, including lobbying for "tougher" laws to make it easier to find an accused guilty, relaxing the evidentiary standards for guilt, removing funding for things like Legal Aid intended to give the accused adequate legal representation, and so on. All of these things we see happening, in the U.S. and also, perhaps, in Canada. (The Conservatives haven't made public any plans for privately operated prisons so far, but they haven't really been very forthcoming about much of anything, and the way they've sold their crime omnibus bill certainly is consistent with such an agenda.)

     Crime is bad. That's something I think we can all agree on, and it's something we all ought to agree on. It follows from crime being bad that we'd all want to reduce it, so there's as little crime as possible. Who could possibly say it would be good to have more crime?
     I'll tell you who. Anyone who profits from it. And turning criminals into a resource for anyone's benefit creates people who profit from it.

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