Life Extension: Forcing Criminals to Serve Their Time? (Part I)

By Yu-Chi Kuo

Former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was recently sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison for serial child sex abuse.  Sandusky had faced as great as a 400-year potential sentence during trial, but even the 30 year minimum term will likely exceed his natural lifespan all the same: at 68-years-old, Sandusky will probably die in prison long before serving his time. If he lives to the average life expectancy of 75, he will have served only a quarter of his minimum sentence.  In light of the vileness and severity of his crimes, Sandusky’s death may leave many victims and observers feeling that death provided an early exit from deserved punishment.

Curiously enough, Sandusky’s former employer patented and licensed a telomerase reporter system capable of monitoring the regulation of telomere maintenance. Telomeres are microcellular regions that protect against gene degradation and promote cell longevity. The maintenance (or lengthening) of telomeres through telomerase therapy is an exciting subfield of life-extension therapy that may radically lengthen human lifespans in future.

The arguments for and against this and other forms of human enhancement technology are fairly well combed-over in popular discourse: it’s unnatural; it’s sinful; it’s unfair; it’s arrogant. On the other hand, this and other subfields of gerontology profess some noble goals: to improve the ratio of “good years” with years of morbidity; to deliver unto humans a “gift” of possibly unlimited life.  But what if we inverted the concept of life extension therapy as a “gift,” and could administer it to criminals like Jerry Sandusky, in order to extend their remaining life up to the end of their sentence? Telomerase therapy may be a continual treatment; it could conceivably even be withdrawn to give the old man just enough “life” to watch the clock on his last day.

In a way, Sandusky’s case is a great jumping off point for introducing this blog series: it’s timely and has captivated the public gaze.  But I’d now like to set it aside in favor of a hypothetical future setting where life extension therapies do exist, among other things.  The development of life extension therapies is still in its infancy, but I believe that its mere possibility raises some pressing normative issues (ranging across various subfields) that are worth thinking about today.  For example, as convenient facts about population mortality begin to fall away, we may uncover blind spots in contemporary theories of intergenerational justice based on a standard model of natural lifespans.

In this series of blog posts, I will normatively contemplate whether the State should, under certain conditions, use Life Extension Therapies (LET) to extend the lives of some criminals who would otherwise be unlikely to survive the full length of their sentence.  This group can be further distinguished between (1) very elderly prisoners at sentencing, and (2) prisoners (of any legal age) who have been sentenced to a discrete number of years far exceeding any natural human lifespan–say, hundreds of years.  In both instances, the sentence must be in terms of discrete years.  I will separately address prisoners with indeterminate sentences of life imprisonment, and the issues of parole and rehabilitation.

For reasons of space, I will leave the tasks of filling out this general picture more concretely and discussing its many interesting normative dimensions for later blog posts.  For now, here are some preliminary questions and issues I hope to address in this series:

First: I will focus on this question in relation to criminal law theory: for example,
whether this LET proposal (LETP) would be appealing according to the standard array of models of criminal punishment; theories of sentencing that include declarative or expressive functions for extremely high sentences that may argue against a literal interpretation; distinguishing between sentence and time served in relation to idea of giving each victim their due, whether there is any independent normative reason-giving force of the criminal law that can extend to hard cases, and more.

Second: in moral philosophy, briefly considering objections to LETP via deontic rights claims–anti-coercion rights, criminal rights, fundamental human rights claims. Suicide dis/analogies: is rejecting LETP incompatible with prisoners’ lack of right to commit suicide in prison?  Do the different ways of “arriving at” one’s death differentiate based on a doing/allowing distinction? Citizens’ rights vs. prisoner’s rights on different ways of “achieving” self-death.

Moving to political theory: Another approach to resolving our central question is to ask both “what is implicit in accepting LETP?” and “what is implicit in rejecting it?”  For example, if we accept LETP as permissible by the state, what views on citizen rights, the bounds of state authority over citizens’ bodies, might it necessarily commit us to?  The independent desirability or undesirability of accepting one of these upstream views might settle our central question indirectly.  Also, would LETP be construed as a deprivation or a burden on the criminal?.

Distinguishing between various possible methods of LET, and how life is extended (ie. telescoping) and policy implications of each.  How LETP may affect the experience of punishment by the criminal.  Might it incentivize certain behaviors to take advantage of LET? and so on.

Thanks for reading!  -YK

0 thoughts to “Life Extension: Forcing Criminals to Serve Their Time? (Part I)”

  1. What a promising series yu-chi! Thanks so much for dealing with such a stimulating topic. The possibility of punishing through life extension has curiously reminded me the “punitive coma” envisioned by Philip Kerr in his novel A Philosophical Investigation (1992). In Kerr’s fiction punitive coma was thought as a substitute of death penalty, and one obvious (constitutional) query was whether it was compatible with the 8th amendment. Would that be also the case with life extension for older criminals? I cannot wait to read the rest of the series. Best,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.