Future Tense

There Will Be Crime in Space

But the justice system doesn’t have to be the same as it is on Earth.

A person in prison clothes sitting on Mars.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

On July 10, Future Tense and the JustSpace Alliance will hold an event titled “How Will We Govern Ourselves in Space?” in Washington. For more information, to RSVP, and to watch the livestream, visit the New America website.

The year is 2169. You live on Mars, in one of humanity’s many outposts in space, and your neighbor has stolen your boots. There’s no mystery to be solved here, no need to call the Martian crime scene analysts: He admits that he stole your boots. They were nicer than his, and he thought you wouldn’t notice, so he took them, and you suspect he’ll swipe your favorite helmet, too, the moment you turn your back. What do you do?

Currently, space activities are governed by terrestrial laws and treaties, like the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, and violations of space law are prosecuted by the International Court of Justice and the home governments of the space travelers involved. But what about in the future, in space communities far from Earth, which by choice or necessity will govern themselves? Most of today’s conversations around space settlement imagine high-tech Utopias populated by citizens working together to advance human civilization, but even in the most optimistic of these scenarios, our descendants in space will have to figure out how to deal with the darker side of human nature and address behaviors that threaten the health and stability of their societies.

Culturally and legally, the default penalty in the U.S. criminal justice system is prison. Proponents claim that restricting the physical freedom of people who break the law serves several purposes: It protects the community by isolating inmates from the rest of the population, it’s sufficiently unpleasant to deter potential lawbreakers from committing future crimes, and it provides the opportunity to rehabilitate the prisoners and encourage better behavior upon their release. Locking your boots-stealing neighbor up for, say, 30 Martian days would keep your boots safe for a month and may discourage future thefts once he returns home.

But prisons require a significant amount of resources from their supporting communities, resources that are likely to be in short supply in space for many generations. To build a prison, you first need some physical space for the prison itself, which is no small request in an off-world settlement, where every square inch of habitable space will either have to be dug out of the ground or protected with a pressure seal. Then you’ll need someone to build the prison, or at least to operate the machinery or direct the robots. Some of the prison’s construction workers might even end up as its first inmates, as happened on the South Pacific’s Pitcairn Island, whose tiny population had no need of a prison until it was rocked by widespread accusations of child sexual assault in the late 1990s. The defendants in the resulting court cases constructed Pitcairn’s first prison while awaiting trial, and those found guilty later served their sentences there.

You’ll also need the labor of prison guards, whose time could be better spent growing food, providing medical treatment, or maintaining vital equipment. You’ll have to provide life support, including food, water, air, and heat, to keep your prisoners alive, but unlike the rest of your citizens, prisoners won’t balance their consumption of those resources by providing labor back to the community. Maybe your guilty Martian neighbor is the chief engineer in charge of maintaining the power plant or is one of the few trained surgeons on the planet. Can your settlement really go without his skills while he’s incarcerated?

Maybe we should just require prisoners in space to continue working during their sentences, as part of a Martian work-release program. It’s certainly possible that some prisoners might be willing to work. Like any group of humans skirting the edge of survival in a harsh environment, citizens of space settlements will likely place a strong emphasis on communal responsibility. Even here on Earth, without the cold vacuum of space to constantly remind us of the importance of teamwork and sacrifice, inmates in places like California and North Carolina volunteer to risk their lives fighting wildfires for as little as $1 per hour. But suppose your neighbor is not particularly selfless or community-minded, or perhaps he objects to the way he was sentenced or to the law itself. Either way, he is refusing to work as long as his freedom is restricted, even though the health and safety of the settlement depend on his cooperation. Should we escalate the punishment from confinement to forced labor? Do we threaten him with a longer sentence? Harsher conditions? Compulsory, underpaid inmate labor was one of the grievances that sparked the nationwide U.S. prison strike of 2018. Will this be a legacy we carry with us into space?

Let’s say your convicted neighbor was finally convinced to work after he was put on half-rations and restricted from all entertainment privileges. Now he’s back at home after his 30-day term, but his rehabilitation has failed, and he harbors a grudge against the prison authorities, the legal system, and you. He’s become a malcontent and a recidivist, continuing to commit petty theft and threatening sabotage at his job. He soon finds himself back in your settlement’s justice system, which deems him a threat to the safety of the community. What’s to be done with him now? Will you lock him up for the rest of his life, expending the scarce resource of your settlement to keep him alive with no hope of a return on that investment? Banishing him from the settlement and sending him back to Earth is a tempting option, but an extremely costly one. It’s at least a six-month journey back from Mars. Who’s going to pay for that trip?

There’s always the option of banishing him from the settlement and not sending him back to Earth: locking him out of the community habitat and letting him make his own way on the surface. But on Mars, or anywhere besides the habitable regions of our home planet, banishment is a death sentence. Now our glittering and futuristic Utopia in space is dealing in harsh prison conditions, forced labor, and capital punishment, all for a stolen pair of boots.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We could use our expansion into space as an opportunity to explore other methods of dealing with deviant behavior in society. We won’t even have to start from scratch: Today’s prison abolitionists go beyond reform to advocate for a full eradication of the system. They argue for alternative approaches to reducing violence and other crimes, like transformative justice methods that address interpersonal harm with mediation within the community. These ideas can seem radical to a modern American because prison is such a fundamental part of our society and transitioning to such a drastically different justice system feels impossible. But if we’re already imagining domed habitats and child-size spacesuits and asteroid mining, maybe we could expend some of that enthusiasm on imagining a radically different criminal justice system too.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.