Science fiction writers have been talking about the future of criminal law for decades.
Minority Report predicted a world where psychic people would see future murders. Escape from New York had all the bad guys on Manhattan, isolated and left to their own devices. Robocop told the story of a cop who was half-man half-machine. In Dredd, ‘judges’ who were part-cop, part-judge executed instant justice based on a strict set of laws.
In fact, I think that criminal law will be much less glamorous, but there will be some massive changes in the future.
- Surveillance will increase until committing a personal crime will simply be a one-way ticket to prison. Already more people are convicted by videos and recordings than ever before. As we install more and more cameras, most crimes will be recorded and that will make prosecution easier. Don’t be paranoid about a spying government; we are bringing cameras into our homes every day. Things like Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google Assistant are listening to our every word; all of that data is somewhere on the internet. Eventually, someone will use that data to convict someone. This is likely to be the biggest change in criminal law.
- Drug convictions will change from users to dealers. As marijuana laws are relaxed around the country, I believe that we will see a focus on the manufacture and distribution of so-called hard drugs, like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. This refocus is more like to ‘cut the head off of the snake’ than our current efforts, which tend to go after users as much as dealers.
- Judges and attorneys will still be a part of the process. (Sorry, to all of those lawyer-haters out there.) Even crimes that seem direct and easy have a human element. This human factor is what the justice system really takes into account. As more and more recorded, incontrovertible evidence enters the legal process, the human factor will become the most important variable. Motive, state of mind, and other factors will be the parts that attorneys will debate into the future.
- Mandatory minimum sentences may begin to relax. This is strictly economic. These laws, and three strikes laws, are effective, but they can be expensive. Locking people up for life for crimes that are relatively minor is getting expensive. This change is in the offing, like 20 to 40 years, but it seems likely that it will happen.
- New electronics developments will make it so the courts can assign new alternative punishments. Things like house arrest and lifetime monitoring will become more common. This will reduce the prison populations and the costs to taxpayers.
All of these ideas are just guesses based on the current justice situation and the future of criminal law, but I think that some are quite likely.
One thing about criminal law is certain, as it has been for thousands of years: People will commit crimes and the justice system will try to fairly punish the convicted.