A Cure for Crime
by Kathleen J. Smith

Kathleen J. Smith was a prison officer in Birmingham, England and Assistant Governor at Holloway. Her experiences led her to think of a better way to sentence prisoners. She published her proposal for self-determining sentences in an article in The Spectator in 1964 and expanded it into a small book in 1965. The book presents the utilitarian case for the "self-determinate" prison sentence.

The Problem

Prison sentences measured in units of time have problems. They do nothing to compensate the victim and they do little to rehabilitate the criminal.
Purpose, prospect, responsibility, work, respect, are considered essentials to normal citizenship. Yet prisoners, who have more need than most of vital incentives, are allowed only a shambles and semblance of these life-giving essentials. The present prison system only supplies enough of them to get most prisoners to the end of their sentence without committing suicide; not enough to make them fitter for living usefully. (42)

... it is very difficult to encourage and assist prisoners to live a good and useful life on release from prison without providing them with practice in living a good and useful life while in prison. Unfortunately, this is what the prison authorities are trying to do. (31)

Prisons are supposed to protect society from criminals; to deter would-be criminals; to reform have-been criminals; and to exact retribution for criminal acts to the satisfaction of society and the benefit of the offender.

These aims are attainable. But not until prisoners are given the status of people responsible for their offences, and capable of compensating for them.

The means by which prisoners can be given this status is the self-determining sentence. (12)

Self-Determining Sentences

The self-determining sentence is so named because the length of sentence an offender serves under this system is to the greatest possible extent his own responsibility. It is determined firstly by the seriousness of the type of crime he commits, and secondly by the effort he makes during his sentence to compensate for his crime. (13)

Instead of assessing offences in terms of time served in prison, the Courts would assess them in terms of money to be earned in prison. All offences necessitating a prison sentence would be assessed by this means. (14)

Offences involving victims would be assessed in two ways: firstly by the compensation due to, and to be paid direct to, the victim, for physical, material, and in cases of terrorization, for psychological damage sustained; secondly, by fines to be levied at the Court's discretion on the offender's persistence, intent, menace and nuisance value. Exonerating circumstances such as age, health, provocation, mental state of the offender, would, of course, be taken into account as well as incriminating circumstances, when levying discretionary fines, in the same way that all such circumstances are now considered in sentencing offenders.

The Courts would direct whether the whole or part of any fine levied should be paid from earnings in prison; and what part, if any, could be paid from private monies. (14)

Should the victim of an offence be found guilty of deliberate overestimation for the purpose of procuring undue compensation, the victim would be liable to prosecution, and, perhaps, in some circumstances, to reimbursing the original offender (102)

The proceeds from discretionary fines would be directed into a National Compensation Fund, from which compensation would be paid to victims of crimes committed by those too sick, physically or mentally, or too old, to work; or by those whose death took place subsequent to conviction. (14—15)

Offences involving no victim... would be subject to fines which would also be paid into the National Compensation Fund. (15)

The Courts would apportion the amount to be paid by each accomplice according to the evidence available of the degree of participation and anticipated gain of each offender. Likewise, discretionary fines would not necessarily be imposed equally upon all accomplices. (17)

This would induce convicted offenders to name their confederates, assist the police in making arrests, deter gang crimes, and break up the solidarity of the under-world. (17)

Before any compensation or fine could be paid from his earnings, each prisoner would be required to make the employed person's contribution towards his National Insurance stamp, to pay income tax where due, and to contribute towards his keep in prison. (17)

The order of priority for deductions from wages would be:

  1. £3 Board and lodgings.
  2. National Insurance contributions.
  3. Income tax.
  4. Pocket money, for use as the prisoner directed, for personal luxuries; for dependents; or towards the remaining deductions.
  5. Compulsory savings. No contribution towards compensation or fine would be allowed until a minimum of £10 for use on discharge was saved. These savings would be invested and would earn interest for the prisoner during sentence.
  6. Contribution to compensation. All that remained of earnings would be devoted to this payment until completed.
  7. Contribution to fines levied. Payment of fines would not be permitted until all compensation due had been paid.
The only exception to the above order of deductions would be allowed in the case of prisoners given the option of paying their fines either from earnings in prison, or from sources outside prison. These prisoners would be released on the payment of their fines from sources outside prison, without being required to have saved a minimum of £10 before their release: provided always that any compensation ordered against them had been completely paid. (18—19)

Prisoners on remand would be allowed full-time, fully-paid work during that period; or would be free, as now, to devote all or part of their time to preparing their case. (21) ... money earned in prison during remand would be acceptable towards the payment of any compensation or fine ordered by the Court. (23)

Prisoners appealing against conviction and/or sentence would be granted time from work to prepare their case. No wages would, of course, be paid in respect of this free time, and the prisoner would continue to be responsible for paying board and lodging. (23)

The compensation for all offences would be ordered, and paid, in the form of a lump sum, not as a series of instalments. The lump sum would be paid to the victim of the offence by the National Compensation Fund immediately upon the sentence of the offender. It would then devolve upon the authorities to recover this sum from the offender by means of his work in prison (23—24)

The compensation due from senile and chronically ill offenders would be paid from the National Compensation Fund. (24)

As the self-determinate sentence is controlled by the damage done and the restoration made by the offender, the length of time spent in prison would largely depend on his own efforts. (28)


His inducements to keep out of trouble while in prison would be that his time would be valuable to him and could literally be spent better employed than in trouble-making; and that offences committed against the prison rules would render him liable to pay additional fines which would add to his period of imprisonment. (28—29)

Fewer cock-and-bull stories and ingenious complaints would weary the skill and patience of Governors and M.O.s if prisoners were interviewed during their leisure time instead of what is supposed to be their working time. (33)

There would be very little attraction in salting away a stolen fortune for enjoyment after sentence if the sentence consisted of working until the fortune was restored. (39)

On conviction most of them would feel obligated to restore as much as possible of their loot in order to reduce the amount of compensation to be paid. (40)

... major offenders who refused to restore the property they had appropriated, and refused to name accomplices, would label themselves as strong candidates for attempted escape. Security measures would be concentrated on these offenders, instead of being dissipated among many because of the lack of means to distinguish the good risks from the bad. (41)

The benefit to the prisoner of having to compensate the victim of his crime is not merely that he will enjoy the status of being an asset instead of a parasite, but that he will have earned a better acceptance, understanding and respect in society. He will have paid for his crime, not in some metaphysical, soul-searching, dubious way by years of irresponsibility, but in the most practical, comprehensible and congenial way possible—by honest work. (43)

A sentence would be a time of restoration to the offender and his family, as well as to the victim of his offence. (48)

The greatest opposition to the self-determinate sentence would come from the professional criminal—which is in itself an important recommendation for it. He would recognize its benefit the least. It would introduce him to what it feels like to earn what it takes to pay what one owes; and to the common morality which most of the victims of crime have the disadvantage of labouring under. It would shake his faith in the profitability of crime. It would confront him with the uncomfortable proposition that if he was going to work like everybody else when inside prison, he might as well stay out and work like everybody else outside prison. It would shake his faith in confederates; reduce his inclination to organize, and his chances of successfully getting away with major crime. (52)

... it would aid the police in their work ... increase the chances of major criminals being caught ... undermine the solidarity of the underworld ... bring fear and insecurity to many professional criminals, now prison-proof by virtue of their wealth and power over lesser criminals ... render valueless to the offender on his conviction the goods gained by him by unlawful means ... encourage the public to help the police, since it calls for plain repayment from the offender, not degradation

The self-determinate sentence would give assailants cause to value other people more highly. Their blows would be expensive, not to the taxpayer, but to themselves. (54)

The self-determinate sentence would enable all offenders to calculate their sentences before their crimes, closely enough to know to what they were sentencing themselves. (60)

They would reduce the cost of maintaining prisoners. Reduce the cost of after-care for ex-prisoners. Increase the likelihood of after-care being successful. ... Render police work more satisfying and successful; and the work of the judiciary, and social workers, as well as that of prison staff. They would provide justice and compensation for victims of crime. Deter offenders. Reassure honesty, reinforce education, promote morality, reduce temptation. Increase national productivity and personal contentment. (71)

As compensation would be assessed primarily on injuries evident upon medical examination to be undertaken immediately upon an assault being reported to the police and, secondly, on the subsequent development of injuries up to the time of the sentence of the offender, the immediate notification of an assault would be in the victim's interest.

In the event of an offender being convicted after insurance had been paid on the loss sustained by the victim, the Court would direct that the offender should compensate the insurance firm by the amount of money it had paid out; and additional compensation, where due, would, as in all cases, be awarded to the victim for hardship, psychological damage, etc., sustained by reason of the crime. The reimbursement, and possibility of reimbursement, of insurance firms by offenders, would have the effect of greatly reducing insurance premiums—which, in turn, would increase the number of people finding them worthwhile. (104)

The popularity of insurance would be increased also by it being brought to the attention of the general public as a useful means of proving possession of valuables and of assessing their value, if and when lost through crime. (104)

The code of silence about confederates would be broken if silence entailed having to work in prison until the confederate's share of the crime was paid for as well as one's own. (105)

... An offender who had stolen goods to the value of £1,000, for instance, and who had received £200 to £300 for these, and was then sentenced to refund to the lawful owner the full value of £1,000, would feel rather tempted to denounce the receiver involved, and get him to prison to contribute towards the £1,000: which, upon conviction, the receiver would be required to do, as an accessory after the fact and knowingly enjoying the proceeds of crime. An interesting side issue of this increased precariousness of receivers' business would be that they would be inclined to offer less than ever for stolen goods—to allow for the added risk involved—which would provide another reason for criminals to reassess their position and wonder if their profession is a rewarding one. (105)

Year Read: 1998

Back to Libertarian Essays by Roy Halliday
Back to Nonfiction Book Notes
Back to Fiction Book Notes
Back to Book Notes by Author

This page was last updated on September 26, 2011.
This site is maintained by Roy Halliday. If you have any comments or suggestions, please send them to royhalliday@mindspring.com.