Community payback


With the population of prisons and the cost of locking people up both rising, ministers have indicated that they want to see fewer people serving short-term jail sentences, and an increase in the use of “Community Payback”.

There are three purposes of punishment (and, before we consider any alternative, we are mainly concerned with prison): deterrent, reform and retribution. The first two do not stand up to logical consideration and the third must always take second place for restitution to the victim.

There is a fourth purpose of prisons, protection. This is not punishment at all; it is protection of the individuals from the criminal. Recalling that, in a libertarian world, all land is private and there is no public space, criminals are excluded, by the land-owners, from all land – except the residual areas we call prisons. They would be essentially the same as prisons as we know them, but their rationale would be exclusion from everywhere except them; not locking people up in them for the purpose of punishment, reform or deterrent.

According to libertarian principles, there are only two parties to a dispute in law: in this case, the victim and the alleged criminal. There is no place for “society”, whatever (if anything) this means. The idea of somehow “paying back a debt to society” (or to the “community”) is spurious. On that basis, there is no place for Community Payback.

It would be different if it were “Victim Payback”: the offender works directly for the victim, doing gardening, housework, or odd-jobs. But this assumes that the victim needs any work done, that he or she wants a criminal about the house (the very same one, perhaps, who has burgled it) and that the offender has the aptitude for the work. And who would pay for the supervision?

Enter, as always, free market principles! Drop “unpaid” from the specification of Community Payback. Let the offender work not for the community but for a private employer (at the moment private companies are often paid by the state to oversee work) and for a pittance (if necessary, below the minimum wage); work which nobody else would be prepared to do. Aggregated over 300 hours, that pittance might go some way towards giving restitution to the victim.