“Penal labour”

With penal labour we mean here what is usually known as community service or community payback – a non-custodial punishment in some jurisdictions around the world. We prefer the term penal labour in order to distinguish it from it from non-penal forms of community service and because it makes clear that this is a punishment.

Penal labour (Dutch: werkstraf) as it is used here should be distinguish from its traditional meaning of imprisonment with hard labour.

The prevention of crime should be the main focus of the justice system of a liberal, humanist society. We will strategies for crime prevention in a later article.

It should be clear by now that prison does neither deter crime nor contribute to the rehabilitation of the offender. Not only does incarceration impose a huge burden on the tax payer, it does create for more problems for society than it solves.

In fact prison makes people more criminal and prisons are frequently touted as universities for crime. In prison young, inexperienced criminals come in contact with the hardened, really tough guys.

As pointed out by Peter Moskos only a very few criminals are so dangerous that they need to be removed from society, as a measure of incapacitation [1]. However, most prisoners are non-violent offenders, convicted for property crimes.

We propose to abolish criminal detention as a punishment for non-violent, first time offenders. Instead they should be sentenced to perform a certain number of hours of (unpaid) penal labour. This does not mean that violent could not be sentenced to this penalty, but in their case the court has the possibility to send one to prison,

Penal labour has to be performed in the offender’s own free time. By applying Marten Luther’s rule of “8 hours sleep, 8 hours work and 8 hours leisure” we can establish 56 hours of leisure a week. Hence one could easily do about 25 hours of penal labour a week.

This would give us a maximum of 1300 hours of penal labour a year, which seems reasonable for single offences. For multiple offenses we propose a maximum of 2600 hours of penal labour.

(In most western countries prison sentences are typically measured in months rather than in years.)

Some benefits of this type of penalty has certain benefits: unlike incarceration convicted criminals could retain their jobs and families are not unnecessary disrupted by the imprisonment of a parent. This is important since unemployment of ex-cons and children of disrupted families are a significant factor in the cycle of crime.

Dutch research suggests that people who are sentenced to similar punishments have a lower probability of recidivism. Though Swiss research saw little difference between “penal labour” and (short) prison terms [2].

For those who think “penal labour” is too soft, we should point that we can make this punishment as harsh and unpleasant as we want.

The labour performed in the context of this penalty should be for the public benefit. And if possible it should take advantage of the particular skills of the convict (for instance a cook could be sentenced to work in a soup kitchen).

If a person would refuse to do his penal labour or executes it badly, then he will face prison. For this purpose 50 hours penal labour will be on par with one month incarceration.

A sentence to penal labour should be carried out within three years after it becomes irrevocable (i.e. if there is no more opportunity for appeal). Possibly one should not be allowed to leave the country until he has finished his sentenced.

Depending on circumstances the judge could require behavioral training as part of this penalty (for instance in case of driving under influence). Behavioral training suits the rehabilitation part of the punishment.

Penal labour could be aggravated with supplementary penalties such as confiscation of property (either completely or partially),  (temporary) suspension from certain civil rights and (temporary) prohibition to work in certain professions – for instance a banker who violates the Financial Services Act will be banned from working in the financial sector.

Courts will be given the right to give penal labour as a suspended sentence. That means that if the convict does not commit any offence during a certain period, he will not to carry out his sentence or only a part of it.


[1] Moskos, Peter. In Defense of Flogging, Basic Books, New York, 2011,

[2] Research done by Paul Nieuwbeerta (2009) and research published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology (2010).