Indeterminate Sentence
Charles Dudley Warner

This etext was produced by David Widger


By Charles Dudley Warner


The problem of dealing with the criminal class seems insolvable, and it
undoubtedly is with present methods. It has never been attempted on a
fully scientific basis, with due regard to the protection of society and
to the interests of the criminal.

It is purely an economic and educational problem, and must rest upon the
same principles that govern in any successful industry, or in education,
and that we recognize in the conduct of life. That little progress has
been made is due to public indifference to a vital question and to the
action of sentimentalists, who, in their philanthropic zeal; fancy that a
radical reform can come without radical discipline. We are largely
wasting our energies in petty contrivances instead of striking at the
root of the evil.

What do we mean by the criminal class? It is necessary to define this
with some precision, in order to discuss intelligently the means of
destroying this class. A criminal is one who violates a statute law, or,
as we say, commits a crime. The human law takes cognizance of crime and
not of sin. But all men who commit crime are not necessarily in the
criminal class. Speaking technically, we put in that class those whose
sole occupation is crime, who live by it as a profession, and who have no
other permanent industry. They prey upon society. They are by their
acts at war upon it, and are outlaws.

The State is to a certain extent responsible for this class, for it has
trained most of them, from youth up, through successive detentions in
lock-ups, city prisons, county jails, and in State prisons, and
penitentiaries on relatively short sentences, under influences which tend
to educate them as criminals and confirm them in a bad life. That is to
say, if a man once violates the law and is caught, he is put into a
machine from which it is very difficult for him to escape without further
deterioration. It is not simply that the State puts a brand on him in
the eyes of the community, but it takes away his self-respect without
giving him an opportunity to recover it. Once recognized as in the
criminal class, he has no further concern about the State than that of
evading its penalties so far as is consistent with pursuing his
occupation of crime.

To avoid misunderstanding as to the subject of this paper, it is
necessary to say that it is not dealing with the question of prison
reform in its whole extent. It attempts to consider only a pretty well
defined class. But in doing this it does not say that other aspects of
our public peril from crime are not as important as this. We cannot
relax our efforts in regard to the relations of poverty, drink, and
unsanitary conditions, as leading to crime. We have still to take care
of the exposed children, of those with parentage and surroundings
inclining to crime, of the degenerate and the unfortunate. We have to
keep up the warfare all along the line against the demoralization of
society. But we have hereto deal with a specific manifestation; we have
to capture a stronghold, the possession of which will put us in much
better position to treat in detail the general evil.

Why should we tolerate any longer a professional criminal class? It is
not large. It is contemptibly small compared with our seventy millions
of people. If I am not mistaken, a late estimate gave us less than fifty
thousand persons in our State prisons and penitentiaries. If we add to
them those at large who have served one or two terms, and are generally
known to the police, we shall not have probably more than eighty thousand
of the criminal class. But call it a hundred thousand. It is a body
that seventy millions of people ought to take care of with little
difficulty. And we certainly ought to stop its increase. But we do not.
The class grows every day. Those who watch the criminal reports are
alarmed by the fact that an increasing number of those arrested for
felonies are discharged convicts. This is an unmistakable evidence of
the growth of the outlaw classes.

But this is not all. Our taxes are greatly increased on account of this
class. We require more police to watch those who are at large and
preying on society. We expend more yearly for apprehending and trying
those caught, for the machinery of criminal justice, and for the
recurring farce of imprisoning on short sentences and discharging those
felons to go on with their work of swindling and robbing. It would be
good economy for the public, considered as a taxpayer, to pay for the
perpetual keep of these felons in secure confinement.

And still this is not the worst. We are all living in abject terror of
these licensed robbers. We fear robbery night and day; we live behind
bolts and bars (which should be reserved for the criminal) and we are in
hourly peril of life and property in our homes and on the highways. But
the evil does not stop here. By our conduct we are encouraging the
growth of the criminal class, and we are inviting disregard of law, and
diffusing a spirit of demoralization throughout the country.

I have spoken of the criminal class as very limited; that is, the class
that lives by the industry of crime alone. But it is not isolated, and
it has widespread relations. There is a large portion of our population
not technically criminals, which is interested in maintaining this
criminal class. Every felon is a part of a vast network of criminality.
He has his dependents, his allies, his society of vice, all the various
machinery of temptation and indulgence.

It happens, therefore, that there is great sympathy with the career of
the lawbreakers, many people are hanging on them for support, and among
them the so-called criminal lawyers. Any legislation likely to interfere
seriously with the occupation of the criminal class or with its increase
is certain to meet with the opposition of a large body of voters. With
this active opposition of those interested, and the astonishing
indifference of the general public, it is easy to see why so little is
done to relieve us of this intolerable burden. The fact is, we go on
increasing our expenses for police, for criminal procedure, for jails and
prisons, and we go on increasing the criminal class and those affiliated
with it.

And what do we gain by our present method? We do not gain the protection
of society, and we do not gain the reformation of the criminal. These
two statements do not admit of contradiction. Even those who cling to
the antiquated notion that the business of society is to punish the
offender must confess that in this game society is getting the worst of
it. Society suffers all the time, and the professional criminal goes on
with his occupation, interrupted only by periods of seclusion, during
which he is comfortably housed and fed. The punishment he most fears is
being compelled to relinquish his criminal career. The object of
punishment for violation of statute law is not vengeance, it is not to
inflict injury for injury. Only a few persons now hold to that. They
say now that if it does little good to the offender, it is deterrent as
to others. Now, is our present system deterrent? The statute law, no
doubt, prevents many persons from committing crime, but our method of
administering it certainly does not lessen the criminal class, and it
does not adequately protect society. Is it not time we tried, radically,
a scientific, a disciplinary, a really humanitarian method?

The proposed method is the indeterminate sentence. This strikes directly
at the criminal class. It puts that class beyond the power of continuing
its depredations upon society. It is truly deterrent, because it is a
notification to any one intending to enter upon that method of living
that his career ends with his first felony. As to the general effects of
the indeterminate sentence, I will repeat here what I recently wrote for
the Yale Law Journal:

It is unnecessary to say in a law journal that the indeterminate
sentence is a measure as yet untried. The phrase has passed into
current speech, and a considerable portion of the public is under
the impression that an experiment of the indeterminate sentence is
actually being made. It is, however, still a theory, not adopted in
any legislation or in practice anywhere in the world.

The misconception in regard to this has arisen from the fact that
under certain regulations paroles are granted before the expiration
of the statutory sentence.

An indeterminate sentence is a commitment to prison without any
limit. It is exactly such a commitment as the court makes to an
asylum of a man who is proved to be insane, and it is paralleled by
the practice of sending a sick man to the hospital until he is

The introduction of the indeterminate sentence into our criminal
procedure would be a radical change in our criminal legislation and
practice. The original conception was that the offender against the
law should be punished, and that the punishment should be made to
fit the crime, an 'opera bouffe' conception which has been abandoned
in reasoning though not in practice. Under this conception the
criminal code was arbitrarily constructed, so much punishment being
set down opposite each criminal offense, without the least regard to
the actual guilt of the man as an individual sinner.

Within the present century considerable advance has been made in
regard to prison reform, especially with reference to the sanitary
condition of places of confinement. And besides this, efforts of
various kinds have been made with regard to the treatment of
convicts, which show that the idea was gaining ground that criminals
should be treated as individuals. The application of the English
ticket-of-leave system was one of these efforts; it was based upon
the notion that, if any criminal showed sufficient evidence of a
wish to lead a different life, he should be conditionally released
before the expiration of his sentence. The parole system in the
United States was an attempt to carry out the same experiment, and
with it went along the practice which enabled the prisoner to
shorten the time of his confinement by good behavior. In some of
the States reformatories have been established to which convicts
have been sent under a sort of sliding sentence; that is, with the
privilege given to the authorities of the reformatory to retain the
offender to the full statutory term for which he might have been
sentenced to State prison, unless he had evidently reformed before
the expiration of that period. That is to say, if a penal offense
entitled the judge to sentence the prisoner for any period from two
to fifteen years, he could be kept in the reformatory at the
discretion of the authorities for the full statutory term. It is
from this law that the public notion of an indeterminate sentence is
derived. It is, in fact, determinate, because the statute
prescribes its limit.

The introduction of the ticket-of-leave and the parole systems, and
the earning of time by good behavior were philanthropic suggestions
and promising experiments which have not been justified by the
results. It is not necessary at this time to argue that no human
discretion is adequate to mete out just punishment for crimes; and
it has come to be admitted generally, by men enlightened on this
subject, that the real basis for dealing with the criminal rests,
firstly, upon the right of society to secure itself against the
attacks of the vicious, and secondly, upon the duty imposed upon
society, to reform the criminal if that is possible. It is patent
to the most superficial observation that our present method does not
protect society, and does not lessen the number of the criminal
class, either by deterrent methods or by reformatory processes,
except in a very limited way.

Our present method is neither economic nor scientific nor
philanthropic. If we consider the well-defined criminal class
alone, it can be said that our taxes and expenses for police and the
whole criminal court machinery, for dealing with those who are
apprehended, and watching those who are preying upon society, yearly
increase, while all private citizens in their own houses or in the
streets live inconstant terror of the depredations of this class.
Considered from the scientific point of view, our method is
absolutely crude, and but little advance upon mediaeval conditions;
and while it has its sentimental aspects, it is not real
philanthropy, because comparatively few of the criminal class are
permanently rescued.

The indeterminate sentence has two distinct objects: one is the
absolute protection of society from the outlaws whose only business
in life is to prey upon society; and the second is the placing of
these offenders in a position where they can be kept long enough for
scientific treatment as decadent human beings, in the belief that
their lives can be changed in their purpose. No specific time can
be predicted in which a man by discipline can be expected to lay
aside his bad habits and put on good habits, because no two human
beings are alike, and it is therefore necessary that an indefinite
time in each case should be allowed for the experiment of

We have now gone far enough to see that the ticket-of-leave system,
the parole system as we administer it in the State prisons (I except
now some of the reformatories), and the good conduct method are
substantially failures, and must continue to be so until they rest
upon the absolute indeterminate sentence. They are worse than
failures now, because the public mind is lulled into a false
security by them, and efforts at genuine prison reform are defeated.

It is very significant that the criminal class adapted itself
readily to the parole system with its sliding scale. It was natural
that this should be so, for it fits in perfectly well with their
scheme of life. This is to them a sort of business career,
interrupted now and then only by occasional limited periods of
seclusion. Any device that shall shorten those periods is welcome
to them. As a matter of fact, we see in the State prisons that the
men most likely to shorten their time by good behavior, and to get
released on parole before the expiration of their sentence, are the
men who make crime their career. They accept this discipline as a
part of their lot in life, and it does not interfere with their
business any more than the occasional bankruptcy of a merchant
interferes with his pursuits.

It follows, therefore, that society is not likely to get security
for itself, and the criminal class is not likely to be reduced
essentially or reformed, without such a radical measure as the
indeterminate sentence, which, accompanied, of course, by scientific
treatment, would compel the convict to change his course of life, or
to stay perpetually in confinement.

Of course, the indeterminate sentence would radically change our
criminal jurisprudence and our statutory provisions in regard to
criminals. It goes without saying that it is opposed by the entire
criminal class, and by that very considerable portion of the
population which is dependent on or affiliated with the criminal
class, which seeks to evade the law and escape its penalties. It is
also opposed by a small portion of the legal profession which gets
its living out of the criminal class, and it is sure to meet the
objection of the sentimentalists who have peculiar notions about
depriving a man of his liberty, and it also has to overcome the
objections of many who are guided by precedents, and who think the
indeterminate sentence would be an infringement of the judicial

It is well to consider this latter a little further. Our criminal
code, artificial and indiscriminating as it is, is the growth of
ages and is the result of the notion that society ought to take
vengeance upon the criminal, at least that it ought to punish him,
and that the judge, the interpreter of the criminal law, was not
only the proper person to determine the guilt of the accused, by the
aid of the jury, but was the sole person to judge of the amount of
punishment he should receive for his crime. Now two functions are
involved here: one is the determination that the accused has broken
the law, the other is gauging within the rules of the code the
punishment that, each individual should receive. It is a
theological notion that the divine punishment for sin is somehow
delegated to man for the punishment of crime, but it does not need
any argument to show that no tribunal is able with justice to mete
out punishment in any individual case, for probably the same degree
of guilt does not attach to two men in the violation of the same
statute, and while, in the rough view of the criminal law, even, one
ought to have a severe penalty, the other should be treated with
more leniency. All that the judge can do under the indiscriminating
provisions of the statute is to make a fair guess at what the man
should suffer.

Under the present enlightened opinion which sees that not punishment
but the protection of society and the good of the criminal are the
things to be aimed at, the judge's office would naturally be reduced
to the task of determining the guilt of the man on trial, and then
the care of him would be turned over to expert treatment, exactly as
in a case when the judge determines the fact of a man's insanity.

If objection is made to the indeterminate sentence on the ground
that it is an unusual or cruel punishment, it may be admitted that
it is unusual, but that commitment to detention cannot be called
cruel when the convict is given the key to the house in which he is
confined. It is for him to choose whether he will become a decent
man and go back into society, or whether he will remain a bad man
and stay in confinement. For the criminal who is, as we might say,
an accidental criminal, or for the criminal who is susceptible to
good influences, the term of imprisonment under the indeterminate
sentence would be shorter than it would be safe to make it for
criminals under the statute. The incorrigible offender, however,
would be cut off at once and forever from his occupation, which is,
as we said, varied by periodic residence in the comfortable houses
belonging to the State.

A necessary corollary of the indeterminate sentence is that every
State prison and penitentiary should be a reformatory, in the modern
meaning of that term. It would be against the interest of society,
all its instincts of justice, and the height of cruelty to an
individual criminal to put him in prison without limit unless all
the opportunities were afforded him for changing his habits
radically. It may be said in passing that the indeterminate
sentence would be in itself to any man a great stimulus to reform,
because his reformation would be the only means of his terminating
that sentence. At the same time a man left to himself, even in the
best ordered of our State prisons which is not a reformatory, would
be scarcely likely to make much improvement.

I have not space in this article to consider the character of the
reformatory; that subject is fortunately engaging the attention of
scientific people as one of the most interesting of our modern
problems. To take a decadent human being, a wreck physically and
morally, and try to make a man of him, that is an attempt worthy of
a people who claim to be civilized. An illustration of what can be
done in this direction is furnished by the Elmira Reformatory, where
the experiment is being made with most encouraging results, which,
of course, would be still better if the indeterminate sentence were
brought to its aid.

When the indeterminate sentence has been spoken of with a view to
legislation, the question has been raised whether it should be
applied to prisoners on the first, second, or third conviction of a
penal offense. Legislation in regard to the parole system has also
considered whether a man should be considered in the criminal class
on his first conviction for a penal offense. Without entering upon
this question at length, I will suggest that the convict should, for
his own sake, have the indeterminate sentence applied to him upon
conviction of his first penal offense. He is much more likely to
reform then than he would be after he had had a term in the State
prison and was again convicted, and the chance of his reformation
would be lessened by each subsequent experience of this kind. The
great object of the indeterminate sentence, so far as the security
of society is concerned, is to diminish the number of the criminal
class, and this will be done when it is seen that the first felony a
man commits is likely to be his last, and that for a young criminal
contemplating this career there is in this direction
"no thoroughfare."

By his very first violation of the statute he walks into
confinement, to stay there until he has given up the purpose of such
a career.

In the limits of this paper I have been obliged to confine myself to
remarks upon the indeterminate sentence itself, without going into
the question of the proper organization of reformatory agencies to
be applied to the convict, and without consideration of the means of
testing the reformation of a man in any given case. I will only add
that the methods at Elmira have passed far beyond the experimental
stage in this matter.

The necessary effect of the adoption of the indeterminate sentence for
felonies is that every State prison and penitentiary must be a
reformatory. The convict goes into it for the term of a year at least
(since the criminal law, according to ancient precedent, might require
that, and because the discipline of the reformatory would require it as a
practical rule), and he stays there until, in the judgment of competent
authority, he is fit to be trusted at large.

If he is incapable of reform, he must stay there for his natural life.
He is a free agent. He can decide to lead an honest life and have his
liberty, or he can elect to work for the State all his life in criminal

When I say that every State prison is to be a reformatory, I except, of
course, from its operation, those sentenced for life for murder, or other
capital offenses, and those who have proved themselves incorrigible by
repeated violations of their parole.

It is necessary now to consider the treatment in the reformatory. Only a
brief outline of it can be given here, with a general statement of the
underlying principles. The practical application of these principles can
be studied in the Elmira Reformatory of New York, the only prison for
felons where the proposed system is carried out with the needed
disciplinary severity. In studying Elmira, however, it must be borne in
mind that the best effects cannot be obtained there, owing to the lack of
the indeterminate sentence. In this institution the convict can only be
detained for the maximum term provided in the statute for his offense.
When that is reached, the prisoner is released, whether he is reformed or

The system of reform under the indeterminate sentence, which for
convenience may be called the Elmira system, is scientific, and it must
be administered entirely by trained men and by specialists; the same sort
of training for the educational and industrial work as is required in a
college or an industrial school, and the special fitness required for an
alienist in an insane asylum. The discipline of the establishment must
be equal to that of a military school.

We have so far advanced in civilization that we no longer think of
turning the insane, the sick, the feebleminded, over to the care of men
without training chosen by the chance of politics. They are put under
specialists for treatment. It is as necessary that convicts should be
under the care of specialists, for they are the most difficult and
interesting subjects for scientific treatment. If not criminals by
heredity, they are largely made so by environment; they are either
physical degenerates or they are brutalized by vice. They have lost the
power of distinguishing right from wrong; they commonly lack will-power,
and so are incapable of changing their habits without external influence.
In short, the ordinary criminal is unsound and diseased in mind and body.

To deal with this sort of human decadent is, therefore, the most
interesting problem that can be offered to the psychologist, to the
physiologist, to the educator, to the believer in the immortality of the
soul. He is still a man, not altogether a mere animal, and there is
always a possibility that he may be made a decent man, and a law-abiding,
productive member of society.

Here, indeed, is a problem worthy of the application of all our knowledge
of mind and of matter, of our highest scientific attainments. But it is
the same problem that we have in all our education, be it the training of
the mind, the development of the body, or the use of both to good ends.
And it goes without saying that its successful solution, in a reformatory
for criminals, depends upon the character of the man who administers the
institution. There must be at the head of it a man of character, of
intellectual force, of administrative ability, and all his subordinate
officers must be fitted for their special task, exactly as they should be
for a hospital, or a military establishment, for a college, or for a
school of practical industries. And when such men are demanded, they
will be forthcoming, just as they are in any department in life, when a
business is to be developed, a great engineering project to be
undertaken, or an army to be organized and disciplined.

The development of our railroad system produced a race of great railroad
men. The protection of society by the removal and reform of the criminal
class, when the public determines upon it, will call into the service a
class of men fitted for the great work. We know this is so because
already, since the discussion of this question has been current, and has
passed into actual experiment, a race of workers and prison
superintendents all over the country have come to the front who are
entirely capable of administering the reform system under the
indeterminate sentence. It is in this respect, and not in the erection
of model prisons, that the great advance in penology has been made in the
last twenty years. Men of scientific attainment are more and more giving
their attention to this problem as the most important in our
civilization. And science is ready to take up this problem when the
public is tired and ashamed of being any longer harried and bullied and
terrorized over by the criminal class.

The note of this reform is discipline, and its success rests upon the law
of habit. We are all creatures of habit, physical and mental. Habit is
formed by repetition of any action. Many of our physical habits have
become automatic. Without entering into a physiological argument, we
know that repetition produces habit, and that, if this is long continued,
the habit becomes inveterate. We know also that there is a habit,
physical and moral, of doing right as well as doing wrong. The criminal
has the habit of doing wrong. We propose to submit him to influences
that will change that habit. We also know that this is not accomplished
by suppressing that habit, but by putting a good one in its place.

It is true in this case that nature does not like a vacuum. The thoughts
of men are not changed by leaving them to themselves, they are changed by
substituting other thoughts.

The whole theory of the Elmira system is to keep men long enough under a
strict discipline to change their habits. This discipline is
administered in three ways. They are put to school; they are put at
work; they are prescribed minute and severe rules of conduct, and in the
latter training is included military drill.

The school and the workshop are both primarily for discipline and the
formation of new habits. Only incidentally are the school and the
workshop intended to fit a man for an occupation outside of the prison.
The whole discipline is to put a man in possession of his faculties, to
give him self-respect, to get him in the way of leading a normal and
natural life. But it is true that what he acquires by the discipline of
study and the discipline of work will be available in his earning an
honest living. Keep a man long enough in this three-ply discipline, and
he will form permanent habits of well-doing. If he cannot and will not
form such habits, his place is in confinement, where he cannot prey upon

There is not space here to give the details of the practices at Elmira.
They are easily attainable. But I will notice one or two objections that
have been made. One is that in the congregate system men necessarily
learn evil from each other. This is, of course, an evil. It is here,
however, partially overcome by the fact that the inmates are kept so busy
in the variety of discipline applied to them that they have little or no
time for anything else. They study hard, and are under constant
supervision as to conduct. And then their prospect of parole depends
entirely upon the daily record they make, and upon their radical change
of intention. At night they are separated in their cells. During the
day they are associated in class, in the workshop, and in drill, and this
association is absolutely necessary to their training. In separation
from their fellows, they could not be trained. Fear is expressed that
men will deceive their keepers and the board which is to pass upon them,
and obtain parole when they do not deserve it. As a matter of fact, men
under this discipline cannot successfully play the hypocrite to the
experts who watch them. It is only in the ordinary prison where the
parole is in use with no adequate discipline, and without the indefinite
sentence, that deception can be practiced. But suppose a man does play
the hypocrite so as to deceive the officers, who know him as well as any
employer knows his workmen or any teacher knows his scholars, and
deceives the independent board so as to get a parole. If he violates
that parole, he can be remanded to the reformatory, and it will be
exceedingly difficult for him to get another parole. And, if he should
again violate his parole, he would be considered incorrigible and be
placed in a life prison.

We have tried all other means of protecting society, of lessening the
criminal class, of reforming the criminal. The proposed indeterminate
sentence, with reformatory discipline, is the only one that promises to
relieve society of the insolent domination and the terrorism of the
criminal class; is the only one that can deter men from making a career
of crime; is the only one that offers a fair prospect for the reformation
of the criminal offender.

Why not try it? Why not put the whole system of criminal jurisprudence
and procedure for the suppression of crime upon a sensible and scientific


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