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Crime and Its Causes By William Douglas Morrison Characters: 28725

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

It is only within the present century, and in some countries it is only within the present generation, that the possibility has arisen of conducting the study of criminal problems on anything approaching an exact and scientific basis. Before the introduction of a system of criminal statistics-a step taken by most peoples within the memory of men still living-it was impossible for civilised communities to ascertain with absolute accuracy whether crime was increasing or decreasing, or what transformation it was passing through in consequence of the social, political, and economic changes constantly taking place in all highly organised societies. It was also equally impossible to appreciate the effect of punishment for good or evil on the criminal population. Justice had little or no data to go upon; prisoners were sentenced in batches to the gallows, to transportation, to the hulks, or to the county gaol, but no inquiry was made as to the result of these punishments on the criminal classes or on the progress of crime. It was deemed sufficient to catch and punish the offender; the more offences seemed to increase-there was no sure method of knowing whether they did increase or not-the more severe the punishment became. Justice worked in the dark, and was surrounded by the terrors of darkness. What followed is easy to imagine; the criminal law of England reached a pitch of unparalleled barbarity, and within living memory laws were on the statute book by which a man might be hanged for stealing property above the value of a shilling.

Had a fairly accurate system of criminal statistics existed, it is very likely that the data contained in them would have reassured the nation and tempered the severity of the law.

Of Criminal Statistics it may be said in the first place, that they act as an annual register for tabulating the amount of danger to which society is exposed by the nefarious operations of lawless persons. By these statistics we are informed of the number of crimes committed during the course of the year so far as they are reported to the police. We are informed of the number of persons brought to trial for the perpetration of these crimes; of the nature of the offences with which incriminated persons are charged, and of the length of sentence imposed on those who are sent to prison. The age, the degree of instruction, and the occupations of prisoners are also tabulated. A record is also kept of the number of times a man has been committed to prison, and of the manner in which he has conducted himself while in confinement.

One important point must be mentioned on which criminal statistics are almost entirely silent. The great sources of crime are the personal, the social, and the economic conditions of the individuals who commit it. Criminal statistics, to be exhaustive, ought to include not only the amount of crime and the degrees of punishment awarded to offenders; these statistics should also, as far as practicable, take cognisance of the sources from which crime undoubtedly springs. In this respect, our information, so far as it comes to us through ordinary channels, is lamentably deficient. It is confined to data respecting the age, sex, and occupation of the offender. These data are very interesting, and very useful, as affording a glimpse of the sources from which the dark river of delinquency takes its rise. But they are too meagre and fragmentary. They require to be completed by the personal and social history of the criminal. Crime is not necessarily a disease, but it resembles disease in this respect, that it will be impossible to wipe it out till an accurate diagnosis has been made of the causes which produce it. To punish crime is all very well; but punishment is not an absolute remedy; its deterrent action is limited, and other methods besides punishment must be adopted if society wishes to gain the mastery over the criminal population. What those methods should be can only be ascertained after the most searching preliminary inquiries into the main factors of crime. It ought, therefore, to be a weighty part of the business of criminal statistics to offer as full information as possible, not only respecting crimes and punishments, but much more respecting criminals. Every criminal has a life history; that history is very frequently the explanation of his sinister career; it ought, therefore, to be tabulated, so that it may be seen how far his descent and his surroundings have contributed to make him what he is. In the case of children sent to Reformatory Schools, the previous history of the child is always tabulated. Enquiries are made and registered respecting the parents of the child; what country they belong to, what sort of character they bear, whether they are honest and sober, whether they have ever been in prison, what wages they earn, and whether the child is legitimate or not. A similar method to the one adopted with Reformatory children ought to be instituted, with suitable modifications, in European prisons and convict establishments. It is, at the present time, being advocated by almost all the most eminent criminal authorities,[1] and more than one scheme has been drawn up to show the scope of its operation.

In addition to the service which a complete personal and family record of convicted prisoners would render as to the causes of crime, such a record would be of immense advantage to the judges. At the present time a judge is only made acquainted with the previous convictions of a prisoner; he knows nothing more about him except through the evidence which is sometimes adduced as to character. An accurate record of the prisoner's past would enable the judge to see at once with what sort of offender he was dealing, and might, perhaps, help to put a stop to the unequal and capricious sentences which, not infrequently, disgrace the name of justice.[2]

Passing from this point, we shall now inquire into the possibility of establishing some system of International Statistics, whereby the volume of crime in one country may be compared with the volume of crime in another. At the present time it is extremely difficult to institute any such comparison, and it is questionable if it can ever be properly done. In no two countries is the criminal law the same, and an act which is perfectly harmless when committed in one part of Europe, is considered in another as a contravention of the law. Each country has also a nomenclature of crime and methods of criminal procedure peculiar to itself. In each country the police are organised on a different principle, and act in the execution of their duty on a different code of rules. In all cases, for instance, of mendicancy, drunkenness, brawling, and disorder, the initiative rests practically with the police, and it depends almost entirely on the instructions issued to the police whether such offences shall figure largely or not in the statistics of crime. A proof of this fact may be seen in the Report of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, for the year 1888. In the year 1886, the number of persons convicted in the Metropolis of "Annoying male persons for the purpose of prostitution" was 3,233; in 1888, the number was only 1,475. This enormous decrease in the course of two years is not due to a diminution of the offence, but to a change in the attitude of the police. Again, in the year 1887, the Metropolitan police arrested 4,556 persons under the provisions of the Vagrant and Poor Law Acts; but in the year 1888, the number arrested by the same body under the same acts amounted to 7,052. It is perfectly obvious that this vast increase of apprehensions was not owing to a corresponding increase in the number of rogues, beggars, and vagrants; it was principally owing to the increased stringency with which the Metropolitan police carried out the provisions of the Vagrant and Poor Law Acts. An absolute proof of the correctness of this statement is the fact that throughout the whole of England there was a decrease in the number of persons proceeded against in accordance with these acts. These examples will suffice to show what an immense power the police have in regulating the volume of certain classes of offences. In some countries they are called upon to exercise this power in the direction of stringency; in other countries it is exercised in the direction of leniency; and in the same country its exercise, as we have just seen, varies according to the views of whoever, for the time being, happens to have a voice in controlling the action of the police. In these circumstances it is obviously impossible to draw any accurate comparison between the lighter kinds of offences in one country and the same class of offences in another.

In the case of the more serious offences against person and property, the initiative of putting the law in motion rests chiefly with the injured individual. The action of the individual in this respect depends to a large extent on the customs of the country. In some countries the injured person, instead of putting the law in motion against an offender, takes the matter in his own hands, and administers the wild justice of revenge. Great differences of opinion also exist among different nations as to the gravity of certain offences. Among some peoples there is a far greater reluctance than there is among others to appeal to the law. Murder is perhaps the only crime on which there exists a fair consensus of opinion among civilised communities; and even with regard to this offence it is impossible to overcome all the judicial and statistical difficulties which stand in the way of an international comparison.

In spite, however, of the fact that the amount of crime committed in civilised countries cannot be subjected to exact comparison, there are various points on which the international statistics of crime are able to render valuable service. It is important, for instance, to see in what relation crime in different communities stands to age, sex, climate, temperature, race, education, religion, occupation, home and social surroundings. If we find, for example, an abnormal development of crime taking place in a given country at a certain period of life, or in certain social circumstances, and if we do not discover the same abnormal development taking place in other countries at a similar period of life, or in a similar social stratum, we ought at once to come to the conclusion that there is some extraordinary cause at work peculiar to the country which is producing an unusually high total of crime. If, on the other hand, we find that certain kinds of crime are increasing or decreasing in all countries at the same time, we may be perfectly sure that the increase or decrease is brought about by the same set of causes. And whether those causes are war, political movements, commercial prosperity, or depression, the community which first escapes from them will also be the first to show it in the annual statistics of crime. In these and many other ways international statistics are of the greatest utility.

From what has already been said as to the immense difficulty of comparing the criminal statistics of various countries, it follows as a matter of course that the figures contained in them cannot be used as a means of ascertaining the position which belongs to each nation respectively in the scale of morality. Nor is the moral progress of a nation to be measured solely by an apparent decay of crime. On the contrary, an increase in the amount of crime may be the direct result of a moral advance in the average sentiments of the community. The passing of the Elementary Education Act of 1870 and of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 have added considerably to the number of persons brought before the criminal courts and eventually committed to prison. But an increase of the prison population due to these causes is no proof that the country is deteriorating morally. It will be regarded by many persons as a proof that the country has improved, for it is now demanding a higher standard of conduct from the ordinary citizen than it demanded twenty years ago.[3]

On the other hand, a decrease in the official statistics of crime may be a proof that the moral sentiments of a nation are degenerating. It may be a proof that the laws are ceasing to be an effective protection to the citizen, and that society is falling a victim to the forces of anarchy and crime. It is, therefore, impossible by looking only at the bare figures contained in criminal statistics, to say whether a community is growing better or worse. Before any conclusions can be formed on these matters, either one way or the other, we must go behind the figures, and look at them in the light of the social, political and industrial developments taking place in the society to which these figures refer.

In this connection, it may not be amiss to point out that the present tendency of legislation is bound to produce more crime. All law is by its nature coercive, but so long as the coercion is confined within a limited area, or can only come into operation at rare intervals, it produces comparatively little effect on the whole volume of crime. When, however, a law is passed affecting every member of the community every day of his life, such a law is certain to increase the population of our gaols. A marked characteristic of the present time is that legislative assemblies are becoming more and more inclined to pass such laws; so long as this is the case it is vain to hope for a decrease in the annual amount of crime. Whether these new coercive laws are beneficial or the reverse is a matter which it does not at this moment concern me to discuss; what I am anxious to point out is, that the more they are multiplied, the greater will be the number of persons annually committed to prison. In initiating legislation of a far-reaching coercive character, politicians should remember far more than they do at present that the effect of these Acts of Parliament will be to fill the gaols, and to put the prison taint upon a greater number of the population. This is a responsibility which no body of men ought lightly to incur, and in considering the advantages to be derived from some new legislative enactment, an equal amount of consideration should be

bestowed upon the fact that the new enactment will also be the means of providing a fresh recruiting ground for the permanent army of crime.

A man, for instance, goes to prison for contravening some municipal bye-law; he comes out of it the friend and associate of habitual criminals; and the ultimate result of the bye-law is to transform a comparatively harmless member of society into a dangerous thief or house-breaker. One person of this character is a greater menace to society than a hundred offenders against municipal regulations, and the present system of law-making undoubtedly helps to multiply this class of men. One of the leading principles of all wise legislation should be to keep the population out of gaol; but the direct result of many recent enactments, both in this country and abroad, is to drive them into it; and it may be taken as an axiom that the more the functions of Government are extended, the greater will be the amount of crime.

These remarks lead me to approach the question of what is called "the movement" of crime. Is its total volume increasing or decreasing in the principal civilised countries of the world? On this point there is some diversity of view, but most of the principal authorities in Europe and America are emphatically of opinion that crime is on the increase. In the United States, we are told by Mr. D.A. Wells,[4] and by Mr. Howard Wines, an eminent specialist in criminal matters, that crime is steadily increasing, and it is increasing faster than the growth of the population.

Nearly all the chief statisticians abroad tell the same tale with respect to the growth of crime on the Continent. Dr. Mischler of Vienna, and Professor von Liszt of Marburg draw a deplorable picture of the increase of crime in Germany. Professor von Liszt, in a recent article,[5] says, that fifteen million persons have been convicted by the German criminal courts within the last ten years; and, according to him, the outlook for the future is sombre in the last degree. In France, the criminal problem is just as formidable and perplexing as it is in Germany; M. Henri Joly estimates that crime has increased in the former country 133 per cent. within the last half century, and is still steadily rising. Taking Victoria as a typical Australasian colony, we find that even in the Antipodes, which are not vexed to the same extent as Europe with social and economic difficulties, crime is persistently raising its head, and although it does not increase quite as rapidly as the population, it is nevertheless a more menacing danger among the Victorian colonists than it is at home.[6]

Is England an exception to the rest of the world with respect to crime? Many people are of opinion that it is, and the idea is at present diligently fostered on the platform and in the press that we have at last found out the secret of dealing successfully with the criminal population. As far as I can ascertain, this belief is based upon the statement that the daily average of persons in prison is constantly going down. Inasmuch, as there was a daily average of over 20,000 persons in prison in 1878, and a daily average of about 15,000 in 1888, many people immediately jump at the conclusion that crime is diminishing. But the daily average is no criterion whatever of the rise and fall of crime. Calculated on the principle of daily average, twelve men sentenced to prison for one month each, will not figure so largely in criminal statistics as one man sentenced to a term of eighteen months. The daily average, in other words, depends upon the length of sentence prisoners receive, and not upon the number of persons committed to prison, or upon the number of crimes committed during the year. Let us look then at the number of persons committed to Local Prisons, and we shall be in a position to judge if crime is decreasing in England or not. We shall go back twenty years and take the quinquennial totals as they are recorded in the judicial statistics:-

Total of the 5 years 1868 to 1872 774,667.

Total of the 5 years, 1873 to 1877, 866,041.

Total of the 5 years, 1884 to 1888, 898,486.

If statistics are to be allowed any weight at all, these figures incontestably mean that the total volume of crime is on the increase in England as well as everywhere else. It is fallacious to suppose that the authorities here are gaining the mastery over the delinquent population. Such a supposition is at once refuted by the statistics which have just been tabulated, and these are the only statistics which can be implicitly relied upon for testing the position of the country with regard to crime.

Seeing, then, that the total amount of crime is regularly growing, how is the decrease in the daily average of persons in prison to be accounted for?

This decrease may be accounted for in two ways. It may be shown that although the number of people committed to prison is on the increase, the nature of the offences for which these people are convicted is not so grave. Or, in the second place, it may be shown that, although the crimes committed now are equally serious with those committed twenty years ago, the magistrates and judges are adopting a more lenient line of action, and are inflicting shorter sentences after a conviction. Let us for a moment consider the proposition that crime is not so grave now as it was twenty years ago. In order to arrive at a fairly accurate conclusion on this matter, we have only to look at the number of offences of a serious nature reported to the police. Comparing the number of cases of murder, attempts to murder, manslaughter, shooting at, stabbing and wounding, and adding to these offences the crimes of burglary, housebreaking, robbery, and arson-comparing all these cases reported to the police for the five years 1870-1874, with offences of a like character reported in the five years 1884-1888, we find that the proportion of grave offences to the population was, in many cases, as great in the latter period as in the former.[7] This shows clearly that crime, while it is increasing in extent, is not materially decreasing in seriousness; and the chief reason the prison population exhibits a smaller daily average is to be found in the fact that judges are now pronouncing shorter sentences than was the custom twenty years ago. We are not left in the dark upon this point; the judges themselves frequently inform the public that they have taken to shortening the terms of imprisonment. The extent to which sentences have been shortened within the last twenty years can easily be ascertained by comparing the committals to prison and the daily average of the quinquenniad 1868-72 with the committals and the daily average of the quinquenniad 1884-88. A comparison between these two periods shows that the length of imprisonment has decreased twenty-six per cent. In other words, whereas a man used to receive a sentence of twelve months' imprisonment, he now receives a sentence of nine months; and whereas he used to get a sentence of one month, he now gets twenty-one days. If it he a serious offence, or if the criminal be a habitual offender, he now receives eighteen months' imprisonment, whereas he used to receive five years' penal servitude. As far as most judges and stipendiary magistrates are concerned, sentences of imprisonment have decreased in recent years more than twenty-six per cent.; and if there was a corresponding movement on the part of Chairmen of Quarter Sessions, the average decrease in the length of sentences would amount to fifty per cent. But it is a notorious fact that amateur judges are, with few exceptions, more inclined to pronounce heavy sentences than professional men.

We have now arrived at the conclusion that crime is just as serious in its character as it was twenty years ago, and that it is growing in dimensions year by year; the next point to be considered is, the relation in which crime stands to the population. Crime may be increasing, but the population may be multiplying faster than the growth of crime. Is this the condition of things in England at the present day? We have seen that the criminal classes are increasing much faster than the growth of population in France and the United States. Is England in a better position in this respect than these two countries? At the present time there is one conviction to about every fifty inhabitants, and the proportion of convictions to the population was very much the same twenty years ago. If we remember the immense development that has taken place in the industrial school system within the last twenty years-a development that has undoubtedly had a great deal to do with keeping down crime-we arrive at the conclusion that, notwithstanding the beneficent effects of Industrial Schools, the criminal classes in this country still keep pace with the annual growth of population. If we had no Industrial and Reformatory institutions for the detention of criminal and quasi-criminal offenders among the young, there can be no doubt that England, as well as other countries, would have to make the lamentable admission that crime was not only increasing in her midst, but that it was increasing faster than the growth of population. The number of juveniles in these institutions has more than trebled since 1868,[8] and it is unquestionable that if these youthful offenders were not confined there, a large proportion of them would immediately begin to swell the ranks of crime. That crime in England is not making more rapid strides than the growth of population, is almost entirely to be attributed to the action of these schools.

We shall now look at another aspect of the criminal question, and that is its cost. Crime is not merely a danger to the community; it is likewise a vast expense; and there is no country in Europe where it does not constitute a tremendous drain upon the national resources. Owing to the federal system of government in America, it is almost impossible to estimate how much is spent in the prevention and punishment of crime in the United States, but Mr. Wines calculates that the police force alone costs the country fifteen million dollars annually.[9] In the United Kingdom the cost of criminal justice and administration is continually on the increase, and it has never been so high as it is at the present time. In the Estimates for the year 1891 the cost of Prisons and of the Asylum for criminal lunatics falls little short of a million sterling. Reformatory and Industrial Schools for juvenile offenders cost considerably over half-a-million, and the expenditure on the Police force is over five and a half millions annually. Add to these figures the cost of criminal prosecutions, the salaries of stipendiary and other paid magistrates, a portion of the salaries of judges, and all other expenses connected with the trial and prosecution of delinquents, and an annual total of expenditure is reached for the United Kingdom of more than seven and a half millions sterling. In addition to this enormous sum, it has also to he remembered that a great loss of property is annually entailed on the inhabitants of the three kingdoms by the depredations of the criminal classes. The exact amount of this loss it is impossible to estimate, but, according to the figures in the police reports, it cannot fall short of a million sterling per annum.

These formidable figures afford ample food for reflection. Apart from its danger to the community, the annual loss of money which the existence of crime entails is a most serious consideration. It is equal to a tenth of the national expenditure, and every few years amounts to as much as the cost of a big European war. It is tempting to speculate on the admirable uses to which the capital consumed by crime might be devoted, if it were free for beneficent purposes. How easy it would be for many a scheme, which is now in the region of dreamland, to be immediately realised. Unhappily, it is almost as vain to look forward to the abolition of crime as it is to look forward to the cessation of war. At the present moment the latter event, however improbable, is more likely to happen than the former. War has ceased to be a normal condition of things in the comity of nations; it has become a transitory incident; but crime, which means war within the nation, is still far from being a passing incident; on the contrary, a conflict between the forces of moral order and social anarchy is going on continually; and, at present, there is not the faintest prospect of its coming to an end.

What is the cause of this state of warfare within society? Which of the combatants is to blame? Or is the blame to be laid equally on the shoulders of both? In other words, are the conditions in which men live together in society of such a nature that crime is certain to flow from them; and is crime simply a reaction against the iniquity of existing social arrangements? Or, on the other hand, does crime spring from the individual and his cosmical surroundings; and is it the product of forces over which society has little or no control? These are questions which cannot be answered off-hand, they involve considerations of a most complicated character, and it is only after a careful examination of all the factors responsible for crime that a true solution can possibly be arrived at. These factors are divisible into three great categories-cosmical, social, and individual.[10] The cosmical factors of crime are climate and the variations of temperature; the social factors are the political, economic and moral conditions in the midst of which man lives as a member of society; the individual factors are a class of attributes inherent in the individual, such as descent, sex, age, bodily and mental characteristics. These factors, it will be seen, can easily be reduced to two, the organism and its environment; but it will be more convenient to consider them under the three-fold division which has just been mentioned. Before proceeding to do so, it may be as well to remark that in each case the several factors operate with different degrees of intensity. It is often extremely difficult to disentangle them; and the more complex the society is in which a crime takes place, the greater is the combination and intricacy of the causes leading up to it.

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