MoboReader> Literature > Crime and Its Causes


Crime and Its Causes By William Douglas Morrison Characters: 28834

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Let us now approach the question of temperature and crime from another point of view. International statistics indicate pretty clearly that warm regions exercise an injurious effect on the conduct of European peoples. Does the information furnished by these statistics stand alone, or is it supported by the result of investigations conducted in a different field? To this vital question it will be our endeavour to supply an answer. In the annual reports of the Prison Commissioners there is an instructive diagram showing the mean number of prisoners in the local prisons of England and Wales on the first Tuesday of each month. This diagram has been published for a considerable number of years, and if we take any period of six years it is remarkable to observe the unfailing regularity with which crime begins to decrease as soon as the summer is over and the temperature begins to fall. From the month of October till the month of February in the following year, the prison population continues almost steadily to diminish; from the month of February till the month of October, the same population, allowing for pauses in its progress and occasional deflections in its course, mounts upwards with the rising temperature. According to the last sextennial diagram of the Prison Commissioners, which embraces the six years ended March, 1884, the mean number of prisoners in the local prisons of England and Wales was, on the first Tuesday in February, 17,600; on the first Tuesday in April it had risen to 18,400; on the first Tuesday in July it had reached nearly 19,000; on the first Tuesday in October it culminated in 19,200. From this date onwards the numbers decreased just as steadily as they had previously risen, reaching their lowest point in February, when the upward movement again commenced. The steadiness and regularity of this rise and fall of the prison population, according to the season of the year, goes on with such wonderful precision that it must proceed from the operation of some permanent cause. What is this permanent cause? Is it economic, social, or climatic?

Is it economic? It is sometimes asserted that the increase of crime in the summer months is due to the large number of tramps who leave the workhouses after the winter is over and roam the country in search of employment. Many of these wanderers, it is said, are arrested for vagrancy; in summer they swell the prison population just as they swell the workhouse population in winter. This explanation of the increase of crime in summer contains so many elements of probability, that it has come to be rather widely accepted by students of criminal phenomena. It has not, however, been my good fortune to meet with any facts or statistics of sufficient weight to establish the validity of this explanation. As far as I can ascertain it is an explanation which has obtained currency almost entirely through its own intrinsic probability; it is believed, but it has not been proved. Let us proceed to put it to the test. For this purpose we shall select the county of Surrey-a fairly typical English county, composed partly of town and partly of country. In the county of Surrey during the month of July, 1888, sixty per cent. fewer persons were imprisoned for vagrancy than in the following month of January, 1889. As far as Surrey is concerned, these figures effectually dispose of the idea that vagrancy is more common in summer than in winter; as a matter of fact they demonstrate that the very opposite is the case. Surrey is the only county for which I have been able to obtain trustworthy statistics, but there is every reason to believe that the statistics of Surrey reveal on a limited scale what the whole of England, if figures were procurable, would reveal on a large scale. Assuming, then, that what holds good for Surrey is equally valid for the rest of England, the conclusion is forced upon us that the augmentation of crime in summer does not arise from an increase of vagrants and others arrested and convicted under the Vagrancy Acts while in search of work or pretending to be in search of it. The assumption that such is the case is quite unwarranted by the facts so far as they are obtainable, and another explanation must be sought of the greater prevalence of crime in summer as compared with winter.

An economic cause of an opposite character to vagrancy has by some been considered as accounting for the facts now under consideration. In the summer months, work as a rule is more easily procured; people in consequence have more money to spend; drunkenness becomes more common, and the high prison population of summer is to be attributed to drink. That there is a greater consumption of drink when work becomes more plentiful is a perfectly correct statement which has been verified over and over again, and it is also equally correct to say that drinking leads its victims to the police court. But it has to be remembered that in almost all cases of drunkenness the magistrate allows the alternative of a fine. A much larger percentage of fines is paid in summer than in winter, the result being that the increase of drunkenness in summer does not disproportionally increase the size of the prison population. In July, 1888, as compared with January, 1889, cases of felony and assault, followed by imprisonment, increased in the county of Surrey 20 and 28 per cent. respectively, while drunkenness on the other hand only increased 18 per cent. The reason of this relatively small increase of imprisonment for drunkenness does not arise from the fact that there is less drunkenness in proportion to the other forms of crime; it is owing to the greater facility with which this offence can be purged by the payment of a fine. It is more easily purged in this fashion in summer than in winter, because people have more money in their pockets. Money, in short, acts in two capacities which neutralise each other; on the one hand it brings more persons before the magistrates on charges of drunkenness; on the other hand, it enables more persons to escape with the simple penalty of a fine. The prison population is, therefore, not unduly swollen in summer by the undoubted increase in drinking during that season of the year; drinking has, in fact, less to do with that increase than any other cause.

The preceding observations on vagrancy and drinking will suffice to show that as far as these two factors are concerned, the rise of the prison population in the warm weather cannot be explained on economic grounds. Are there any social habits which will account for it? Change of seasons has a notable effect on social habits. In the cold days of winter, the great mass of the population live as much as possible within the shelter of their own home; as long as the short days and the cheerless and dismal weather continue, there is little to tempt them out of doors and to bring them into contact with each other. But with the advance of spring this condition of things is changed; the lengthening days, the milder atmosphere, the more abundant sunshine offer increased facilities for social intercourse. Crowds of people are thrown together, quarrelling and disorders arise, which call for the interference of the police to be followed shortly after by a sentence of imprisonment. The growth of international intercourse is said to make for peace; the growth of social intercourse, admirable as it is in many respects, has the unfortunate drawback of mating for black eyes and broken heads. Admitting the truth of this serious indictment against our social instincts, and no one can deny that it does contain a considerable amount of truth, the fact still remains that weather is indirectly if not directly the source from which the increase of crime in summer proceeds. It is the good weather that multiplies occasions for human intercourse; the multiplication of these facilities augments the volume of crime; and thus it comes to pass, that the conduct of society is, at least, indirectly affected by changes of season and the oscillations of temperature.

But it is also directly affected by these causes, as I shall now proceed to show. In one of the principal London prisons the average prison population during the months of June, July and August for the five years ended August, 1889 was 1,061, and the daily average number of punishments amounted to 9 and a fraction per thousand. The average population during the winter months of December, January, February, for the five years ended February, 1890, was 1009, and the daily average number of punishments amounted to 7 and a fraction per thousand. According to these statistics, we have an increase of 2 punishments per day, or 12 per week (omitting Sundays) to every thousand prisoners in the three summer months as compared with the three winter months. In other words, there is a greater tendency among the inmates of prisons to commit offences against prison regulations in summer than in winter. In what way is this manifest tendency to be accounted for? If prisoners were free men living under a variety of conditions, and subject to a host of complex influences, it would be possible to adduce all sorts of causes for the existence of such a phenomenon, and it would be by no means a difficult matter to find plausible arguments in support of each and all of them. But the almost absolute similarity of conditions under which imprisoned men live excludes at one stroke an enormous mass of complicating factors, and reduces the question to its simplest elements. Here are a thousand men living in the same place under the same rules of discipline, occupied in the same way, fed on the same materials, with the same amount of exercise, the same hours of sleep; in fact, with similarity of life brought almost to the point of absolute identity; no alteration takes place in these conditions in summer as compared with winter, yet we find that there are more offences committed by them in the hotter season than in the colder. In what way, except on the ground of temperature, is this difference to be explained. The economic and social factors discussed by us in connection with the increase of crime do not here come into play. All persons in prison are living under the same social and economic conditions in hot weather as well as in cold. The only changes to which they are subjected are cosmical; cosmical causes are accordingly the only ones which will account adequately for the facts. Of these cosmical causes, temperature is by far the most conspicuous, and it may therefore be concluded that the increase of prison offences in summer is attributable to the greater heat.

Seeing, then, that temperature produces these effects inside prison walls, it is only reasonable to infer that it produces similar effects on the outside world. The larger number of offences against prison discipline which take place in the hot weather have their counterpart in the larger number of offences committed against the criminal law during the same season of the year. The conclusions arrived at with respect to the action of season are supported by the conclusions already reached with respect to the action of climate. In fact, both sets of conclusions support each other; both of them point to the operation of the same cause.

To any one who may still feel reluctant to admit the intimate relation between cosmical conditions and crime I would point out that suicide-a somewhat similar disorder in the social organism-likewise increases and diminishes under the influences of temperature. "We cannot help acknowledging," says Dr. Morselli, in his work on "Suicide," "that through the whole of Europe the greater number of suicides happen in the two warm seasons. This regularity in the annual distribution of suicide is too great to be attributed to chance or to the human will. As the number of violent deaths can be predicted from year to year with extreme probability in any particular country, so can the average of every season also be foreseen; in fact, these averages are so constant from one period to another as to have almost the specific character of a given statistical series." Professor von Oettingen in his valuable work, "Die Moralstatistik," comes to the very same conclusions as Morselli, although his point of view is entirely different. After mentioning several of the principal States of Europe, the statistics of which he had examined, Von Oettingen goes on to say that it may be accepted as a general law that the prevalence of suicide in the different months of the year rises and falls with the sun-in June and July it is most rampant; in November, December and January it descends to a minimum. In London there are many more suicides in the sunny month of June than in the gloomy month of November, and throughout the whole of England the cold months do not demand nearly so many victims as the hot. In the face of these indisputable facts Von Oettingen, while rejecting the idea that there is any inexorable fatality, as Buckle believed, connected with their recurrence, is obliged to admit that the hot weather exercises a propelling influence on suicidal tendencies, and that the cold weather on the other hand acts in an opposite direction[18].

The influence of temperature is, however, much less powerful on crime than it is on suicide. It has the effect of raising by one third the number of persons to whom life becomes an intolerable burden, but according to the diagram in the Prison Commissioners' Reports the highest increase in crime between summer and winter does not amount to more than one twelfth. In other words, between six and eight per cent. of the crime committed in this country in summer may with reasonable certainty be attributed to the direct action of temperature. This is a most important result and I should almost hesitate to state it if it were supported by my investigations only. But this is far from being the case. In an important paper contributed to the Revista di Discipline Carcerarie for 1886, Dr. Marro, one of the most distinguished students of crime in Italy, has arrived at similar conclusions. He has shown that in the Italian prisons in the four hottest months of the Italian summer-May, June, July and August-there are also the greatest number of offences against prison discipline. This is a result which coincides in every particular with what h

as already been pointed out as holding good in English prisons, and the attempts of Dr. Colajanni in the second volume of his work, "La Sociologia Criminale," to explain it away are not by any means successful. It is hardly possible to conceive a more suitable form of test for estimating the effect of temperature on human action than the one afforded by a comparison of the offences committed against prison regulations at the different seasons of the year. Such a comparison amply bears out the contention that the seasons are a factor which must not be overlooked in all enquiries respecting the origin of crime, and the best methods of dealing with it.

In what way does a rise in temperature act on the individual so as to make him less capable of resisting the criminal impulse? This is a question of some difficulty, deserving more attention from physiologists than it has yet received. It is a satisfactorily established conclusion that the higher temperature of the summer months has a debilitating effect on the digestive functions; it is also believed that these months have an enervating effect on the system generally. In so far as the heat of summer produces disease, it at the same time tends to produce crime. Persons suffering from any kind of ailment or infirmity are far more liable to become criminals than are healthy members of the community. The intimate connection between disease and crime is a matter which must never be forgotten. In the present instance, however, the closeness of this connection is not sufficient to account for the growth of crime in summer. According to the Registrar General's report for 1889 the death rate in the twenty-eight large towns is less in the six months from June to November than in the six months which follow. There is, therefore, less disease at the very time when there is most crime. In the face of this fact it cannot be contended that disease, generally, pushes the population into criminal courses in summer.

But while this is so, it may yet be true that some special enfeeblement (generated by the rise of temperature) which does not assume the acute form usually implied in the name, disease has the effect of stimulating impulses of a criminal character, or of weakening the barrier which prevents these impulses from breaking out and carrying all before them. It is a perfectly well-established fact that a high temperature not only produces physical enfeeblement, but that it also impairs the usual activity and energy of the brain. In other words, a high temperature is invariably accompanied by a certain loss of mental power. In most persons this loss is comparatively trifling, and has hardly any perceptible effect on their mode of life and conduct; in others, it assumes more serious proportions. In some who are susceptible to cosmical influences, and for one reason or another are already on the borderland of crime, the decrease of mental function involved in a rise of temperature becomes a determining factor, and a criminal act is the result. Through the agency of climate the mental forces which are normally capable of holding the criminal instincts in check, lose for a time their accustomed power, and it is whilst this temporary loss endures that the person subject to it becomes most liable to be plunged into disaster. It is in this manner, in my belief, that temperature deleteriously operates upon human conduct.

The results of my investigations do not, however, bear out the commonly accepted view that crimes against property increase in the depth of winter. As far as this law relates to crime in France it may be correct; the statistical inquiries of Guerry, Ferri, and Corre point to that conclusion. On the other hand, as far as the law relates to England, I have serious doubts as to its validity. In the county of Surrey, in the year 1888-89, not only more crimes against the person, but also more crimes against property were committed in July than in January. In the former month, as compared with the latter, cases of felony increased 20 per cent.; and if Surrey is to be taken as a fairly typical English county-which there is every reason to believe it is-we have before us the remarkable fact that there are more offences against property in summer than in winter. The current opinion that winter is the most criminal period of the year is entirely fallacious, and it is extremely probable that it is equally fallacious to imagine that property is less sate when the days are short and the nights long.

But while property, on the whole, in more safe in winter than in summer, the offences committed against it in winter are, as a rule, of a more serious character. This, at least, is the conclusion which I should be inclined to draw, from the fact that there are more indictable offences-that is to say, offences not tried by a magistrate, but by a judge and jury-in the six months between October and March than in the summer six months. For the year ended September, 1888, which is an average year, there were fully 2000 more indictable offences in the winter six months than in the summer six months. As a considerable proportion of indictable offences consist in crimes against property of the nature of housebreaking and burglary, it is very probable that these crimes are most prevalent in winter. But if all kinds of offences against property, petty as well as grave, are thrown together, and calculated under one head, it comes out that these offences are most numerous in summer.

The only kind of crime that increases in Surrey in winter is vagrancy; the growth of this offence for the years I have mentioned in January, as contrasted with July was 60 per cent. The development of vagrancy in the cold months is partly owing to the fact that work is not so easily procured in the cold weather; and a certain percentage of the population, mainly dependent for subsistence on casual and irregular out-door jobs, will rather resort to begging than the workhouse, when this kind of occupation is temporarily at a standstill. This class, however, is a comparatively small one, and constitutes a very feeble proportion of the offenders against the Vagrancy Acts which swell the prison statistics in winter. Most of the offenders against these acts are people who seize the opportunity afforded by the bitter weather of appealing to the sympathies of the public. In summer the occupation of such persons is to some extent gone; in the hot sunshine their rags and piteous looks do not so strongly affect our feelings of commiseration; we know they are not suffering from cold; their petitions and entreaties accordingly fall upon deaf ears; in short, begging is not a paying trade in the hot months. In winter, all these conditions are reversed; with the first fall of snow off go the vagrant's boots, and out he runs looking the picture of misery and destitution. In an hour or two, if he escapes the attentions of the police, he has made as much as will keep him comfortably for a few days; but like many better men his success often brings about his fall; the alms of a generous public are consumed in the nearest beer-shop; sallying forth in quest of fresh booty, and made bold and insolent with drink, the beggar soon finds himself in the hands of the authorities. Anyone who cares to verify this statement can easily do so by following the reports of the police courts, and taking note of the number of convictions for drunkenness and begging-a somewhat significant combination of offences, and one which ought to make the inconsiderate giver pause.

What are the practical conclusions to be deduced from this study of the relations between temperature and crime? The first and most obvious conclusion is, that any considerable rise of temperature has a tendency, as far as Europeans and their descendants are concerned, to diminish human responsibility. Whether there are any palliatives against this tendency in the way of regimen, and what they are, is a matter for the consideration of physiologists; and a most important matter it is, for a high temperature does not merely lead to offences against the law, it also injuriously affects the conduct of children in schools, of soldiers in the army, of workmen in factories, and of the public generally in their relations with one another. While it is the task of physiologists to examine the physical aspects of the anti-social tendencies developed by variations of temperature, it is the duty of all persons placed in positions of authority to recognise their existence; and to recognise their existence not merely in others, but also in themselves. It is, unfortunately, not seldom true that justice is not administered so wisely and patiently in the burning summer heat as it is at other times. In adjudicating on criminal cases in the sultry weather, magistrates and judges would do well to remember that cosmical influences are not without their effect on human judgments, and that precipitate decisions, or decisions based upon momentary irritation, or decisions, the severity of which they may afterwards regret, are to some extent the result of those influences. The same caution is applicable to those who have to deal with convicted men; it should be remembered by them that in summer their tempers are more easily tried, while they have at the same time more to try them; and the knowledge of these facts should keep them on the alert against themselves.

While increased temperature undoubtedly decreases personal responsibility, it is a most difficult matter to decide whether this factor ought to be taken into consideration when passing sentence on criminal offenders. It is much more truly an extenuating circumstance than the majority of pleas which receive the name. In a variety of cases, such, for instance, as threats, assaults, manslaughter, murder, a high temperature unquestionably sometimes enters as a determining factor into the complex set of influences which produce these crimes. But the first difficulty confronting a judge, who endeavours to take such a factor into account, will he the difficulty of discovering whether it was present or not in the individual case he has before him. In reply to this objection it may be urged, and urged too with considerable truth, that this hindrance is not insuperable. It is possible to overcome it by noting whether the case in question stands alone, or whether it is only one among a group of others taking place about the same period. Should it turn out to be a case that stands alone, it would be fair to assume that temperature is not a cause requiring to be taken into consideration in dealing with the offender. Should it, on the contrary, turn out to be one in a group of cases, it would be equally fair to assume that temperature was not without its effect in determining the action of the offender.

Having got thus far, having isolated temperature from among the other causes, and having fixed upon it as the most potent of them all, what would immediately and imperatively follow? As a matter of course it would ensue that a person whose deeds are powerfully influenced by the action of temperature is to that extent irresponsible for them. To arrive at such a conclusion is equivalent to saying that such a person, if his offences are at all serious, constitutes a grave peril to society. In a sense, he may be less criminal, but he is certainty more dangerous; and as the supreme duty of society is self-preservation, such a person must be dealt with solely from that point of view. It would be ridiculous to let him off because he is largely irresponsible; his irresponsibility is just what constitutes his danger, and is the very reason he should be subjected to prolonged restraint.

In all offences of a trivial character presumably springing to a large extent from the action of temperature, it might be wise if the offender were only punished in such a way as would keep alive in his memory a vivid recollection of the offence. This method of punishment is better effected by a short and sharp term of imprisonment than by inflicting a longer sentence and making the prison treatment comparatively mild. A short, sharp sentence of this character has also another advantage which is well worth attention. In many cases the offender is the bread-winner of the home. The misery which follows his prolonged imprisonment is often heartrending; the home has to be sold up bit by bit; the mother has to strip off most of her scanty garments and becomes, a piteous spectacle of starvation and rags, the childrens' things have to go to the pawnshop; and it is fortunate if one or two of the family does not die before the husband is released. The misery which crime brings upon the innocent is the saddest of its features, and whatever society can do consistently with its own welfare to shorten or mitigate that misery, ought, in the interests of our common humanity, to be done.

One word with reference to offences which do not come within the cognisance of the criminal law. I do not know if there are any statistics to show that, in schools, in workshops, in the army, or, indeed, in any industry or institution where bodies of people are massed together under one common head-there are more cases of insubordination and more offences against discipline when the temperature is high than in ordinary circumstances. But, whether such a statistical record exists or not, there can be little doubt that cases of refractory conduct prevail most largely in the warm season. It would therefore be well if this fact were borne in mind by all persons whose duty it is to enforce discipline and require obedience. Considering that there are certain cosmical influences at work, which make it note difficult for the ordinary human being to submit to discipline, it might not be inexpedient, in certain cases, to take these unusual conditions into account and not to enforce in their full rigour all the penalties involved in a breach of rules. It is a universal experience that many things which can ordinarily be done without fatigue or trouble, become, at times, a burden and a source of irritation. Some physical disturbance is at the root of this change, and a similar disturbance is also at the root of the defective standard of conduct which a high temperature almost invariably succeeds in producing among some sections of the community.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top