MoboReader> Literature > Crime and Its Causes

   Chapter 5 POVERTY AND CRIME.

Crime and Its Causes By William Douglas Morrison Characters: 29211

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Having analysed the part played by destitution in the production of crime, the cognate question of the extent to which poverty is responsible for it will now be considered. If actual destitution does not count for very much in producing criminals, it may be that poverty makes up the difference, and that the great bulk of delinquency, if not the whole of it, arises from the combined operation of these two economic factors. We have examined one of them, let us now go on to the other. As this examination will have to be conducted from several different points of view which, for the sake of clearness, it will be expedient to consider one by one, I shall begin by inquiring what light international statistics are capable of throwing on the relations between poverty and crime. At the outset of this inquiry we are at once met by the old difficulty respecting the value of international criminal statistics. The imperfection of those statistics is a matter it is always important to bear in mind, but in spite of this circumstance the light which they shed on the problem of poverty and crime is not to be rejected as worthless.

It has been pointed out in the preceding chapter that the offences people, in a state of destitution, are most likely to commit are beggary and theft. In the case of persons who are in a state of poverty, but not destitute, it may be said that the offence they are most likely to commit is theft in one or other of its forms. What then are the international statistics of theft, and what is the relative wealth of the several countries from which these statistics are drawn? An answer to these two questions will throw a flood of light upon the nature of the relations between poverty and crime. If these statistics show that in those countries where there is most poverty there is also most theft, the elucidation of such a fact will at once raise a strong presumption that the connection between poverty and offences against property is one of cause and effect. If, on the other hand, international statistics are not at all conclusive upon this important point, it will show that there are other factors at work besides poverty in the production of offences against property. With these preliminary remarks I shall now append a table of the number of persons tried for theft of all kinds in some of the most important countries of Europe within the last few years. In no two of these countries is theft classified in the same manner, but in all of them it is equally recognised as a crime; if, therefore, all offences against property, of whatever kind, are put together under the common heading of "theft," and if the number of cases of thefts (as thus understood) tried in the various countries of Europe are carefully tabulated, we possess, in such a table, a criterion wherewith to judge, in a rough way, the respective position of those countries in the matter of offences against property.

The appended table is extracted from a larger one, the work of Sig. L. Bodio, Director-General of Statistics for the kingdom of Italy. The calculations for every country, except Spain, are based on the census of 1880 or 1881; the calculations for Spain are based on the census of 1877. In all the countries except Germany and Spain the calculations are based on an average of five years; for Germany and Spain the average is only two years.

Italy, 1880-84 Annual trials for theft per 100,000 inhabitants 221

France, 1879-83 Annual trials for theft per 100,000 inhabitants 121

Belgium, 1876-80 Annual trials for theft per 100,000 inhabitants 143

Germany, 1882-83 Annual trials for theft per 100,000 inhabitants 262

England, 1880-84 Annual trials for theft per 100,000 inhabitants 228

Scotland, 1880-84 Annual trials for theft per 100,000 inhabitants 289

Ireland, 1880-84 Annual trials for theft per 100,000 inhabitants 101

Hungary, 1876-80 Annual trials for theft per 100,000 inhabitants 82

Spain, 1883-84 Annual trials for theft per 100,000 inhabitants 74

To what conclusions do the statistics contained in this table point? It is useless burdening this chapter with additional figures to prove that England and France are the two wealthiest countries in Europe. The wealth of England, for instance, is perhaps six times the wealth of Italy; but, notwithstanding this fact, more thefts are annually committed in England than in Italy. The wealth of France is enormously superior to the wealth of Ireland, both in quantity and distribution, but the population of France commits more offences against property than the Irish. Spain is one of the poorest countries in Europe, Scotland is one of the richest, but side by side with this inequality of wealth we see that the Scotch commit, per hundred thousand of the population, almost four times as many thefts as the Spaniards. With the exception of Italy it is the poorest countries of Europe that are the least dishonest, and, according to our table, even the Italians are not so much addicted to offences against property as the inhabitants of England.

Perhaps the most instructive figures in these international statistics are those relating to England and Ireland. The criminal statistics of the two countries are drawn up on very much the same principles; the ordinary criminal law is very much the same, and there is very much the same feeling among the population with respect to ordinary crime; in fact, with the exception of agrarian offences, the administration of the law in Ireland is as effective as it is in England. On almost every point the similarity of the criminal law and its administration in the two countries almost amounts to identity, and a comparison of their criminal statistics, in so far as they relate to ordinary offences against property, reaches a high level of exactitude. What does such a comparison reveal? It shows that the Irish, with all their poverty, are not half so much addicted to offences against property as the English with all their wealth, and it serves to confirm the idea that the connection between poverty and theft is not so close as is generally imagined.

International statistics then, as far as they go, point to the conclusion that it is the growth of wealth, rather than the reverse, which has a tendency to augment the number of offences against property, and national statistics, as far as England is concerned, exhibit a similar result. It is perfectly certain, for instance, that the mass of the population possessed a greater amount of money, and were earning on the whole higher wages between 1870-74 than between 1884-88. According to the evidence given before the late Lord Iddesleigh's Commission on the depression of trade, the prosperity of the country in the five years ended 1874 was something phenomenal. This was the opinion of almost every class in the community. Chambers of commerce, leading manufactures, workmen in the various departments of industry, all told the same tale of exceptional commercial prosperity. During this period it was easy for any person with a pair of hands to get as much as he could do; workmen were at a premium and wages had risen all round.

But, notwithstanding this state of unwonted prosperity, we shall find on turning to the statistics of offences against property that a larger number of persons were convicted of such offences in the five years ended 1874 than in the five years ended 1888. It hardly needs to be stated that the five years ended 1888 were years of considerable depression, some of them were years in which there was a good deal of distress, and in none of them was the bulk of the population as well off as in the preceding period. It is, therefore, plain that an increase in the wealth of a country is not necessarily followed by a decrease in the amount of crimes against property; that, in fact, the growth of national and individual wealth, unless it is accompanied by a corresponding development of ethical ideals, is apt to foster criminal instincts instead of repressing them.

If we look at crime in general, instead of that particular form of it which consists in offences against property, it will likewise become apparent that it is not so closely connected with poverty as is generally believed. The accuracy of Indian criminal statistics is a matter that has already been pointed out. When these statistics are placed side by side with our own what do we find? According to the returns for the two countries in the year 1888, it comes out that in England one person was proceeded against criminally to every forty-two of the population, while in India only one person was proceeded against to every 195. In other words, official statistics show that the people of England are between four and five times more addicted to crime than the people of India. On the supposition that poverty is the parent of crime, the population of India should be one of the most lawless in the world, for it is undoubtedly one of the very poorest. The reverse, however, is the case, and India is justly celebrated for the singularly law-abiding character of its inhabitants. In reply to this it may be said that India differs so widely from England in race, manners, religion and social organisation, that all these divergencies must be taken into account when comparing the position of the two countries with respect to crime. A contention of this kind is in perfect harmony with what is here advanced. It is, in fact, a part of our case that crime is either produced or checked by a great many causes besides economic conditions. The comparison we are now making between the criminal statistics of England and India is intended to show that economic conditions alone will not satisfactorily explain the genesis of crime. If such were the case India would have a blacker criminal record than England, for it has a lower material standard of life; but as India is able to exhibit a fairer record, in spite of its economic disadvantages, we are compelled to come to the conclusion that poverty is not the only factor in the production of crime.

A further illustration of the same fact will be found on examining the Prison Statistics of the United States. According to an instructive paper recently read by Mr. Roland P. Falkner before the American Statistical Association, the foreign born population in America is, on the whole, less inclined to commit crime than the native born American. In some of the States-Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and California-"the foreign born," says Mr. Falkner, "make a worse showing than the native. In a great number of cases, notably Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, we notice hardly any difference. Elsewhere, the showing is decidedly in favour of the foreign born, and nowhere more strongly than in Wisconsin and Minnesota." It is perfectly certain that the foreign born population of the United States is not, as a rule, so well-off economically as the native born citizen. The vast proportion of the emigrant population is composed of poor people seeking to better their condition, and it is well known that a largo percentage of the hard, manual work done in America is performed by those men. The economic condition of the average native born American is superior to the economic condition of the average emigrant; but the native American, notwithstanding his economic superiority, cuts a worse figure in the statistics of crime. This is a state of things the Americans themselves are just beginning to perceive, and it cannot fail to make them uneasy as to the efficacy of some of their erratic methods of punishing crime. It has, until recently, been the habit of American statisticians to compare the foreign born population with the whole of the native population with respect to crime. The outcome of this method of comparison was taken all round favourable to the born Americans, and for many years people satisfied themselves with the belief that a high percentage of crime in the United States was due to the foreign element in the community. It is now seen that this method of calculation is defective and false. A comparatively small number of foreigners emigrate to the United States under eighteen years of age; in order, therefore, to make the comparison between natives and foreigners accurate, it must be made with foreigners over eighteen and Americans over eighteen, for it is after persons pass that age that they are most prone to commit crime. The result of this new and more correct method of comparison has been to show that the native American element, that is to say, the element best situated economically, is also the element which perpetrates most crimes. Such a result is only another illustration of the truth that an advanced state of economic well-being is not necessarily accompanied by greater immunity from crime.

A further illustration of this significant truth is to be witnessed in the Antipodes. In no quarter of the world is there such wide-spread prosperity as exists in the colony of Victoria. All writers and travellers are unanimous upon this point. Nowhere in the world is there less economic excuse for the perpetration of crime. Work of one kind or another can almost always be had in that favoured portion of the globe.

Even in the worst of times, if men are willing to go "up country," as it is called, occupation of some sort is certain to be found, and trade depression never reaches the acute point which it sometimes does at home.

Nevertheless, on examining the criminal statistics of the colony of Victoria, what do we find? According to the returns for 1887, one arrest on a charge of crime was made in every 30 of the population, and on looking down the list of offences for which these arrests were made, it will be seen that Victoria, notwithstanding her widely-diffused material well-being, is just as much addicted to crimes against person and property as some of the poor and squalid States of Europe. It may be said in extenuation of this condition of things, that Victoria contains a larger grown-up population, and therefore a larger percentage of persons in a position to commit crime than is to be found in older countries. This is, to a certain extent, true, but the difference is not so great as might at first sight be supposed. Assuming that the criminal age lies between 15 and 60, we find that in the seven Australasian colonies 563 persons out of every 1,000 are alive between these two ages. In Great Britain and Ireland 559 persons per 1,000 are alive between 15 and 60. According to these figures the difference betw

een the population within the criminal age in the colony, as compared with the mother country, is very small, and is quite insufficient to account for the relatively high percentage of crime exhibited by the Victorian criminal statistics.

All these considerations force us back to the conclusion that an abundant measure of material well-being has a much smaller influence in diminishing crime than is usually supposed, and compels us to admit that much crime would still exist even if the world were turned into a paradise of material prosperity tomorrow.

In further confirmation of this conclusion let us glance for a moment at another aspect of the relations between poverty and crime. It is generally calculated that the working class population of England and Wales form from 90 to 95 per cent. of the total population of the country. According to the investigations of Mr. Charles Booth, as contained in his work on East London, the working classes constitute about 92 per cent. in the districts be had under examination, the remaining 8 per cent. being made up of the lower and upper middle classes. Let us therefore assume that 10 per cent. of the population consists of the middle and upper classes, and that the other 90 per cent. of the community is composed of working people. Many statisticians will not admit that the middle and upper classes form 10 per cent. of the nation, and assert that 5 per cent. is nearer the mark. This is also my own view, but for the purposes of this inquiry we shall assume that it is 10 per cent.

How large a proportion of the criminal population is made up of the middle and upper classes? An answer to this question would at once show the exact relation between poverty and crime. If it could be shown that the well-to-do classes, in proportion to their numbers, are just as much addicted to the commission of criminal acts as the poorer people, it would demonstrate that crime prevailed to an equal extent among all sections of the community, and was not the work of one class alone. Unfortunately, such statistics are not to be had. But, as the facts are not to be got at directly, this does not mean to say that it is impossible to catch a glimpse of what they are. This may be done in the following manner:-According to the report of the Prison Commissioners, between 5 and 6 per cent. of the persons committed to gaol during the year ended March, 1890 (omitting court-martial cases), were debtors and civil process cases. Now, it may be taken as certain that in a very small proportion of these cases were the prisoners working people. Nearly all these offenders are to be considered as belonging to the well-to-do classes. Yet we see that they form 5 per cent. of the criminal population, and it has to be remembered that the fraudulent debtor is just as much a criminal, nay, even a worse criminal in many instances than the thief who snatches a purse. In addition to this 5 per cent. there is at least 3 per cent. of the ordinary criminal population belonging to the higher ranks of life. At the lowest estimate we have 6 per cent. of the criminal population springing from the midst of the well-to-do, and if all cases of drunkenness and assault were punished with imprisonment instead of a fine, it would be found that the well-to-do showed just as badly in the statistics of crime as their poorer neighbours.

In making this statement with respect to fines, I do not wish it to be understood that all cases of drunkenness and assault should be followed by imprisonment. On the contrary, it is a great mistake to send anyone to gaol if it can possibly be avoided, and imprisonment should never be resorted to so long as any other form of punishment will serve the purpose. What is here stated is merely meant to bring out the fact that the proportion of well-to-do among the prison population does not accurately represent the proportion of offences committed by that class; and it does not represent it for the simple reason that the well-to-do have facilities for escaping imprisonment which the ill-to-do have not. When a man with a certain command of means is involved in criminal proceedings, he has always the assistance of experienced counsel to defend him, he is always able to secure the attendance of witnesses,[21] if he has any, and should the offence be of a nature that a fine will condone, he is always able to escape imprisonment by paying it. It very often happens that poor people are unable to secure these advantages in a court of justice, and prison statistics of the different classes, even if we had them, would, for the reasons we have just mentioned, always give the working classes more than their fair share of offenders.

It has always to be borne in mind in making calculations respecting the proportion of criminal offenders among the various sections of the community that there is a population of habitual criminals which forms a class by itself. Habitual criminals are not to be confounded with the working or any other class; they are a set of persons who make crime the object and business of their lives; to commit crime is their trade; they deliberately scoff at honest ways of earning a living, and must accordingly be looked upon as a class of a separate and distinct character from the rest of the community. According to police estimates this class consists of between 50,000 and 60,000 persons in England and Wales. Notwithstanding the smallness of its numbers, this criminal population contributes a proportion amounting to fully 12 per cent. to the local and convict prisons of England. As this percentage of the prison population is recruited from wholly criminal ground, it is important to place it in a distinct and separate category when forming an estimate of the criminal tendencies of the several branches of the population. This is what has been done in the subjoined table. This table will accordingly show, first the proportion of the poorer class to the total population, and next their proportion to the prison population. It will do the same for the well-to-do class, and will finally give the percentage of the criminal class in the local and convict prisons:-

Proportion of working class to total population 90 p. ct.

Proportion, of prisoners from this class 82 p. ct.

Proportion of well-to-do to population 10 p. ct.

Proportion of prisoners from this class 6 p. ct.

Numbers of criminal class, say 60,000

Proportion of prisoners from this class 12 p. ct.

According to these figures, the well-to-do contribute less than their proper proportion to the prison population. This arises, as has already been stated, from the fact that this class has so many more facilities for escaping the penalty of imprisonment; the difference would be adjusted if the cases tried before the criminal courts were taken as a standard. An examination of these cases would undoubtedly show that each class was represented in proportion to its numbers.

According to Garofalo, one of the most learned of Italian jurists, the poor people in Italy commit fewer offences against property, in proportion to their numbers, than the well-to-do, while in Prussia persons engaged in the liberal professions contribute twice their proper share to the criminal population. A somewhat similar state of things exists in France; there the number of persons engaged in the liberal professions forms four per cent. of the population; but, according to the investigations of Ferri, in his striking little book, "Socialismo e Criminalita," the liberal professions were responsible for no less than seven per cent. of the murders perpetrated in France in 1879.

What is the period of the year we should expect most crime to be committed if poverty is at the root of it? In this country, at least, it is very well known that the labouring classes are apt to suffer most in the depth of winter, and the depth of winter may be said to correspond with the months of December, January, and February. It is in these months that all outdoor occupations come to a comparative standstill; it is then that the poorest section of the population-the men without a trade, the men who live by mere manual labour-are reduced to the greatest straits. In the winter months some of these men have to pass through a period of real hardship; the state of the weather often puts an absolute stop to all outdoor occupations, and when this is the case, it takes an outdoor labourer all his might to provide the barest necessaries for his home. In addition to this difficulty, which lies in the nature of his calling, a labourer finds the expense of living a good deal higher in the depth of winter. He has to burn more fuel, he has to supply his children with warmer clothing, in a variety of ways his expenses increase, notwithstanding the most rigid economy. Winter is not only a harder season for the outdoor labourer, it is a time of greater economic trial for the whole working-class population. This, I think, is a statement which will be universally admitted.

On the assumption that poverty is the principal source of crime we ought to have a much larger prison population in the depth of winter than at any other period of the year. The prison statistics for December, January, and February-the three most inclement months, the three months when expenses are greatest and work scarcest-should be the highest in the whole year. As a matter of fact, it is during these three months that there are fewest people in prison. According to an excellent return, issued for the first time by the Prison Commissioners in their thirteenth report, it appears that there was a considerably smaller number of prisoners in the local prisons of England and Wales in the winter months-December, January and February, 1889-90-than at any other season of the year.[22] And this is not an isolated fact. A glance at the criminal returns for a series of years will at once show that crime is highest in summer and autumn-a time when occupation of all kinds, and especially occupation for the poorest members of the community, is most easily obtained-and lowest in winter and spring, when economic conditions are most adverse.[23]

All these facts, instead of pointing to poverty as the main cause of crime, point the other way. It is a curious sign of the times that this statement should meet with so much incredulity. It has been reserved for this generation to propagate the absurdity that the want of money is the root of all evil; all the wisest teachers of mankind have hitherto been disposed to think differently, and criminal statistics are far from demonstrating that they are wrong. In the laudable efforts which are now being made, and which ought to be made to heighten the material well-being of the community, it is a mistake to assume, as is too often done, that mere material prosperity, even if spread over the whole population, will ever succeed in banishing crime. A mere increase of material prosperity generates as many evils as it destroys; it may diminish offences against property, but it augments offences against the person, and multiplies drunkenness to an alarming extent. While it is an undoubted fact that material wretchedness has a debasing effect both morally and physically, it is also equally true that the same results are sometimes found to flow from an increase of economic well-being. An interesting proof of this is to be found in the recent investigations of M. Chopinet, a French military surgeon, respecting the stature of the population in the central Pyrenees. M. Chopinet, after a careful examination of the conscript registers from 1873 to 1888, arrives at the following conclusions as to what determines the physical condition of the population. After discussing the cosmical influences and the evil effects of poverty and bad hygienic arrangements on the people, he proceeds to point out that moral corruption arising from material prosperity is also a powerful factor in producing physical degeneracy. He singles out one canton-the canton of Luchon-as being the victim of its own prosperity. In this canton, he says, that the old simplicity of life has departed, in consequence of its prodigious prosperity. "Vices formerly unknown have penetrated into the country; the frequenting of public houses and the habit of keeping late hours have taken the place of the open air sports which used to be the favoured method of enjoyment. Illegitimate births, formerly very rare, have multiplied, syphilis even has spread among the young. Food of a less substantial character has superseded the diet of former times, and, in short, alcoholism, precocious debauchery, and syphilis have come like so many plagues to arrest the development of the youth and seriously debilitate the population."[24]

Facts such as these should serve to remind us that the growth of wealth may be accompanied, and is accompanied, by degeneracy of the worst character unless there is a corresponding growth of the moral sentiments of the community. "The perfection of man," says M. de Laveleye, "consists in the full development of all his forces, physical as well as intellectual, and of all his sentiments; in the feeling of affection for the family and humanity; in a feeling for the beautiful in nature and art." It is in proportion as men strive after this ideal that crime will decay, and material prosperity only becomes a good when it is used as a means to this supreme end. Otherwise, the mere growth of wealth, be it ever so widely diffused, will deprave the world instead of elevating it. The mere possession of wealth is not a moralising agent; as Professor Marshall[25] truly tells us, "Money is general purchasing power, and is sought as a means to all kinds of ends, high as well as low, spiritual as well as material." According to this definition, money may as readily become a source of mischief as an instrument for good; its wider diffusion among the community has, therefore, a mixed effect, and it works for evil or for good, according to the character of the individual. It is only when the character is disciplined by the habitual exercise of self-restraint, and ennobled by a generous devotion to the higher aims of life, that money becomes a real blessing to its possessor. If, on the other hand, money has merely the effect of making the well-to-do rich, and the poor well-to-do, it will never diminish crime; it will merely cause crime to modify its present forms. Such, at least, is the conclusion to which a consideration of the contents of this chapter would seem to lead.

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

shares