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MAGISTRATES OF ENGLAND
INCREASE OF CRIME;
AND AN EFFICIENT REMEDY SUGGESTED FOR THEIR
BY SIR EARDLEY EARDLEY WILMOT, BART.
F.R.S. F.L.S. AND F.S.A.
Nemo repente fuit turpissimus.
SECOND EDITION, WITH CORRECTIONS.
now seven years since I first addressed the public on the Increase of Crime, and particularly among juvenile offenders. I pointed out what i humbly conceived to be the chief cause of this spreading evil; and I suggested a remedy which I believed would have had a great and immediate effect. I predicted, that crime would increase notwithstanding the improvements which the legislature, either in theory or practice, should enact; and I asserted, that the spot where a wise man would attempt to diminish the force of a torrent, was not at its confluence with the sea, but where its spring first bubbled in quiet and concealment.
The Middlesex jury having lately noticed the great increase of juvenile delinquency, and having expressed an opinion, " that the law of Petty Larceny should be revised, and that the magistrates should be enabled to proceed in a summary way against such effenders,” has induced me once again to trespass on the public attention, and though I pretend not to that weight and influence which should make my opinion the guide of legislative enactments, yet having tried, during the last seven years only, above two thousand criminals for petty offences, in a county where the commitments equal those of any other county in England, I trust I do not presume too much, when I say that my experience is intitled to some
It has long been my conviction, that notwithstanding the good which prison-discipline, penitentiary asylums, and other philauVOL. XXIX. Pam. NO. LVII.
thropic institutions have produced, yet as the most efficient and primary cause of the evil remained untouched, crime would increase in defiance of the enactments of the legislature, or the exertions of the philanthropist. It is undeniable, that an increase of population, the demoralising tendency of the poor-laws, the want of employment, the low price of labor, and though last not least, the inefficiency of the game-laws, have each contributed to swell the catalogue of offenders. There are other causes also which operate more or less in promoting the increase of crime, but which the natural wickedness of man will always create, and which the inefficacy of all human enactments cannot wholly prevent. But all these, powerful as they are, are only auxiliary causes, which have existed, and will continue to do so, so long as human nature is unchanged, and human enactinents are imperfect. They may be efficient causes of the continuance of crime ; but cannot sufficiently account for that rapid increase of depravity, which within these few years has more than tripled the annual commitments throughout the kingdom.
Before I enter into what I conceive to be the primary cause of this dreadful evil, or suggest the remedy most likely to counteract it, I will say a few words on those collateral and auxiliary causes, to which so much more weight is given than they really merit; and which, however powerful in their respective degrees, yet can by no means account for the enormous increase of crime attributed to them.
There can be no doubt but that an increased population must necessarily add to the number of those who offend against the laws; and if from natural or artificial means the population should suffer temporary or permanent distress, temptation to crime will become strong and irresistible. The very prosperity of a nation, by introducing luxury and dissipation, must also introduce a laxity of morals, and must strengthen, by the facility of gratification, every dormant inclination to vice, The arts, sciences, and commerce, extend to such distant regions, and require such complicated safeguards to protect and encourage them, that offences are created by the very progress of improvement; and thus the victims, which the offended laws of our country demand for the security of the public, are annually sacrificed without pity, and almost without notice on the altars of public safety.
The poor-laws are another auxiliary to the increase of crime, aggravated chiefly by their abuse, and, by applying them to a purpose for which they never were intended. “Instead of raising the wages of labor to the increased price of subsistence, the deficiency is made up out of the parish-rates; and thus the degradation of the moral feeling of the Jaborer inevitably attends the vicious
system of supplying him from a fund intended only for the feeble and necessitous. The wretchedness of his condition also, the want of regular habits, and of due subordination to his employer, frequently originate his first dereliction of virtue. Early marriages, contracted either to avoid a prison, or with a view of receiving more from the parish, increase the evil, and multiply a population, for whom there is no certain employment; and thus men are often tempted to offend against the laws to improve their miserable existence.
Poaching is one of the greatest of the auxiliary causes of crime, and is often the first step on the ladder which leads to the gallows. But accustomed as we are to view the poacher in a light in which bis occupation, as destructive to our self-interest, is greatly magnified, I will ask to what are we to attribute the very existence of the poacher ? Undoubtedly to the game-laws themselves, passed at a period when property, rank in life, and the general feelings of subordination, which property and rank never failed to excite in former times, had greater influence than at present. It is true, that the game-preserver has a right to what is fed and bred on his owo property—has a right to use all means allowed by law to protect such property ; but does he not, by filling his woods with a countless stock of half-tamed poultry, hold out an irresistible temptation to the poor and profligate and, by supporting the laws of his exclusive monopoly, is he not affording an excuse to the merchant or fundholder to purchase those delicacies of the season, which none can sell him but by a breach of the law's ? Are not also the game-buyers responsible for the infringement of the laws by others, and for the remote and certain consequences which attend the career of the poacher? It is an indisputable fact, that nine out of ten of those criminals, who are annually tried at our bars for theft and robbery, begin with poaching; and though I by no means excuse a breach of the law, let the temptation be what it may, or the inefficiency of the law, however notorious, yet while we consider poaching, as an auxiliary to crime, let the gamepreserver, the game-buyer, and the law itself, have their just share of the opprobrium.
Another great auxiliary of crime is, the uncertainty of punishment, and the distant period to which a culprit has to await his sentence. The severity of our laws, which enacts the same punishment for the greatest crimes, as for some of the least in the scale of depravity, have greatly tended to swell the catalogue of offenders, and for this reason the offender knowing if the full penalty of the law is enforced, it will not be done above once in hundred instances, the fear of the nitigated punishment is swallowed up in the hope of escaping the greater; and the change of sentence from death to imprisonment is so very great, that he knows
that he shall suffer little risk in hazarding the highest penalty of the law. This reflection, added to the uncertainty of proof, the chance
escape, the hope of pardon, and a general carelessness of the future, has such a counter-operation to the apprehension he entertains of undergoing the extreme sentence of the law, that the law itself holds out little or no terrors; and he, without scruple, gambles with his life on any adventure which bis wickedness or bis necessities may offer to him. By the late revision of the criminal law, much of this evil has been remedied; but inuch remains to be done by wise and gradual alterations.
Another great auxiliary to crime, inasmuch as it has filled our jails with petty offenders, who leave their prison-accomplished thieves, is the indiscriminate payment of expenses to those who bring offenders to justice. Offences of the most triding nature, and committed by mere children, are now brought before the public with all the parade of the greatest turpitude. The trouble, the expense, and perhaps feelings of a compassionate nature, often saved the young and thoughtless from being sent aniong the more hardened offenders. A first offence frequently saved the young culprit from being treated with the same rigor, which the repeated transgressions of the experienced villain deserved ; and the little wretch, who by timely and judicious correction, might have become a valuable member of society, is now sent to associate with the veteran proficients in their profession. Such is the certainty of having all the expenses attending a prosecution defrayed by the public purse,' that an assize or a sessions partake more of a jaunt of pleasure, than the performance of a serious and painful duty; and the stealing of any article, however trifling, or however youthful the offender, is attended by all the pomp of judicial exposure. This circumstance alone, independent of the evil consequent on the committal of the offender to prison, adds to the increase of crime ; for while remuneration is so certain and so ample, will the tradesman be so careful of his property, and will he not expose it to sale without that caution or watchfulness which he would otherwise have taken? And is not a temptation and opportunity offered to the hesitating depredator, who, hardly beyond the
age of childhood, commits an offence for which at home or at school he would have received at most corporal chastisement?
As a proof that the certainty of funds has tended to increase
' It is just and reasonable, that he who prosecutes a criminal for the public good should be reimbursed by the public purse; but care should be iaken, that as the law has removed, in criminal proceedings, every pecuniary obstacle, so ought the dispensers of the law to remove every pecuniary inducement; and that while we are just to individuals who bring delinquents to justice, we are also just to the public, who pay the expenses, and who have delegated to us the management of their contributions.