HC Deb 25 January 1819 vol 39 cc81-8
The Sheriffs of London

appeared at the bar, and presented the following Petition: To the Honourable the Commons of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled. The humble Petition of the Lord Mayor, Aldermen, and Commons of the City of London in Common Council assembled. "Sheweth,—That your petitioners are greatly interested in the police, both for the city of London, and for the county of Middlesex, where his majesty's commissions for the trial of offenders issue yearly, and eight sessions at the least are held every year; and they are impressed with the conviction, that their representations upon the present state of the Criminal Law, and its effects on public morals, will be deemed worthy the consideration of your honourable House.

"That upwards of two hundred crimes very different in their degrees of enormity are equally subject to the punishment of death, which is enacted not only for the most atrocious offences, for burglary, for rape, for murder, and for treason, but for many offences unattended with any cruelty or violence, for various minor crimes, and even for stealing privately to the amount of five shillings in a shop.

"That from the returns upon the table of your honourable House, it appears that crimes have for some years been rapidly increasing, both in number and malignity, to the injury of the rising generation, and the debasement of the national character.

"That there were committed for trial in Middlesex in the years 1812, 1,663; 1813,1,707; 1814, 1,646; 1815,2,005; 1816, 2,226; 1817, 2,686,—The capital convictions in Middlesex were in the years 1812, 132; 1813, 138; 1814, 158; 1815, 139; 1816, 227; 1817, 208.—There were executed in Middlesex in the years 1812, 19; 1813, 17; 1814, 21; 1815, 11; 1816, 29; 1817, 16.—There were committed for trial in the different gaols in England and Wales, in the years 1805, 4,605; 1812, 6,576; 1813, 7,164; 1814, 6,390; 1815, 7,818; 1816, 9,091; 1817, 13,932.—There were confined in Newgate only of boys, of 17 years and under, in the years 1813, 123; 1816, 247; 1817, 359.

"That without the interference of your honourable House, in adapting the state of the criminal law to the state of the moral and religious sentiments of the nation, the increase of crimes must be progressive, because, strong as are the obligations upon all good subjects to assist the administration of justice, they are overpowered by tenderness for life—a tenderness which, originating in the mild precepts of our religion, is advancing and will continue to advance as these doctrines become more deeply inculcated into the minds of the community.

"That many injured persons have refused to prosecute, because they cannot perform a duty which is repugnant to their natures, by being instrumental in the infliction of severity contrary to their ideas of adequate retribution; and by such impunity young offenders, instead of being checked in their first departure from virtue, are suffered to advance from small offences to crimes of great atrocity.

"That some jurymen submit to fines rather than act as arbiters of life and death in cases where they think the punishment of death ought not to be inflicted.

"That some jurymen are deterred from a strict discharge of their duty, and acquit guilt or mitigate the offence so as not to subject the offender to the punishment of death, and thus assume a discretion never intended to be vested in juries, and relax the sanctity of a judicial oath, upon which the integrity of the trial by jury much depends.

"That this determination by juries to oppose the severe enactments of our laws is of daily occurrence.

"That amongst other instances, a jury, rather than be instrumental in inflicting the punishment of death for larceny to the amount of 40s. from a dwelling, found a 10l. note to be worth only 89s.

"That another jury, influenced by the same motives, found two bills of exchange, value of 10l. each, and eight Bank-notes, value of 10l. each, worth the same sum of 39s.

"That your petitioners cannot omit to urge upon your honourable House, that even this disinclination to enforce the law is not confined to the injured parties, and to juries, but extends to the learned judges, who, impressed with a similar feeling have exercised their ingenuity in discovering means by which the real value of the property stolen should not be found by the jury; and where convictions have taken place, constantly recommend a great part of the convicts to the royal mercy; and his majesty's advisers, influenced by the same anxiety to preserve human life, readily apply and easily obtain from the throne a remission of the sentence.

"That your petitioners do not apply to your honourable House with any feeling but of gratitude and respect, at the administration of the law by the learned judges, or at this exercise of the royal prerogative by causing law and justice in mercy to be executed in every judgment, but they are impelled to submit to your consideration the state of the law itself which produces evasions dangerous to the community, and which must continue to produce them, as they depend not upon the sentiments of any individuals, but upon certain and general principles of our nature, upon the advanced state of civilization in the country, and upon the diffusion of Christianity, by which we are daily taught to love each other as brethren, and to desire not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live.

"Your petitioners, therefore, humbly pray, that your honourable House will take the premises into your most serious consideration, and adopt such measures as the importance of the subject requires, and as to the wisdom of your honourable House may seem meet."

Mr. Alderman Wood

said:—I am sure, Sir, the House will think with me, that the petition now presented for its consideration refers to a subject of the highest importance to the honour and character of the country. The House is aware that this subject has occupied the attention of very able and experienced men, of very wise and learned lawyers, during the last half century. I need not trespass upon the attention of the House by alluding to the opinions already so generally known and approved, of the distinguished characters to whom I allude, and who have all recommended imprisonment and labour rather than death, for the punishment of crime, and the amelioration of the morals of criminals. There is not a man who hears me that does not know, either from his own experience, or from his sources of information through other authentic channels, that, notwithstanding the severity of our criminal code, crimes have of late been continually upon the increase, and that the application of capital punishment has been found utterly inadequate to produce the effect for which it was intended. So little effect has the denunciation of death produced upon criminals, that, some time ago, it was their practice to hold mock courts, for the purpose of deciding upon the probable cases among themselves which would terminate in the conviction of the parties; and the rest then laughed at the sort of ordeal to which they were exposed, and turned into mockery the proceedings adopted towards them. It is my practice, and indeed I am bound to do so from the nature of my magisterial duties, to visit the prison of Newgate frequently. I was there so late as yesterday, and conversed with forty convicts, who are sentenced to death, but not one of whom believes that he will suffer the extreme punishment of the law. They make this calculation upon very natural grounds; for, I believe, on the average, not one in thirteen suffers the full punishment which is awarded against him. This uncertainty of punishment is a great evil. I know that the fountain of mercy must be left to the operation of sound discretion, and cannot be governed by any very general or defined rules. But it would be well if some system of punishment were adopted, which would act with certainty upon the mind of the offender. As it is at present, the culprit, from the uncertainty in which hope, and a reference to the cases of others, leave him, makes no preparation for death; the idea never enters his thoughts when he is surrounded by large numbers who are precisely in the same predicament with himself. I yesterday talked with some convicts whose offences were of that class which ought to leave them little hope of mercy, according to the experience presented by similar cases, and yet not one of them seemed to possess the slightest idea that his sentence would be carried into execution. It would be presumptuous of me to enter here into the character of the law and its effect as it bears upon particular cases. That subject, I am glad to find, is likely to be taken up by an hon. and learned gentleman who is far better able to do it adequate justice. If no other person had taken up the subject, I should myself have made the attempt, so convinced am I of the necessity of an alteration in our present system. On this subject it is impossible for us not to feel, in common with the country, the loss we have sustained in the death of that great and good man, sir Samuel Romilly. The loss of a man so well calculated to do justice to a subject of this importance, can never be too deeply deplored. I have lately visited the continent, and inspected a number of foreign prisons. I have seen from 12 to 1,400 convicts in a single prison. The general practice is, to doom them to hard labour for a given term of years, and the instances are rare indeed, where any of the parties, after the expiration of their confinement, return to their iniquitous practices. In Switzerland, the certainty of punishment is found also to operate in the manner in which it is intended. The criminals sentenced to death are sure to meet their fate, and therefore prepare at once to give effect to the example which operates upon society. In this country no such effect is produced by the denunciation of this sentence, and the real end is in a great measure lost. I move, Sir, that this petition do lie on the table.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

addressed the House for the first time. He observed, that as his worthy friend has said so much on the subject, he would not trespass on the House with any discussion of the merits of the petition, but hoped he might be permitted to draw their attention to one or two leading facts connected with the subject. In the first place, it appeared that of late years crimes had increased to an alarming degree. Such was the undoubted and incontrovertible fact. It appeared, that during the last ten years, the number of persons imprisoned in the various gaols of the kingdom had increased in the proportion of nearly four to one; for they had increased from 4,000 annually to nearly 14,000. He could further state to the House, that as far as his information went, although that information was confined to the city of London, he believed a large proportion of the persons apprehended and taken before the magistrates escaped with impunity, because the magistrates felt a difficulty in committing them on account of the crowded state of the local prisons, and on account of the probability of their acquittal, in consequence of the rigour of the penal laws. By direction of the magistrates of the city of London, a statement was annually made out of the number, ages, &c. of the individuals committed to the different prisons in the metropolis. By the statement for the last year, it appeared, that there were, in the course of 1818, no less than 600 persons tried and convicted who were under 21 years of age. According to the best calculation it appeared, that the number of individuals under 21 years of age who were, in the course of the year, committed to Newgate and tried, exceeded 1,000. He was persuaded that the House would agree with him in thinking this a most alarming fact. He would not trespass on their time further than to express a hope, that the importance of the subject would force it on consideration; that the attention of his majesty's government would be called to it; that it would undergo a full investigation by parliament; and that, in the course of the present session some means would be devised to diminish this most alarming and increasing evil [Cheering from both sides of the House].

Mr. Bathurst

thought this was not a convenient time to enter on a question of so much importance. He wished the subject to be taken up in the place where it could be gone into fully—in the only place where it could he taken in detail,—in a committee of that House. When his noble friend came to move for his committee on the police and discipline of prisons, he might probably move that this subject should be referred to the same committee. Perhaps this would be the best way of treating it. It was undoubtedly true, that of late years there had been a great increase of crime; but this increase of crime, perhaps it might be satisfactory to those who had already spoken, to hear, had not been so great in the metropolis as in the country. Latterly, designing persons had, in too many instances, succeeded in withdrawing themselves from danger, and had effected their fraudulent designs by means of boys and inexperienced persons, whom they had contrived to expose to all the peril of being taken while executing their predatory schemes. This had in part caused the great increase of young persons, which, as the worthy alderman had remarked, appeared in the calendar. Whether the law could be so altered as to punish the head that planned, as well as the hand that executed a robbery, was a question very fit for the consideration of a committee.

Mr. Tierney

, from the first part of the right hon. gentleman's speech, had been led to hope, that it was intended by government to institute a special inquiry into the important question now before the House. He should be glad if this course were to be taken, but it seemed, from what afterwards fell from him, that he intended to attach the revisal of the whole penal code as a sort of rider to the committee to be appointed to inquire into the state of the police and discipline of prisons. All he could understand was, that on the subject now before the House, the government had nothing to propose of themselves, but when the noble lord brought the other question forward, it was thought this might be added to it by way of rider. If the noble lord touched it at all, he hoped he would give it all the importance that belonged to it. If he would not do this, then he should wish him to let it alone altogether, and leave it entirely to his hon. and learned friend, by whom he understood from the worthy alderman near him, it wag likely to be brought forward.

The Petition was ordered to lie on the table, and to be printed.