HC Deb 26 February 1833 vol 15 cc1152-9
Mr. Hume

presented a Petition from the Inhabitants of the Metropolis, praying for a change of the Laws with regard to the infliction of Capital Punishment. The petition was signed by 5,330 persons. The petitioners stated, that in their opinion, the severity of punishment ought to be diminished, and its certainty increased. At present the infliction of punishment was but a lottery, and the chances of escape were between 300 or 400 to 100 in favour of the prisoner. The law, therefore, instead of being a terror to evil doers, had become a matter of little importance. In consequence of the severity of the law, there was a general conspiracy to prevent the infliction of the punishment it awarded. If the severity of the punishment was relaxed, prosecutions would increase a hundred fold. He thought that capital punishments ought to be abolished except in the case of murder or arson. He wished to know whether the House thought they ought indirectly to encourage murder by giving to it the same punishment as the violation of property in some instances received. The law against burglary, in particular, he thought far too severe. In fact, it encouraged murder, because a person committing a burglary would be tempted to take away the life of a fellow-creature, when that was probably the only chance he had of escaping capital punishment. That was the result of such indiscriminate severity. Uncertainty of punishment tended to the same object. Where five or six hundred persons were sentenced, and only fifty were executed, the uncertainty afforded a strong inducement to criminals to try the lottery of escape or punishment. The petitioners had considered this subject attentively, and wished now to bring it under the consideration of the House. Most of them were men of experience, who spoke from their own knowledge of the inefficacy of the present law. He had no hesitation in terming that a sanguinary law which consigned several classes of offenders to extreme punishment. In America there were only one or two crimes—murder, he believed, and arson—which were punishable with death; yet it was well known that laws there were more efficient for all the useful purposes of society than in this country. He gave his most cordial support to the petition, which was read as follows:—

"Humbly Showeth—That your Petitioners are deeply impressed with the opinion, that the efficacy of criminal laws depends less upon the severity of punishment than the certainty of infliction; and that laws, which cannot be carried into execution without shocking the feelings of society, and exciting sympathy for the offender, are contrary to reason, inconsistent with morality, and opposed to the interests of justice.

"That the criminal laws of England are of a character so vindictive and barbarous as to be utterly incapable of uniform execution; and that, consequently, under the present system, the lives of men depend less upon the precise and express provisions of the law, than upon the temper, feeling, or caprice of a Judge, or Secretary of State; whence it arises that all the Assizes and Circuits throughout England afford examples of inequality of punishment and practical proofs of the arbitrary discretion exercised in the selection of victims for the altars of sanguinary justice.

"That the excessive severity of the law operates to the total impunity of a great proportion of offenders, by deterring humane persons from prosecuting, and by holding out a temptation to Jurors to violate their oath, rather than be accessary to judicial murder—while almost all the capital punishments now on the Statute-book are innovations upon the temperate and wholesome principles of the ancient Common Law of the land, which had ever been admired for its humanity and wisdom by the greatest legal authorities, and is coeval with the noblest and best principles of the English Constitution.

"That your Petitioners, therefore, humbly pray your Honourable House to take the Criminal Laws into your consideration, and, in accordance with what the true interests of justice, as well as of humanity, require—to introduce such a thorough and efficient Reform of the Criminal Law as will render it more auxiliary to public morals than to private vengeance, and, by a judicious system of prison discipline, afford that protection to property of which all persons may avail themselves, without purchasing it by the sacrifice of human life."

Mr. Pease

cordially supported the prayer of the petition. In his opinion, it imported much to the character of a Christian Legislature and a Christian nation to wipe off the stain of severity of punishment. The system, as at present existing, was at variance with the principles of the Christian religion. Why should a man convicted of murder, for instance, be executed within forty-eight hours after the sentence? Why should be, in so short a space, be called into the presence of Omnipotence, when the points of law on which his fate depended were often so doubtful as to require hours of discussion before the Judges could decide? He was sure that if more time were given, and the public mind allowed to dwell on the nature of the offence and the state of the criminal, that all feelings of revenge would give way to those of humanity and justice. The great object of punishment was terror and reform. The uncertainty of punishment removed the terror; and capital punishment, when it was inflicted, precluded the possibility of reform.

The Solicitor General

concurred with the views of the hon. Members opposite, but thought they had forgotten how much had already been done. Even in the last Session of Parliament, the punishment of death was abolished in cases of cattle-stealing, and horse-stealing, in some cases of forgery, and in coining, which till then was considered as high treason. He admitted that the law, in respect of capital punishments, was capable of still further improvement, notwithstanding the many amendments recently introduced. He had attended to the subject, and he was of opinion that capital punishment should not be inflicted unless in cases of violence. The hon. Member, he thought, went too far in the principles which he laid down; and he would put it to him whether, if attacked by a robber, he should not, in defence of his life and property, take the assailant's life? If, then, a private citizen had the right in such a case to take away life, why should not the State, for the general good, have the same? He wished, however, not to be understood as opposed to all mitigation in the law as it then stood; but he wished such improvements to be effected by cautious and gradual means alone. The petition, however, seemed to have been drawn up by a person who had been asleep for the last ten years, and, therefore, knew nothing of the late changes.

Mr. Lennard

could assure the House, that the petitioners had not forgotten the conduct of the Government, but had, on the contrary, at their meeting, dwelt with great satisfaction on those of their measures which mitigated the criminal code. The present petition was one out of the thousand proofs which would be given to Parliament of the growing dislike and disapprobation of the people to the severity of our criminal code. He was ready to go to the length of saying, that no crime against property, unaccompanied by violence to the person, ought to be subject to the punishment of death. Robbery was still, however, a capital offence. ["No" "no" from the Solicitor General.] He still thought he was right; but, however that might be, he was quite sure that sufficient attention had not been paid to the efficacy of secondary punishments. It was that which carried terror to the evil-doer, as was proved by the examples in America, from which that House might take a lesson. And he hoped the present Session would not be allowed to pass without a more general application of secondary punishment. He hoped that steps would be immediately taken to render the criminal code more in accordance with the feelings of the country.

Mr. Robinson

was of opinion that the certainty of the infliction of a minor punishment would be much more effectual for the repression of crime than the uncertainty, in many cases, at present attending the execution of the sanguinary penalty of death. He hoped to see the severity of the criminal code still further relaxed.

Mr. Lamb

was happy to inform his hon. friend that the subject of prison discipline and secondary punishments was under the consideration of Government. A gentleman had been sent out to America to investigate the system of secondary punishments, and the state of prison discipline established in that country, and to report thereupon to the Government. When the report was made, he considered that the Penitentiary would afford an ample opportunity for making experiments on the American plan, if it should be thought advisable so to do, without building a new prison. He was ready to express his concurrence in the general prayer of the petition; but he thought it would be better, instead of abolishing the punishment of death by a general law, to treat every crime separately, and to see what effect was produced in each particular instance by the relaxation of the extreme penalty of the law. It was by gradual and cautious legislation that they could best mitigate the code without endangering the security of life and property. He did not mean to undervalue the alterations which had been made: on the contrary, he felt on the whole that they had been improvements. At the same time he must say, that he had, in his official capacity, received several remonstrances against some of those alterations. He believed, that they had had a good effect, but he mentioned the circumstance for the purpose of impressing on the House the propriety of dealing with this subject with moderation. At the same time he was ready to declare, that they ought not to stop in their course of improving the criminal code until they could fairly say, that the penalty of death was attached to no crime which did not deserve that punishment. With respect to the sentence of transportation for life, which was now in many cases passed instead of the sentence of death, he was of opinion that it was one which should always take effect, unless in the event of some decidedly mitigatory circumstances appearing'. It was almost impossible to define the exact degree of violence which deserved death: but, at the same time, he wished to remind the House that the Secretary of State had the right of investigating each case, and of mitigating the punishment when the crime was attended with comparatively little violence. He was not prepared to say, that he would abolish capital punishments in case of burglary; committed, as it was, at night, it almost necessarily led to the chance of murder, and required to be punished accordingly. There were, however, distinctions in burglary, and he did not desire to see the capital punishment extended, for that reason, to all offences of that nature.

Mr. C W. Wynn

, agreed with the hon. under Secretary of State, that the crime of burglary deserved the severest punishment which the law inflicted. It was a crime of the most serious nature; and being perpetrated for the most part at the dead of night, it was not only calculated to excite the greatest terror, but also to lead to murder; and more especially in cases where resistance was offered. He was not, however, opposed to mitigation of the criminal code; on the contrary, he thought that there were many cases in which a milder punishment might be safely substituted for that of death. There were even cases which now came under the class of burglaries which ought not to be visited with extreme severity; for instance, a person merely lifting the latch of a door, and entering an outbuilding, and stealing above a certain amount, was guilty of burglary. But it was most desirable that there should be a classification of crimes, and that those of very different magnitude should not be placed together. He agreed also with the hon. under Secretary, that nothing but strong mitigatory circumstances should ever induce the Home Office to commute, for a milder punishment, the sentence of transportation for life, now attached to offences formerly punishable by death. It was well known that there were sheep-walks in Wales extending several miles, and the sheep were not very carefully guarded. As a Magistrate he had had cases of this nature repeatedly brought before him. A peasant, from distress, stole a sheep from the flock, with a view of providing food for his family. Surely, there were mitigatory circumstances in his case, in comparison with that of a man who stole the whole flock of sheep for the purpose of selling them. There should be a classification of offences, then, as regards cattle and horse-stealing, though all alterations of this sort should be made with the greatest caution.

Mr. Buckingham

said, that he could not admit the analogy between a man shooting a robber in his own defence, and the State taking away the life of the offender. The law, as a tribunal, could not be influenced by fear. Its object in punishing a criminal was to prevent a recurrence of the crime, and, as far as possible, restitution to the individual or the State. For his own part he would go so far as to say, that no crime should be punished with death, because, by death, they took away all means of reform or restitution.

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

thought, that there were certain crimes to which society, in justice to itself, was bound to affix the penalty of death. It was a most dangerous doctrine to maintain that the Legislature had not the power of inflicting death. Society had a perfect right to act for its own protection; and the security of life and property often depended upon the terrors of capital punishment. At the same time he admitted, that it would be right to define, more accurately than was at present done, the crime of burglary. The penalty of death ought not to be attached to crimes which were not attended by violence or terror. He was of opinion that a general inquiry should be instituted into the nature and extent of our system of punishments; he was for a further mitigation of the criminal code, which was the most sanguinary in Europe; and, on that ground, he supported the petition.

The Attorney General

rose lest his silence might be misunderstood. He would yield to no man in his desire to mitigate the severity of the criminal code; but he hoped that all further relaxations would be attempted upon practical and not theoretic grounds. He was ready to admit, that there were many cases with respect to which a milder punishment than was now applied ought to be inflicted; but he agreed with the right hon. Gentleman, the under Secretary for the Home Department, that the most judicious course would be to deal with each case separately.

Mr. Rotch

complained of the state of some of the prisons, particularly Newgate, which was a disgrace to the country. He himself, as one of the bench of Magistrates, had made several unsuccessful attempts to classify the prisoners, but the confined state of the prison rendered such a classification impossible. He, however, expected very little to be done towards the prevention of crime until the resolutions of different Committees of that House respecting prison discipline were carried into effect. Those resolutions, he was sorry to say, were generally neglected throughout the country. There were 1,200 prisoners for example within that small space, and the city of London, which had lately had an opportunity of increasing it, neglected to do so.

Mr. Ewart

approved of the conduct of Government in sending out a gentleman to America to examine into the state of prison discipline in that country, and took the present opportunity of expressing his abhorrence of the barbarity of the existing game code.

Petition laid on the Table.