HC Deb 26 April 1838 vol 42 cc609-14
Lord John Russell

proceeded to move for leave to bring in a Bill for establishing a prison for Juvenile Offenders.

Sir Eardley Wilmot

said, it was evident that the object of the noble Lord, in making this proposition, was to secure young offenders from the contamination to which they were at present exposed by being shut up in the same prison with old and hardened criminals. It appeared to him, however, that to erect any prison for juvenile offenders was totally unnecessary for the accomplishment of that object. What he strongly recommended was, to try the effect on young offenders of summary conviction and summary punishment. If such a system were adopted, he was persuaded, that the amount of crime in the country, instead of increasing, as it had recently done, would soon greatly diminish. Boys were now sent to gaols, where they were taught to consider the crime which they had committed as a mere "lark;" and they came out much worse in point of moral feeling. In the county for which he had the honour of being a Member, there was an asylum to which boys charged with offences were sent, for the purpose of endeavouring to reform them; and although the experiment was not always successful, it was a satisfactory fact, that at least a quarter of those who were sent came out perfectly reformed. Now, he thought, it might be expedient to consider how far it would be well to extend such a system; and to warrant the magistrates, in the case of young offenders, to overlook the felony and to send them to similar asylums. They would then entirely escape the contamination of a gaol. Those to whom he had alluded, and on whom an effectual reform had been worked, had afterwards been observed; and it was found, that they acquitted themselves with perfect correctness in the different situations in which they were placed. He, himself, knew one of those boys who was now a principal clerk in a banking establishment. If some such plan as that could be carried into general effect, it would, in his opinion, do infinitely more good than committing young offenders to a common prison. He was persuaded, that the whole country, from one end of it to the other, would be unanimous in trying the experiment; and he besought the noble Lord to apply himself to that and other means, not of curing, but of preventing the evil of extensive crime. If the noble Lord did so, he would well deserve the best thanks of the country.

Mr. A. Chapman

begged to call the attention of the noble Lord to the fact that much of the delinquency of young offenders arose from their not being able to obtain employment at a time when they were most inclined to activity and disliked idleness; and this want of employment was owing to the combination of workmen, who prevented their masters from taking more than a certain number of apprentices.

Mr. Gibson

would observe, that the inspectors of prisons had said, that prison discipline would be of little use to juvenile offenders, unless they were furnished with some resource of which they might avail themselves in obtaining a livelihood after their discharge, for they were immediately besieged by their old acquaintances, and without such resource they would soon return to their old habits. To think of effecting a perfect reformation was visionary; but it was only right to provide some resources of gaining a subsistence for those who had been confined, many of whom were abandoned by their parents, or were orphans, deserted by their friends, and in his opinion it would be best secured by some system of voluntary emigration. He thought well of the asylum of Captain Brenton, at Hackney-wick, where there was not the degradation of the treadmill; but in spite of all those excellent regulations, unless some kind of emigration were adopted, the children confined there would return to their old habits on being discharged. Children who had been in gaol found themselves proscribed: they had lost their characters, and the only means they had of gaining a livelihood was in the colonies. He hoped the noble Lord (J. Russell) would be prepared to carry out the suggestion of the inspectors of prisons, for he thought that the only method of rendering the reform of prisoners at all permanent.

Lord J. Russell

said, that since the hon. Member had alluded to the inspectors of prisons, he must state what he had intended to state at a later period of the bill. He agreed with them in what they had said respecting juvenile offenders, but it was clear that the condition of their pardon should be, that after their confinement in an asylum they should emigrate or be removed to some colony which was not a penal settlement. He had been some time in attempting a scheme of this kind after considering what had been done hitherto by Captain Brenton and others, and he had been in communication with individuals in the colonies who were willing to take such apprentices. If it were done to a certain extent by Government, great advantages would be obtained but if large numbers were sent out, the feeling of the colonies would be against it, as giving to them a penal character, and they would object to receive a part of our population who were tainted by crime, and disgraced by the sentence of a jury. He agreed with all who treated the subject as totally different with respect to the trial and subsequent treatment of children from that of adults, inasmuch as the former were of an age not old enough to discern as to the offences they committed; whilst the latter are generally persons who had a tendency to crime, and when they came out of gaol were so attached to it, that with the heavy stain on their characters, they fell back into their former practices. But with respect to many of these children, he had no reason to say, that they were worse than others, except from the education given them by their parents to make their crimes a source of profit to themselves. It happened too often in voluntary asylums that when the juvenile offenders were discharged, some parent, or relative, or person belonging to them, took them and held out every inducement, such as food, &c., which children could not resist, if they would persist in crime, and make it a source of profit to their employers. With regard to numbers of them, if they could be removed to such asylums as that at Parkhouse, and be taught to follow some occupations, they might then emigrate to the colonies, and effectual reformation might take place. But he was not very sanguine as to the reformation of adults; he had only hoped to succeed with those who were under a certain age. As to what the hon. Member for Warwick had said, he felt considerable difficulty upon measures of that sort, and he was therefore unwilling to risk any attempt, though he was anxious to see something of the kind established. A difficulty had been lately raised, for it had recently happened to him to receive recommendations from the Recorder, the Chairmen of Quarter Sessions, and others, that certain children should be confined in the Penitentiary, as they considered the country prisons too bad for them, and he had accordingly been induced to send them thither; but, at the same time, he must say that he did not think it a fit place for those of a tender age, for although the labour was light, yet they had not opportunities of exercise and of out-door work. On this account, therefore, he wished to see established such places as that in the Isle of Wight, where those who where confined might follow some occupation that would influence their future life, prepare them for an industrious course, and render them free from those inducements which led to the commission of crime.

Sir R. Peel

said, that it was possible to make a great improvement in the punishment of juvenile offenders before their conviction. He thought the project of the noble Lord was very satisfactory, but at the same time it did not go far enough to remedy the evil. In his opinion, the great evil arose from the confinement of these juvenile offenders in prison, and that the real contamination was acquired before their trial; but, at the same time, it was impossible not to see, that a great difficulty interposed to a satisfactory arrangement. He entirely concurred in the principle laid down by the hon. Baronet (Sir E. Wilmot), and thought it most important that some reform should be made, that these young; offenders might be saved from the contamination of a prison. It might be difficult to consider whether there should be a new jurisdiction to which they should submit the trials of juvenile offenders; but it was only by contemplating it that they could hope to discover the means of effecting it. If they agreed that it could be done, the age of the offender must be ascertained before the trial; but supposing twelve years of age to be the limit, it might then be said that they were depriving juvenile offenders of the advantages of a jury which older delinquents possessed; and besides this, the plea might be urged that they were above the age prescribed, in which case there would be great difficulty in ascertaining the truth. Now it seemed to be always thought that juvenile offenders committed only small offences; but this was, in his opinion, a great mistake, for amongst that class there were some of the most formidable villains with which honesty had to contend. The best way to treat a majority of them was to hand them over to a summary jurisdiction and save them from gaol; but then, if such a jurisdiction could be provided, it would be said that there was no reason why every case should not be submitted to it. It would be said too, that there was not a publicity of trial, or the advantages of a jury, and that juvenile offenders were not entitled to the same advantage as older Ones. He wished it was possible to effect a distinction between those boys who were guilty of slight pilfering and others who had committed greater offences but this was the difficulty of the case. It would have been satisfactory to hear from the noble Lord (J. Russell) that with his advantages of official experience he saw his way clearly through this difficulty, and that with the hon. Member for Warwick, who had had great experience as a magistrate, he could propose some remedy of the existing abuse, by which he would confer a great obligation on the country, and insure an impartial administration of justice.

Mr. Hume

said, that if society took as much pains to prevent crime as it did to punish crime, the advantage would soon be evident. At present, one-half of the money that was spent in punishing crime would educate and train up the children who committed it, and thereby prevent it. He had heard it over and over again stated that there was no question of so much importance as a system of education, and yet it continued untried. Surrounded as children now were with all kinds of allurement to idleness and crime, was it fair to expect any other result than that which was actually met with?

Mr. Hawes

said, that the Bill was valuable as far as it went, but that it would have been better had it contained a provision for young offenders after their discharge from punishment.

Mr. Yates

thought, that the experiment of sending juvenile offenders as emigrants to the colonies had been successful with reference to those who were under fourteen years of age. He rejoiced at the plan which had just been explained to the House by the noble Lord, and he hoped that every county in England would have the benefit of its operation.

Leave given.