HC Deb 05 May 1886 vol 305 cc333-9

Order for Second Reading read.

MR. HOWARD VINCENT (Sheffield, Central)

I rise, Mr. Speaker, to move, with the permission of the House, the second reading of the Probation of First Offenders Bill. Its object is set forth somewhat more fully than usual in its Preamble. It will not, therefore, be necessary for me to detain the House with any lengthened explanation of the reasons which induced me to seek permission to introduce it. The support I have ground for hoping the measure may receive in several quarters of the House will afford evidence of the public good those experienced and hon. Members, whose names appear with mine upon the back, trust it may effect. Let me say, Sir, at the outset, that this Bill has not been framed in any spirit of sentimental philanthropy towards those who are guilty of criminal offences, and more especially towards hardened and habitual offenders. I hold a strong opinion with regard to them that such social pests are less burdensome to the public whilst in prison than at large. This Bill is designed solely to meet the case of those guilty of first offences of a minor character. There can be little doubt, Mr. Speaker, that many first offences are the result of inexperience, surprise, and extraordinary temptations, and various extenuating circumstances, rather than the product of a criminal and habitually vicious mind. Hon. Members who have had either judicial or magisterial experience will recall, I feel sure, to their minds many instances in which they have felt the difficulty of dealing properly with such cases. The public interest demanded that some punishment should be inflicted, and it has not been easy to pass any sentence sufficient to meet the case, and yet not of a character in its after effects, if not in its actual duration, to make the pursuit of an honest calling exceedingly difficult. I submit to the House that the object of legal punishment is fourfold—(1) the protection of society; (2) the deterring of others; (3) the expiation of the offence; (4) the reformation of the offender. The protection of society and the deterrent effect upon the public mind are best achieved, Mr. Speaker, by the certainty of detection. It is on this ground that I shall venture, so long as I have the honour of a seat in this House, to claim the generous consideration of hon. Members towards the police of the country, whose mission it is, by vigilance, to prevent crime being committed, and, by activity and ability, to detect its perpetrators. But the reformation of the offender is far from being the least important factor in the administration of the Criminal Law. I have the highest judicial authority for this, and I am not guilty, Mr. Speaker, of any breach of confidence if I mention that some of the most experienced opinions in the country are more than favourable to the principle of this Bill. There is nothing more difficult to wipe out than the taint of prison. It hangs like a millstone round the neck to the very edge of the grave. There is the difficulty of obtaining employment, the fear of recognition by prison companions, the terror of denunciation, and, not least of all, the moral contamination and degradation. An unbroken career of crime, a constant battle with society, ending in a long sentence of penal servitude, thus but too often succeeds the few weeks' or months' imprisonment given for a trivial first offence. In Boston, Massachusetts, a system of probation was instituted in 1878 in order to meet this evil, and the complete success which has attended its operations has led me to take the earliest opportunity of bringing the matter before the House of Commons. The results of the first five years' work are so remarkable that I shall make no apology for reading to the House an extract from the official Report— In reviewing the records of the five years' work of probation, we are met first by the discouraging fact that 223 persons threw away the opportunity offered them to reform without punishment, and had been surrendered and sent to prison, and that 44 others of the same character had absconded to escape punishment. We must also add to these 107 who did well while on probation, but had since been convicted of some offence. We therefore have a total of 374 persons to count as lost. But when we examine further, and find that this loss amounts to less than 15 per cent, and that 2,187 persons, or more than 86 per cent, so conducted themselves while on probation as to merit the approval of the Court before which they were convicted, and have since led respectable lives, there would seem to be substantial reasons for encouragement. The probation system saved the State in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, in five years, more than 82,000 dollars in prison expenses, and a large sum, also, by the recoupment of the costs of prosecution. But," ends the Report, "who can estimate the value of a change from a course of vice and crime to one of rectitude and usefulness in hundreds of lives, or the value of cheerless homes made peaceful and happy. The House will thus recognize, Mr. Speaker, that the good to be effected by the enactment of this measure does not rest merely upon sanguine, theoretical speculation. The principle has been well tried under a judicial system similar to our own, founded by common ancestors; and propositions, too, for its adoption in other territories occupied by the Anglo-Saxon race are, I am happy, Sir, to know, now before more than one Colonial Legislature. The Bill does not, in point of fact, introduce any new feature into our criminal jurisprudence; it simply recognizes and extends the practice sometimes resorted to of discharging first and youthful offenders in trivial cases without imprisonment. The present practice of releasing upon recognizances, to come up for judgment when called upon, is not extensively resorted to, because it errs rather on the side of excessive leniency. All further knowledge of the prisoner is lost to the public authorities; he has no great incentive to reform; and there are no means of bringing him up for judgment if his conduct is unsatisfactory. The House will observe that the Bill is limited in its operation to offences for which imprisonment may be inflicted in contradistinction to penal servitude, which is the penalty attaching to all serious crimes. I may also point out that as two years is the maximum legal duration of imprisonment, that is also the maximum period of probation under the Bill. The conditions of probation in Massachusetts are analogous to those attaching to police supervision in this country under the Prevention of Crime Acts, and neither there nor here do they press in any way harshly upon the persons subjected to them. These conditions are, briefly—that a supervisee or probationer shall report himself once a month, either personally or in writing, sleep at a declared address, get his living by honest means, and not move out of one district or into another without giving notice. These conditions, while enabling the Police Authorities to exercise sufficient surveillance, give them very little trouble, spread over a large area as the duty is. Under the same conditions, liberty is accorded to persons sentenced to penal servitude before the full expiration of their sentences, and nothing has contributed more to the admirable discipline maintained in convict establishments in Great Britain. Persons may also be subjected to them, under 34 & 35 Vict. c. 112, s. 18, who have been guilty of certain offences; and while the conditions in no way oppress the honestly disposed, and may be relaxed under special circumstances, they act as a great deterrent against crime, and as a great incentive to keep straight, for a breach of any one of the conditions entails 12 months' imprisonment with hard labour. This would be the liability also with the probationers under the Bill; and as they would not be given the benefit of its provisions in any serious case, sufficient punishment would be held in reserve over them, and without the expense or trouble of re-trial if their conduct was unsatisfactory. There may be some few persons, and possibly some hon. Members, who have conceived a prejudice against police supervision, arising from the unfounded complaints of a few worthless men that it had hindered them from obtaining honest employment. I can assure the House, however, from an experience of more than six years as Director of Criminal Investigations, during the whole of which time I had many hundreds of convicts on licence and police supervisees under my control, that such an opinion is far from justified by facts. I do not say that a policeman had never been guilty of an excess of zeal; but during the period of my connection with the Metropolitan Police no charge of undue interference against this class of persons was ever substantiated against them. Nor am I travelling beyond the facts when I say the honourable attitude of the police throughout the country towards the class of persons in question is gratefully recognized by the various excellent Associations existing for the assistance of discharged prisoners. I venture, Mr. Speaker, to claim for this Bill that it will, if enacted—(1) recoup to the public the expenses of many prosecutions; (2) save the people the expense of maintaining many hundreds of persons in prison; (3) hinder the manufacture of habitual criminals; (4) gain to the State many honest citizens, by establishing powerful incentives to reform, and giving first offenders the hope of leading useful lives, without absolving them from the consequence of crime, or diminishing the safeguards demanded by social order. On all these grounds then, Sir, I beg very earnestly to commend the Bill to the consideration of the House and of Her Majesty's Government, and to move that it be now read a second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Howard Vincent.)


said, he had listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. Gentleman. He had brought forward many reasons which ought to weigh with those who had to consider this Bill; and he would promise the hon. Gentleman that they should have the fullest consideration from the Government. But he would remind the House that the hon. Gentleman had brought in the Bill on the 21st of January, but did not circulate it until Monday last; and, therefore, he (Mr. Childers) had practically only had 36 hours in which to consider the proposal and take advice upon the subject. He need not tell the House that upon a question of this kind, which made a very enormous change in the Criminal Law so far as it affected punishment, was one upon which he could not venture to make any recommendations without not only full consideration, but without consulting those, whether Judges or magistrates, who had to administer the police law, as well as to the police authorities themselves. In the time since the circulation of the Bill it had been absolutely out of his power to do a tithe of what it would be necessary for him to do in this matter. He had, however, gone as far as he could, and even in this short time the conflicting opinions he had received were such as to satisfy him that it was a difficult subject to deal with. The change made was practically this—that it should be in the power of a Court in future, in the case of an offence that might be punished with imprisonment, to put the offender under the system of police surveillance. That, as the House would see, was a very momentous and serious change. He said nothing against it, but it would be his duty to study it most carefully; and he would, therefore, appeal to the hon. Gentleman, after the speech he had made, to allow the debate on the second reading of the Bill to be adjourned for three weeks or so, in order to enable him to obtain the necessary advice upon the subject.


said, that as the right hon. Gentleman desired it, he had no alternative but to postpone the second reading until the 20th instant. He had, however, hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would have consented to the second reading that day, when the Committee stage could be taken at the right hon. Gentleman's convenience.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present: House counted, and 40 Members being found present.

MR. MOLLOY (King's Co., Birr)

said, he would appeal to the Home Secretary to allow the present stage of the Bill to be taken, on the understanding that the Committee stage should be postponed for three weeks.

MR. ADDISON (Ashton-under-Lyne)

, in supporting the Bill, said, he would appeal to the Home Secretary to allow it to be read a second time. There were many cases, particularly as to young domestic servants, prosecuted for some trifling theft, where offenders were degraded and ruined by being sent to prison.

MR. HASTINGS (Worcestershire, E.)

said, he thought the Bill would make a very salutary change, a change, however, which was not so large as the Home Secretary seemed to suppose. As the law stood at present it was quite possible for a Judge of Assize, or Chairman of Quarter Sessions, to pass a sentence of a day's imprisonment, which meant immediate discharge from the dock, and to follow this by police supervision. The change, therefore, only amounted to this—that it gave Judges and Chairmen power to do for a first offence what they could now do for a second. With considerable experience, he was of opinion that it was of great importance that a prisoner, though guilty, should not be sent to prison in certain cases for a first offence, but should be subjected to a term of police supervision. In his own county—Worcestershire—the police had admirably carried out their duties of supervision, and he did not remember one case of hardship or oppression. If this additional duty was imposed upon them he believed the police would discharge it in a kindly spirit. The Bill, no doubt, proposed an innovation; but he believed it was in the right direction.

MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

said, he was in favour of the principle of the Bill.

Debate adjourned till Wednesday 26th May.