HL Deb 07 August 1848 vol 100 cc1159-63

The Bill before the House is one founded upon a law passed for England a few years back, and provides for the punishment of juvenile offenders in a summary way; protecting the young from the contamination connected necessarily with a long association with criminals, and relieving the gaols of Ireland from a large and increasing class of prisoners. The English Act has, I believe, been found to work usefully in this country: I have not heard any proposition made for its amendment. The present Bill may be considered as a mere transcript of the English Act, with such amendments only, in respect to the appropriation of fines, the adjudication of sentence, and the infliction of punishment, as the peculiar circumstances of Ireland render necessary.

But the discussion of the question, and more especially the relief which this Bill will afford to our overcrowded prisons, renders it not only appropriate but necessary to refer to their present most melancholy state. On this subject there was information on the table of the House which deserved to be noticed and recorded. Accustomed as the public was to hear of the wretchedness of Ireland, the reports on the administration of the criminal law illustrated the condition of that country in a manner the most striking and melancholy—I allude to the returns of criminal offenders, and to the reports from the prison inspectors—officers appointed by the Government, and acting impartially in the discharge of an important duty. It will appear from these documents that at least a portion of the existing evil may be traced, not to natural causes, but to the Acts of the Legislature itself, passed with a very different intent. It is in the first instance worthy of consideration to review the progress of crime, which is as follows:—

Years. Convictions. Commitments.
1841 9,271 20,796
1813 9,874 21,189
1843 8,620 20,126
1844 8,043 19,445
1845 7,101 16,696
1846 8,639 18,493
1847 15,233 31,209

It will thus be seen that between the first and the last of these seven years the commitments have increased fifty per cent, and the convictions in a still greater proportion.

The consequences of this upon our prisons is still more alarming, and it is forcibly described in the report of the inspectors of prisons presented during the present Session. These public officers make the following melancholy and alarming statement:— The inspectors and boards of superintendence had brought the county gaols as a general rule to a state of which any country might be proud. The terrible catastrophe which has disorganised the whole framework of society fell on these establishments; and instead of statements of improved discipline, enlarged accommodation, advanced instruction, we can only describe industry given up, classification destroyed, separation un-attempted, and disease and death increasing to a degree that never could have been contemplated by those acquainted with the usual orderly and healthy state of our gaols. The three principal causes are: first, distress amounting to famine; second, the sudden cessation of transportation; third, the passing of the Vagrant Act. The effect of the first has been to quadruple the evils occasioned by the two last; 12,883 prisoners are now confined in gaols fitted to contain 5,655 only. And the deaths in prisons have increased in the following ratio:—

1845 81
1846 131
1847 1,315

The expense of maintaining the prisons has augmented in the last year from 75,000l. to 125,000l."

Here it is to be remarked that two out of three of the causes assigned for the increase of crime, namely, the cessation of the system of transportation, and the Vagrant Act, are the direct effects of the acts of the Legislature, and of the Government. It should also be remembered that the Select Committee of this House specially condemned the abolition of transportation, more especially as applicable to Ireland.

But the prison inspectors cast further-light on this subject, and the following observations which they make are most important:— In many gaols the working of the Vagrant Act, whereby an immense mass of destitution, filth, and disease is forced into prisons, never in their original construction calculated to receive such numbers. Many of these wretched creatures are obliged to lie on straw in the passages and dry rooms of the prisons, without a possibility of washing or exchanging their own filthy rags for proper apparel. The effect of such a state of things as this on the health and lives of the other unfortunate inmates of the prisons, require no comment. The general distress has in-creased the pauper debtors: a class little removed in filth, misery, and destitution from the vagrants. In the gaols of Tyrone and Armagh, debtors are crowded into accommodation which renders the occurrence of disease little short of pestilence almost inevitable. A great number of" boys, in most instances under twelve (in Cork gaol they amount to 200), have found their way into gaol; some for stealing food; others, the greater number, to be transterred from the workhouse to the prison for better diet. The necessity of discontinuing transportation: at the commencement of 1847, there was not accommodation for one additional convict subject to transportation. In 1847, these convicts increased fourfold; an average of seven years showed of such convicts 618, whilst in 1848 the number was 2,350, including 200 left over from former years.

For much of this misery it is observable that our Legislature and the Government are responsible.

But in discussing the state of crime, it is wholly impossible to overlook one striking class of offences, that which is connected with the robbery of arms. During the last two years, the offence had been perpetrated to such an extent as to leave no tenant farmer in the possession of those arms which the law entitled him to hold. The Arms Act had been allowed to expire. It had boon objected to on supposed constitutional grounds. It was held a right to have arms; and yet all loyal men were deprived of them by force. They were protected, it is true, from the supposed outrage of the visit of the magistrate and the constable; but they were unprotected from the burglary of the rebel and the incendiary. And at the same time, arms and ammunition were bought and sold with as much publicity as the ordinary transactions of purchase at fairs and markets. The arming of the dockyard battalion was not carried on more openly from the Ordnance stores than the arming of the peasantry. This was open and undisguised. It was also unchecked. In Ireland there was no manufactory of ordinary arms. There was no manufactory of gunpowder. It would consequently be easy to guard the ports and to check importation as a contraband trade. Was this effectually done? The consequences of the social disorganisation are exhibited in the following account, which it is melancholy to refer to, and which I am unwilling to trace to the political causes and party incidents from which an absence of wise and effective legislation had proceeded:—

Robbery of Arms.
years. Offences reported by Constabulary. Convicted. Aequitted. Total.
1844 159 4 14 18
1845 551 10 8 18
1846 611 15 22 37
1847 1,606 26 53 79

Compare this with the number of arms seized or detained by the constabulary under 11 Vict., c. 2, which had been passed during the present Session to repress these crimes. The amount is as follows:—

Guns 445
Blunderbuses 17
Pistols 246
Pikes 11

In the county of Tipperary, which in these crimes enjoys an unenviable notoriety, no more than 88 guns, 7 blunderbuses, and 85 Pistols, were seized. Was it proposed that this should continue unchecked, and that the Irish prisons should 1)0 left to be overcharged with criminals to contaminate each other, and to resume their trade of crime when discharged from custody? A noble Lord (Earl Fitzwilliam), and one who had the strongest attachment to the principles of liberty, had said that he could not tolerate this comparative impunity of crime from any misapplication of what he truly called the "jargon of constitutional principles."

The present Bill, and the Bill abolishing Imprisonment for Debt, would be some small mitigation of the miserable state of our prisons. On these, as well as on other grounds, I consider the Bill entitled to a favourable consideration; and I, therefore, move its second reading in full confidence that it will meet the approval of the Legislature.

Bill read 2a

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