The Decline of Crime in Britain

BY COLIN R. COOTE

THE sentence which burst like a bombshell on the social system of eighteenthcentury Europe was that with which Rousseau began his Contrat Social. ‘Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.’ This was the beginning of a change in the outlook of civilized man, which has developed with a slow but increasing intensity throughout the succeeding one hundred and fifty years. From a recognition of the fact that it was morally wrong and economically wasteful to chain men with the bonds of tyrannical social conditions came the corollary that it is useless to shut them up in prison as long as there is any chance of reforming them. Thence came humaner laws, and the humaner administration of those laws. This created the difficult problem of striking the golden mean between the crime of creating crime and the crime of creating criminals.

To-day, generally speaking, prison is regarded as a deterrent, not as the instrument of vindictiveness, and public opinion undoubtedly acclaims this definition as correct. The whole of the effort of the modern State is directed toward, on the one hand, changing the social conditions in or of which crime is bred. The political history of Britain for the past seventy years is one of competition among the political parties, whatever they might call themselves, as to which could most speedily carry into effect a programme of reform on which, in statement though not in method, all were agreed. On the other hand the effort has been to succor, rather than to punish, all who can pretend, with any semblance of probability, that their lapse into crime has been due to social conditions as yet imperfectly reformed.

You do not, however, end crime by recognizing that more often than not it is not the criminal’s own fault if he breaks the law. You cannot destroy the conditions which create crime with the same facility as the scientists destroyed the breeding-grounds of the Anopheles mosquito. In point of fact, in an old country like Britain, which tumbled haphazard into industrialism, and increased its population in a hundred years by 500 per cent, it has required an enormous, and only very partially successful, effort to diminish the conditions in which crime is bred. Only recently has any coördinated attempt been made to deal, in these overcrowded islands, with such problems as slums, housing-shortage, public health, and, generally, the multifarious difficulties created by an industrial civilization founded upon a necessarily precarious prosperity.

It is supposed that, with the exception of certain popular characters invented by still more popular writers of fiction, the criminal is a person driven to misdemeanor by the miserable conditions in which masses of men and women are forced to live. The theory that crime is a disease is based upon the fact that the diseases recognized in the pharmacopœia are indubitably fostered by such dreadful livingconditions. It is therefore to the point to consider, in some detail, the changes in social conditions which have been created by four and a half years’ orgy of spending between 1914 and 1918, all the more because those conditions are imperfectly realized by those who have had the good fortune to escape suffering from them. We in Britain, encompassed by the difficulties of 1925, are perhaps too apt to look back upon 1914 as upon a Golden Age, too ready to forget the industrial and political tension which was one of the factors upon which the German war party counted for a victory undisturbed by British interference. And yet it is true that since 1914 our difficulties have enormously increased, and the fact is proved by the most cursory comparison of the standard and conditions of life then and now.

We have a Budget balancing at £800,000,000, as compared with one balancing at £200,000,000; and of the former figure £350,000,000 is swallowed by debt services alone. This huge sum has to be found before Britain can begin to think of spending a penny on social services. With regard to housing, though the State has made a tremendous effort, translated into the cold figures of a £600,000,000 capital liability, there is a shortage of 800,000 houses. It is only this year that the corner has been turned and a beginning made upon overtaking the arrears. For many years to come there will be quarters in our big cities foul beyond imagination.

Our industrial situation is too well known to need elaboration. It is not so black as it is often painted, because 90 per cent of our population are employed, and there are actually 200,000 more persons in work than in 1914. Moreover, the unemployment figures for that year are unknown, because, there being at that time no comprehensive scheme of unemployment insurance, reliable figures are not available.

But it is estimated that even in that year there were 600,000 unemployed. Still, to-day’s figure of 1,250,000 represents a formidable surplus to present industrial requirements. Lastly, it is pertinent to compare the standard of wages and the cost of living for the two periods. Upon the first it is extremely difficult to be accurate, because the truth has been hidden beneath a mass of partisan propaganda, brought forward in the course of industrial disputes, and because to-day nominal wage-rates are subject to all sorts of variations, and differ enormously as between different trades. Broadly speaking, and making full allowance for the lower purchasing power of sterling, in the sheltered industries — that is, industries not subject to foreign competition, such as the building trade and the railways — wages are higher by between 20 and 40 per cent. In all other industries, however, they are nominally back to about the 1914 standard (again measured in real values), and in certain cases even lower. A large percentage of miners, for example, owing to depression in the coal industry, can find work for only three or four days in the week. I must again disarm impending critics by repeating that it is possible to make only the most general statements about wagerates, particularly in the unsheltered industries. The cost of living it is possible to ascertain more definitely, because figures have been kept, though not based upon the same elaborate calculations as in the United States, since the Armistice. They show an index figure of 126, as compared to 1914, in 1919-20, and thereafter a steady decline to round about 70, at which it has remained throughout the present year. There are signs that this reduction of price levels is now being considerably accelerated, as retail prices are forced to approximate more closely to wholesale prices. The statements made above in regard to wages take into account this rise in prices over the 1914 level, though the rise in food prices only is not quite so great as the general index figure. Generally speaking, the standard of living is disappointing to those who thought, and were often told by persons capable of knowing better, that a nation can win a great war without paying for it in any way.

This does not mean, as extremist politicians pretend, that the policy of reform of social conditions has failed: but merely that it has been temporarily robbed of its full fruits by the war, and indeed has not yet had sufficient time to prove or disprove its value. A mass of new social legislation has been scribbled on the Statute Book, but has not had time to imprint itself upon the hearts of men.

It would therefore be anticipated that, under all the distress and temptations implied in these figures, the population of Britain would have lapsed the more readily into offenses against the law. Indeed, among those best qualified to judge, the absorption of 5,000,000 soldiers, habituated during a nightmare of five years to an existence wherein human life and considerations of humanity were held cheap, and wherein the ability of the individual to provide for his own comfort by fair means or foul was the chief criterion of his value, was expected to be attended by a general lowering of ethical standards. And yet, the very reverse is the case. In England and Wales the peak year since 1881 was 1905, when 197,941 persons were committed to prison; the lowest 1919, when the corresponding figure fell to 26,050. Since that date there was a gradual rise to 47,371 in 1923, but again a decline last year to 46,135. Broadly speaking, the number of persons sent to prison per 100,000 of the population was 500 before the war and 120 to-day. The figures for Scotland demonstrate almost the same phenomena.

It is interesting to note in respect of what particular crimes this gratifying decline is the most striking. The total figures do not reveal the whole astonishing story, for the drop has been greatest in petty crimes, which might be expected to originate in poverty or lack of self-control. For example, convictions for drunkenness have fallen from 51,851 in 1913-14 to 11,425 in 1923-24, and those for prostitution from 7952 to 1209. It is really only the major crimes in respect of which the decline has been less marked. Convictions for burglary numbered 1734 as against 1960; for murder, manslaughter, and wounding, 445 as against 474.

It is not, however, justifiable to congratulate the British people on any higher standard of morality until they can show whether these flattering statistics are really due to their better behavior; and it must at once be admitted that there are circumstances, quite apart from the law-abiding character of the people, which must have helped considerably to empty British prisons.

The Children’s Act passed in 1908 has resulted in practically no person under sixteen years of age being sent to prison. The First Offender’s Act, as its name implies, gives everybody a chance to redeem a first slip. The development of Borstal institutions means that young persons between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one seldom have to endure the taint of jaildom, and the new system of placing every possible accused adult on probation helps to reserve prisons almost entirely for habitual criminals. It is also only fair to add that Britain has instituted a kind of indirect prohibition, in that she has restricted the hours of the sale of liquor and vastly increased its price by means of heavy taxation. Nevertheless, there is nothing to prevent a person getting drunk if he or she wishes, and it is undoubtedly creditable that in normal times—that is, except during the holidays in our great cities — it is very difficult to find a case of drunkenness. There remains the class of crime occasioned mainly by poverty, wherein, given the existing industrial conditions, a great increase might have been expected. The most facile explanation of the fact that here too there has been an astonishing decline in convictions is the existence of the ‘dole’— that is, the weekly payment which the British Government makes by way of unemployment benefit to those out of work. But this is far too easy, and it is in fact contradicted by a close analysis of the figures.

In the first place, the dole is not sufficient to raise a man from the most abject poverty, and very many have to supplement it by applying for Poor Law relief. Secondly, it is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 persons are unable to qualify for it at all; and, thirdly, the greatest decrease in crime took place before it was instituted for anybody except ex-service men — namely, between the year 1916 and the year 1919. Therefore, while the dole has undoubtedly served to calm the people and help them to face a very grave national crisis, its effect upon crime has been comparatively negligible. There is a general assent to the proposition that it has not prevented the demoralization which results from years of fruitless search for work. The Governor of the Polmont (Borstal) Institution reports the sad effect upon those admitted of ‘ prolonged unemployment.’ ‘They have developed,’ he says, ‘a slouching way of walking, and a very listless attitude to things in general.’ But demoralization has not on the whole degenerated into more than this pathetic ‘listlessness.’ There is a great increase of ‘cadging’ in the streets upon any excuse. This is extremely sad, but it is not crime; and the nation has reason to be proud of its record in face of the assault of enforced poverty.

It is distinctly probable that the absence of crimes attributable to poverty is in its turn due to the gradual disappearance of ignorance. For, in addition to the reforms mentioned above (which cost nothing), and in spite of the enormous dead-weight charge upon the British Budget, there has been a gratifying increase of expenditure upon social services of a more imaginative and useful nature than the dole. The rates of war pensions are the most generous in Europe. Upon education the sum, unprecedented for Britain, of £85,000,000 is this year being spent; and to this must be added the sums devoted to education in the broader sense, for purposes ranging from maternity welfare to the new Pensions scheme for old age, widowhood, and so forth, passed into law this year. In the prisons themselves it is an essential part of the humaner methods now adopted to hold evening classes, which include lectures, concerts, and even debates. It is perhaps not to be expected that such things should influence the habitual criminal, but to the rest they must afford proof that the convict is not the victim of a tyrannical oligarchy, but the offender against one of the few necessary rules imposed upon the members of a free democracy. The following figures, though they prove the insensibility of the habitual, prove also the sensibility of the occasional, offender. In the year 1923-24, the latest for which statistics are available, 62 per cent of the men and 83 per cent of the women committed to prison had been previously convicted.

The conclusion of the whole matter is best stated in the words of the Prison Commissioners themselves as printed in their latest report. ‘Among the adult population, although it is unsafe to draw definite conclusions, there is reason to think that the mental and moral disorganization produced in many people by the war is now passing away. Unforeseen events may falsify any forecast, especially in prison matters, but present circumstances, and the history of the past few years, give us reason to hope that prison population will show a steady, if slow, decline.’ Since their report was written this forecast has been, in fact, justified by events.

Suppose Louis XVI had been able to sell off the Bastille because he could find no one to put in it, there might have been no French Revolution. Certainly tenantless prisons are a sign of a nation at peace within itself. And every day in Britain the prisons are emptying, and empty prisons are refilling with free men. In 1914 there were 62, housing a convict population of 167,000. To-day there are only 37, with a population of 58,000. Two months ago they auctioned the furniture and equipment of Newcastle Jail. Three months ago the last prisoner walked out of Ipswich. To-day Reading, where and of which Wilde wrote his terrible Ballad, is up for sale. Gone long ago are the ghastly scenes in the debtors’ prison at Newgate, which the pen of Dickens transcribed to sear the consciences of his countrymen. Going to-day are all the scenes and signs of shame which Society creates for those who offend it. And some day, perhaps, in some dusty museum, the casual visitor will come across a coarse suit of stuff marked with the Broad Arrow, and wonder when so repellent a fashion could have been in vogue among the dandies of a bygone age.