Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/July 1893/Is Crime Increasing?


THE question whether crime is increasing or decreasing in England and Wales has been the subject of an interesting discussion in The Nineteenth Century between the Rev. William Douglas Morrison, chaplain to the prison at Wandsworth, and Sir Edmund F. Du Cane. Mr. Morrison remarks upon the incertitude and diversity of opinion prevailing on the subject as something which it is desirable to clear away, and attributes the perplexity of the public mind in the matter, in the main, to the erratic and haphazard manner in which criminal statistics are frequently handled. One of the most obvious mistakes, and yet one which is frequently committed in dealing with questions of crime, is to draw sweeping inferences from the criminal statistics of a single year, or even of a short series of years. "It has to be remembered that criminal returns are largely affected by the fluctuating conditions of social existence, some of the more important of these being the rise or decay of political or industrial agitation, the ebb and flow of commercial prosperity, and, more rarely, the emotions aroused among the population by a state of war. In order as much as possible to neutralize the disturbing effect of these inconstant social factors, it is essential that all statistics relating to crime on which it is proposed to build any general conclusions should cover a decade at the least, and unless this principle is adhered to misleading ideas are almost certain to arise." Sir Edmund Du Cane thinks that even ten years are hardly a long enough period on which to base correct conclusions.

In Mr. Morrison's investigation of the subject three methods of treatment present themselves for consideration. The total number of offenses as reported to the police may be taken as a criterion; or the number of cases tried, both summarily and by indictment; or the total number of convictions. In order to appreciate the movement of crime in all its various aspects, each of these three methods is more or less necessary.

The returns of the yearly average of trials in the three decades 1868 to 1889 reveal an increase from 466,087 in the first decade to 701,060 in the third, satisfying Mr. Morrison that the total volume of crime has increased very materially within the period. Among the causes which have fostered this growth, he assigns an important place to the development of social legislation. Offenses against the Elementary Education Acts alone, he says, "have furnished considerably more than half a million cases, and other acts of a like character have produced similar results. But the growth of offenses arising from a continuous widening of the sphere of legislative effort is to some extent counterbalanced by the abolition in recent years of several old penal laws, as well as by the greater reluctance of the police to set the law in motion against trivial offenders. . . .Offenses may be growing, but the population may be increasing still faster; the question, therefore, requires to be considered, to what extent the total number of cases tried is keeping pace with the general growth of the community. Basing our calculations upon the estimated population at each decade, it comes out that in 1860-'69 one case was tried annually for every forty-four of the inhabitants of England and Wales; in 1870-'79, one for every thirty-seven inhabitants; and in 1880-'89, one for every thirty-eight. According to these statistics, the proportion of crime to the population has remained almost the same for the last two decades; but, if the last two decades are compared with the first, the growth of crime has outstripped the growth of population."

The question whether crime is increasing in seriousness along with its expansion in volume may be answered best by an analysis of the number and nature of the indictable offenses brought up for trial during the three decades. The figures disclose a continuous decrease; but opposed to this is the fact that the cases of offenses against property without violence, constituting two thirds of the whole number tried in the first decade, were more usually dealt with summarily during the two subsequent decades. For arriving at a more accurate estimate of the serious crimes committed in the first decade, Mr. Morrison selects as a type murder, concerning which no material change in public feeling or judicial procedure has taken place within the last thirty years. The figures—126 in the first decade to 153 in the third—show that this, the most serious of all crimes, has steadily increased within the last three decades, and that in proportion to the growth of population it was nearly as common in the last decade as in the first.

The author believes, therefore, that the apparent decrease in indictable offenses is attributable to a change of criminal procedure rather than to an actual decrease of serious crime. Even after the Summary Jurisdiction Act was passed, by which a large number of cases were taken out of the indictable list, every form of serious crime appears to have relatively increased. Large increases in the average of commitments to prison, the extension of juvenile and reformatory schools, and the rapid and uninterrupted augmentation of the police force, are further adduced as pointing to the conclusion that "crime during the last thirty years, for which we possess official returns, has not decreased in gravity, and has been steadily developing in magnitude."

The explanation of this supposed increase is sought in the concentration of men in large cities and industrial centers.

Sir Edmund Du Cane criticises Mr. Morrison's methods, figures, and conclusions unsparingly, and declares as the best opinion he has been able to form on a review of all the facts, and from the expressions of persons whose practical connection with the subject gives weight to their views, that crime is decreasing. He cites the returns of the prison population since 1877 as showing a continuous annual decrease, which none of the explanations offered adequately account for except those which ascribe it to the depression of trade cutting off the supply of money for drinking with, or to the growing dislike of a certain class of criminals for life in prison—both of which imply a decrease of crime. He ascribes the decrease to Christian philanthropy, which he says has never attained a higher development than now, when it is perhaps one of the principal features of the present stage of civilization.

It "has led to an entirely new way of dealing with crime—namely, by prevention instead of by punishment; and one of the principal results of this philanthropic idea is the establishment of industrial schools, in which young persons who seem likely to fall into crime and to develop into adult criminals may be trained into a better way and made into useful members of society.

"It has led to those movements for providing better dwellings, and otherwise raising the condition of those who are sometimes called 'the disinherited,' sometimes 'the submerged,' which help to remove temptations to crime, and purify the atmosphere in which those who may develop into criminals have been compelled to live.

"It is perhaps one of the most curious features in the proof offered of the increase of crime that the adoption and development of the very means by which it is diminished are cited as corroborations of the doctrine that it has increased—among them being the increase in the number of juveniles committed to industrial schools. To show this we are given the number of those committed to 'reformatories and industrial schools' added together. The reformatories are penal and reformatory institutions for young persons convicted of crime, and correspond, therefore, to prisons. The industrial schools, on the other hand, are preventive institutions for children who have not been convicted, but might fall into crime for want of proper care and training. To mix the two together obviously obscures the facts, and the more thoroughly because the committals to reformatories have decreased during the last ten years, so that the increase in the united numbers is solely due to the development of the distinctly preventive institutions, to which there is little doubt the decrease in crime and criminals is largely due, and which are the product of the Christian civilization of which Rousseau thought so little. In fact, mixing the two together is as if an increased prevalence of small-pox was proved by adding together the number of people who developed the disease and the number who were vaccinated to guard against it. Further than this, the figures given in the article [Mr. Morrison's] compare the three decades beginning in 1860, 1870, and 1880, and show, what is true enough, that the number of inmates of these two classes of institutions has increased in each ten years; but this does not show an increase of convicted or even of potential criminals, but only reminds us that there were comparatively few such schools until the great development of these institutions took place after the Reformatory and Industrial Schools Acts were passed, in 1866, for the purpose of encouraging them, and that advantage has been taken of them with still greater vigor in connection with the Education Acts passed in and since 1870.

"In a similar way the increase in the police force is cited as a proof of the increase of crime. If this view were sound, we should expect to find that when there was no police force at all it was because there was no crime—a paradox which, perhaps, it is not necessary to spend time in refuting. Many years ago no traveler could cross Hounslow Heath, Wimbledon Common, or similar desolate approaches to the metropolis, without a good chance of being robbed. Hanging those who were caught did not check this inconvenience; but at last Sir John Fielding hit upon the idea that it might be prevented, and established the armed horse patrol, which soon put a check on the highwaymen. Their appointment was no sign that highway robbing had increased; it was only a better mode of preventing it. Another most potent mode of preventing crime is by making detection more certain. . . . An increase in the police force, with a view to their greater preventive efficiency, is no more a sign that crime has increased than an increase in the amount spent in drainage and water supply, when towns and localities become alive to their advantage, is a proof of increased unhealthiness in places which have adopted such preventive precautions. If an inquiry into the health of a town was to assume that the increased activity of drainage was a sign of increasing bad health, and was altogether to ignore and pass over the evidence afforded by the improved death-rate and the opinion of the medical men of the town, it would be precisely similar to taking the increased activity in progressive development of these preventive institutions as a sign of increase of crime, omitting altogether any investigation into their effect on the number of the criminal classes or disorderly houses, and ignoring the direct testimony of the police, who must know how these matters stand."

A large proportion of the duties of the police, moreover, have nothing to do with crime. The mere collection of large numbers of people together makes a police necessary without any reference to the crime they actually commit.

The police every year furnish a return of the number of the criminal classes. A comparison of the numbers given in these returns affords what seems to be irresistible testimony of an immense improvement. Since the year 1867-'68 the decrease in their number has been practically continuous. Is it conceivable that, while the criminal classes have diminished in this manner, crime has increased?

The direct testimony of the police themselves may be cited. The commissioner of police of the metropolis adduces facts and figures from which it "appears that there was greater security for person and property in the metropolis during 1890 than in any previous year included in the statistical returns"; and this, notwithstanding the increasing growth of the city at the rate of a million a decade, makes it continually more difficult for the police to deal with crime. The chief constable of Liverpool says that "never since the first publication of returns of crime in Liverpool (i. e., since 1857) have the statistics disclosed so small an amount of crime or so large a success in making criminals amenable to justice as those for the year ended the 29th of September, 1891." The report for 1892 is to the same effect, except that crimes of violence had slightly increased.

Mr. Grosvenor, of the Home Office, in a paper on The Abatement of Crime, read to the Statistical Society in 1890, spoke of the abatement having taken place in nearly all classes of crime during the last twenty years; of the "reduction in the number of known thieves and other suspected persons at large, as well as of houses of bad character which they frequent," and of the extraordinary diminution in the number of receivers of stolen goods. Adding to this the fact of the great increase in the population of the country, "we must admit," he says, "that the many agencies enlisted for the purpose of diminishing the number of criminals have been most successfully applied, and the result can not fail to afford the utmost satisfaction and encouragement to all who are anxious for the improved moral and physical advancement of our nation."

Before considering the figures that measure the fluctuation in the actual crimes, Sir Edmund Du Cane tries to define what is meant by the word crime as used in the discussion. One studying the tables with a view to ascertaining the fluctuations in crime, looking merely at the total number at the foot of them, would probably conclude that the total volume of crime has increased very materially, for the tables show apparently a very considerable increase; "but if we look a little more closely at these totals of which the figures are made up, we see that a very large proportion of these offenses are not 'crimes' at all, as the word is ordinarily understood. For instance, offenses against the Education Acts could not be committed before 1870, but they count for 96,601 in the latter year. Few people, however, would say that 'crime' was increasing and civilization demoralizing us because we now compel parents to send their children to school, and hale before the magistrates those who fail to do so, not having yet been accustomed to accept the new law. Offenses against local acts and borough by-laws, which are not 'crimes,' have in the same time increased from 35,081 to 59,108; begging and other offenses against the vagrant acts, from 41,780 to 46,019; offenses against the highway and similar acts, from 29,837 to 32,889. If the efforts that are being made to make it a penal offense to work more than eight hours a day are successful, we might expect to find several hundred thousand added to the number of offenses brought before the magistrates, but nobody would consider this a proof of increase of 'crime.' To find out, therefore, whether crime has increased or decreased, it is necessary to extract from the mass of figures those which really illustrate this point. The judicial statistics have provided an excellent classified analysis of the offenses in which those that consist of breaches of the laws for the protection of the person or property are set forth in five classes, which constitute substantially what people have in their minds when they speak of an increase or decrease of crime. The tables distinguish between offenses summarily dealt with and those not so treated as indictable offenses. Offenses of the latter class only are included in the classification. These consist of offenses against the person, including assaults; offenses against property, with violence; offenses against property, without violence; malicious offenses against property; and forgery and offenses against the currency. The tables, as summarized by the author, afford clear evidence of a continuous decrease in the number of crimes committed both indictable and summary, which is fatal to the theory of an inevitable increase.

Such results. Sir Edmund Du Cane observes, should be no matter of surprise, as they have, to all appearances, followed the preventive measures taken in order to effect them, among which are particularly specified the establishment of institutions to guard young people from falling into crime. This is further corroborated by the decrease in the number of first convictions, and the diminution in the number of young persons (under sixteen years of age) committed to prison (which includes all those sent to reformatories).

The author makes no reference in his review to punishment as in any degree the cause of the decrease in crime which he sets forth, "though," he says in his concluding paragraph, "I well remember that, when crime was increasing, it was at once set down to the prison system. I will not endeavor to appraise the share which punishment has in the decrease of crime, but will repeat that in my opinion prevention is far and away better than any possible cure, and that next to prevention stands certainty of detection and of bringing to justice. Punishment, then, naturally comes into operation to serve as a warning and a deterrent to the wavering, and to the detected culprit a chastening experience, that should always be accompanied by influences calculated to reform".