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The Punishment of Habitual Criminals


The Report for 1892 of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police throws a somewhat startling light on the present position of the controversy as to the relative juridical value of long and short sentences respectively in the case of offences against property, such as burglary and housebreaking, which constitute, as Sir Edward Bradford truly observes, the peculiar work of the habitual professional criminal. Now the statistics for 1892 point to the fact that in so far as crimes of this description are concerned the short sentence theory has already triumphed over its rival. The convictions upon indictment in 1892 for offences under the class in which burglary and housebreaking are included numbered 409. A considerable proportion of these convictions were of habitual criminals, and yet ten years' penal servitude was the maximum sentence recorded, and this sentence was imposed in three cases only. In one case the sentence was eight years, in six cases it was seven years, in two cases six years, in twenty-nine cases it was five years, in two cases four years, and in thirty cases three years. In the 409 cases, therefore, there were 73 sentences of penal servitude, and 61 of these were for terms of five years or under. When we examine the matter more closely the defeat of the long sentence theory appears still more remarkable. Though there were 143 convictions for burglary, only 19 sentences of penal servitude were passed, the maximum being seven years, and this term was imposed in only two cases. The convictions for breaking into dwelling-houses, shops, etc., numbered 179, and in respect of these only 32 penal servitude sentences were recorded. One of these was for eight years, one for seven years, two for six years, and the rest for terms of five years and under. Sir Edward Bradford has no doubt that the policy of judicial leniency which has thus, to all appearances, set in will increase the national roll of habitual crime—(1) because short sentences do not deter confirmed criminals, and (2) because the obvious practical result of the short sentence theory is to raise permanently the proportion of such criminals who are “at large” at any particular time. It does seem undesirable that the legal principles which have hitherto obtained in regard to the punishment of professional criminals should be abandoned before we have at least had an inquiry by a competent tribunal into their working, and also into the probable effects of the system which it is proposed to substitute for them.

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The British Journal of Psychiatry
  • ISSN: -
  • EISSN: 2514-9946
  • URL: /core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry
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The Punishment of Habitual Criminals

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