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“Beyond the Pale of Mercy”: Victorian Penal Culture, Police Court Missionaries, and the Origins of Probation in England


One of the most striking changes in the penal culture of fin-de-siècle Europe was England's reform of adjudication and punishment. In this “de-moralization of criminality,” the system began to shed its punitive sentencing, which often saw minor offenders imprisoned with hard labor for weeks or months, to adopt a more moderate system of penalties. These concrete changes were intertwined with a broader shift in British criminological thinking from a “classical” view to a “positivist” one. The former held offending to be a rational, individual choice that required severe deterrents, whereas the latter saw criminality as a product of harsh economic and social conditions. This shift in dominant understandings of criminality prompted reformers, judicial officials, police, and policymakers to refocus on the causes of crime and its prevention, the offender as a subject, and the potential for treatment and rehabilitation through state intervention. A central practice of the resultant “penal-welfare complex” was supervised probation as a substitute for imprisonment. Scholars of penal reform have argued that the passage of the Probation of Offenders Act 1907, which initiated the professionalization of the probation service, was a key moment in this transition. With it, such arguments hold, England took a substantial step from having a discretionary, moralized criminal justice system toward having a standardized, bureaucratic one.

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Maurice Vanstone , “Mission Control: The Origins of a Humanitarian Service,” Probation Journal 51 (2004): 38

William McWilliams , “The Mission to the English Police Courts 1876–1935,” The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 22 (1983): 129–47

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John Briggs , Christopher Harrison , Angus McInnes , and David Vincent , Crime and Punishment in England: An Introductory History (London: Routledge, 1996)

Geoffrey Pearson , Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears (London: Palgrave–Macmillan, 1983)

Stuart Hall and his collaborators ( Charles Crichter , Tony Jefferson , John Clarke , and Brian Roberts ) in the groundbreaking anthology that emerged from the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1978)

Barbara Littlewood and Linda Mahood , “Prostitutes, Magdalenes and Wayward Girls: Dangerous Sexualities of Working-Class Women in Victorian Scotland,” Gender & History 3 (1991): 160–75

Andrew Davies , “‘These Viragoes Are No Less Cruel Than the Lads’: Young Women, Gangs and Violence in Late Victorian Manchester and Salford,” British Journal of Criminology 39 (1999): 7289

Martin Wiener's Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Stephen Inwood , “Policing London's Morals: The Metropolitan Police and Popular Culture, 1829–1850,” London Journal 15 (1990), 136

Phil Handler , “Intoxication and Criminal Responsibility in England, 1819–1920,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 33 (2013): 255

Gareth Stedman Jones , The Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1832–1982 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984)

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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