Three little girls are failed by a penny-pinching state

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After a campaign by Mary Carpenter and others Parliament passed the Reformatory Schools Act in 1854. This piece of legislation allowed magistrates to send children (up to the age of 16) to a state certified reformatory school for a period of 2 to 5 years. Carpenter and her colleagues believed that juvenile offenders needed to be removed from bad influences and environments and given an opportunity for an education and training for a new life. She and Russell Scott had pioneered the reform with their school at Kingswood near Bristol, which opened in 1852.

It was worthy innovation but it was undermined by at least two things: a lack of money and the imperative that all juvenile convicts should spend time in a prison first (usually about 2-4 weeks). The latter was to meet the demands of society; rarely a good way to conduct penal policy.

The problem was that without proper state funding the number of reformatories established was limited and the levels of staffing always insufficient. Without the space to hold juveniles many were simply returned to their parents once they had served their initial sentences and those in care were not always given the education promised because there weren’t enough staff to supervise them adequately.

Eliza Wood, Emma Major and Margaret Hawkins are just three examples of the problems the reformatory movement encountered in its early years. The three girls, with an average age of 10, had been convicted of stealing at the Lambeth Police Court in the spring of 1860. When it was explained to Mr Norton, the magistrate, that girls’ mothers were ‘drunken and dissipated women’ living in an area around Kent Street that was notorious for crime and prostitution, he decided to use the new option allowed by law. He sentenced them to three weeks in prison to be followed by four years in a certified reformatory.

The girls were taken to the house of correction on Wandsworth Common but at the end of their term the prison governor wrote to Mr Norton. He apologised but said it was impossible for him to send the girls on to a reformatory because there wasn’t one that could take them.

The only certified school in London was at Hampstead, and that was full. Indeed they had already turned away another child that Norton had sent their way: Hannah Reynolds (convicted in February 1860). The governor had been trying to place the trio at a reformatory ‘in the country’ but so far he’d had no success. As a result there was nothing he could do but send them back to Lambeth and the dubious ‘care’ of their parents.

Various charities existed to help juvenile offenders and the governor assured Norton that he had tried to enlist their support but that they too had been unable to help. It seems that the new legislation was the victim of its own success; so keen were magistrates to use the option of sending children away that the reformatories simply couldn’t cope with the numbers.

I am firm believer in the necessity of spending money on criminal justice, whether that be on police, prisons or the courts. This country has a very long history of penny pinching when it comes to penal policy, sometimes in the misguided notion that treating criminals harshly by making their environment as unpleasant as possible somehow prevents others from criminality.

It doesn’t. All that is achieved is to brutalise those locked up or to make it harder for offenders to return to society and find work on release. This simply perpetuates the cycle of offending.

We have seen what fewer police on the streets means for our society: it means higher levels of violent crime and wilful disregard for the laws of the road. We can also see what the result of austerity in the court service is, as several recent rape cases have collapsed because insufficient resources have been deployed to allow a thorough disclosure of information that might be useful to defendants.

These three little girls (aged 10, 9 and 10) should never have been sent to the Surrey house of correction at Wandsworth (later the prison that now bears that name). But the age of criminal responsibility was low and children were routinely caught up in the justice system and flogged, imprisoned, transported, or even executed on rare occasions. Mary Carpenter’s vision was the right one for the time: the separation of children from the poverty and destitution that overwhelmed them in Britain’s growing urban and industrial districts. Sadly the government of the day only paid lip service to this vision and so the reformatory movement was hamstrung from its birth.

If we want to deal properly with crime and its causes we need to invest the time, money and effort in it, not be constantly looking at ways of saving money which we justify with a level of analysis worthy only of the most populist of modern tabloid newspapers.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, May 2, 1860]

One thought on “Three little girls are failed by a penny-pinching state

  1. Quite a pitch for decent resourcing of penal policy – excellent, although as a historian you probably realise that money spent on offenders is not a vote catcher!

    Like

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