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The Criminal and the Community
Part I - Chapter I - The Criminal and the Criminologists


PEOPLE were never more anxious to reform their neighbours than they are in our day. Everyone admits the widespread existence of misery, degradation, and destitution; and many seem to think that the presence of these evils is a modern phenomenon.. Any man who has reached middle age and who has lived and worked among the masses of the people knows better. The evils are not new, but their widespread recognition is.

For ages the few have been the governors of the many, and the governed have neither had the means nor the ability to communicate with their rulers and with one another. In our day the ends of the earth have been brought together by the invention of the engineer, and the schoolmaster has been abroad among the people. The writer reaches a larger contemporary audience, and the message of the speaker is carried over a  greater area than was ever before possible. Whether this has been wholly an advantage may be questioned; but there can be no doubt that things that were hidden have been made manifest, and one result has been that laws and institutions which our fathers accepted have been placed on their trial.

Our system of dealing with criminals has not escaped criticism and has not borne it well. Like all systems, it is based largely on the assumption that men are, or ought to be, of one pattern. It is charged with failing to reform those who come under its sway; but there is nothing to show that it was designed for their reformation.

Men are brought under it as a punishment; and their acts, not their personality, are the cause of their imprisonment.

Experience has shown that the military man who applies impartially a set of rules to those who come under him has not been a success when placed in charge of an institution for dealing with offenders. It is not that he is less human than others, but that he is more rigid. Differences among those placed in his charge have always been recognised ; for instance, they could not all be treated as though they were the same height, nor could it be assumed that it was possible to secure uniformity amongst them in this respect; but only the most obvious differences were regarded. Even elementary classifications could not be left to the man whose duty it was to administer rules, and so the doctor’s aid was obtained in order to sort out those who were physically unfit to do any but light work; those to whom the diet was unsuited; and those who required to have special privileges granted them lest the system killed them. It is sometimes much easier to call in the doctor than to get rid of him; and largely on account of his work it has been shown that all classifications hitherto made have been inadequate. In the name of science he demands still further classifications.

Men can only be placed in classes because of certain qualities they have in common. Every classification must neglect individual differences ; and as it is these that mark men off one from another, any system or method of dealing with men will fail in so far as they are left out of account. The treatment of the criminal is not a medical question. It is a social question.

A medical training is of more use to a man who is to study the subject than a military training would be. It is important to be able to form a rational opinion on the physical and mental capacity of a man; to know whether he suffers from any disease which impairs his faculties and to be able to direct treatment to the cure of that disease; but a considerable degree of knowledge regarding these things may coexist with an amazing amount of ignorance regarding the social conditions under which the person examined has been brought up and formed. Give the medical man head and, so far as he is merely a medical man, he will be a more expensive nuisance than the military administrator.

A great deal has been written about the study of the criminal, but any such study is defective and can only be misleading in so far as it is not a study of offenders in relation to their circumstances. “Criminal” is as loose a term as “tradesman.” It may mean anything, but so far as any real study is concerned it usually means nothing of any importance except to the printing and allied trades. When the character of the prisoner is estimated by men whose writings show no knowledge of his outside life, and is confined mainly to an enumeration of the selected physical, and imagined mental, characters of men while in prison, no study of the subject has been made that is worth any consideration, save for the purpose of formulating a theory without taking the trouble of ascertaining the important facts.

The study of the criminal has mainly been based on observation and examination of persons in prison; but in prison the criminal is not himself. He whose obedience the law could not command, who kicked against restraint, is now compelled to direct all his acts under authority. His life has been arranged for him, and he might as well run his head against the wall as refuse to obey. Everything is done with regularity and quietness, and the monotony of it all oppresses him. His inclinations are not consulted; his anger not regarded, except it transgress the rules. Outside he may have a reputation for wit and sociability; in prison he has no encouragement to show these qualities. Very likely he will talk freely to any official person who is of an enquiring turn of mind; he may be glad to have the chance ; but he is on his guard, and will not communicate any information that may get his friends into trouble and himself into bad repute among them, unless he is going to gain a good deal by it; and not always even then. He learns to take advantage of every opening that offers any chance of increased comfort to himself, and he may readily make a general confession of sin and promise of amendment if thereby he can gain sympathy and obtain privileges. It is not surprising that he should behave in this manner—the principle of making friends with the mammon of unrighteousness is not unknown outside prison—but it is strange that people who might be supposed to know the conditions in which he is placed should talk as though the criminal were usually a stupid kind of person.

Any person who offends against the penal laws of the community in which he lives may be sent to prison ; whether he be called an offender or a criminal will depend on consideration of points that are technical. Generally speaking, persons convicted of offences against the person or against property are classed as criminals, while those who have transgressed against public order—as in breaches of the peace, etc.—are classed as offenders. “An Act for the more effectual Prevention of Crime” (34 & 35 Victoria, cap. 112, sec. 20) defines the word “Crime” to mean “in Scotland any of the Pleas of the Crown, any theft, which in respect of any aggravation, or of the amount in value of the money, goods, or things stolen may be punished with penal servitude, any forgery, and any uttering base coin, or the possession of such coin with intent to utter the same.” The Pleas of the Crown are murder, robbery, rape, and wilful fire-raising. Those who have been convicted of crime as defined by the section quoted would properly bo called criminals, but it is obvious that the name is applied and is applicable to many who do not fall under the definition. In practice the treatment of prisoners who have been convicted of offences is the same as that of those who have been convicted of crimes, when the sentence is one of imprisonment. The distinction between them is a technical one. If he is to be judged by the act of which he has been found guilty, the same person may at one time be called a criminal and at another time an offender.

As a matter of fact, it is very difficult to draw the line between crimes and offences; and it is not uncommon to find that a man who has committed a heinous crime is not so wicked a character as another who has never been guilty of more than a petty offence.

The largest number of persons in prison have been convicted of minor transgressions and have been dealt with in the police courts. Many of these offences do not differ in character from those which engage the attention of the higher courts. Their gravity is estimated either by the result of the act, or the bad record of the person committing it, or both factors together. Thus if in the course of a quarrel one person should strike another and bleed his face, the police magistrate will assess the damage done to society; but if the blow break the injured person’s nose, the case will pass to the sheriff. If a man in a drunken “spree” lift a pair of boots from a shop-door, the bailie will probably deal with him; but if, drunk or sober, he has been in the habit of taking other people’s property, he may be sent to a higher court.

The law differs in the same country at different times. It is the minimum standard of conduct to which all members of the community are required to conform, and, as public opinion changes, it undergoes alteration. Men who in one generation have been executed as criminals have been honoured as martyrs in the next, while acts which at one time have been regarded as meritorious have at another time been severely punished. At no time will an honourable man do all that the law permits him to do, for his standard of conduct is higher than, and in advance of, the law. But a man may live a thoroughly vicious life ; he may lie, act dishonestly, be cruel and vindictive—in short, break any or all of the ten commandments—and yet keep within the law.

The law differs in different parts of the same country at the same time, and a man may find himself brought under its operation in one district for doing something which is permissible in another. This is a result of the special powers given to corporations, or is due to the adoption by one local authority of permissive legislation which a neighbouring authority has not adopted. It may be very puzzling to a stranger, but the principle of allowing the more enlightened districts freedom to improve their administration is at the back of it; whether they could not find a better way of carrying out their purposes than by sending to prison those who offend against them is another question altogether.

Even under similar laws the administration may be different. The more laws there are and the more rigid their administration, the greater will be the number of offenders.

All kinds of people break the law. In some social positions there is less opportunity for doing so than in others, but the conditions in which many are placed make it easier for them to offend against certain regulations'than to conform to them.

All who are brought to prison for the first time are not first offenders. In some cases they have had a long and successful career before being apprehended, but even in these cases the physical and mental characteristics that would mark them off from others among whom they have been living are not apparent. A man’s character and his characteristics are the result of interaction between outside influences and inherent faculties. He acquires habits of body and of mind, and they leave their mark on him.

Vice and crime are not the same thing, nor have they any necessary relationship. Though generally the result of a vicious impulse or intention, there is hardly a crime in the calendar that might not be committed by a person acting from a higher moral standard than that set by the law. On the other hand, a vicious person may indulge in almost any vice and yet keep clear of the law; it all depends on how he does it. A dishonest person, if he puts his hand in the pocket of another and abstracts the contents, may be sent to prison; but if by appealing to the cupidity of his neighbours he can get them to put their hands in their own pockets and hand him over the proceeds in order that they may share in the El Dorado he has invented, he robs them just as effectively and is not sent to prison. He may become a pillar of society and a legislator.

When people are sent to prison for the first time all that has been determined is the fact that they have been guilty of breaking the law. There is no justification for assuming that their characters are, on the whole, worse than those of others. Some of them may have committed very wicked crimes; but, except in a few cases, a thorough investigation of all the attendant circumstances might modify any impressions derived from the trial. Even the commission of a fiendish act is not incompatible with a disposition that is usually and mainly good. We do not in practice assume that a man is a bad man because he has done a bad thing, any more than we credit him with being a good man because he has done a good thing. When the evil he has done has taken a criminal form we are as little entitled to judge the man by the act we condemn.

The fact that a person is in prison hinders any attempt to study him. The investigator begins with a prejudice against him because of the crime he has committed. Yet it is the most common thing to hear people who have known a prisoner intimately for years say that they could not have believed he would do the thing he has done. These people are quite as fit to judge character as those who are called scientific investigators, and they have better opportunities for doing so. They have not seen the weakness of their friends in the form it has taken. The investigator usually sees nothing else.

If those who come to prison for the first time were made the subject of examination, it would be found that they are principally remarkable for the absence of what the books call criminal characteristics.

Prisoners differ as much from one another as people who are law-abiding. No two are alike even among those who have committed similar offences ; and those who enter prison for the first time are not distinguishable in appearance from members of the same social class who have not transgressed the law. That they may develop certain common characteristics as a result of their way of living is true ; and there is a criminal class in the same sense as there is a professional class or an artisan class. The criminal is born and made just as the policeman is born and made. See him early in his career and it is impossible to tell what he is, but when he has undergone his training it may be expected to leave its mark on him which those who know may read with more or less success.

These common characters in the criminal have been laboriously sought for and recorded; measurements have been made and tables compiled ; ratios have been calculated to decimals, and an appearance of scientific precision has been given to the study of the criminal which has led many to the assumption that the writers must know more about the offender than they themselves do. Yet there are few men or women of mature years who have not known with some degree of intimacy at least one person who has sunk into the mire of vice and it may be of crime ; and one such case thoroughly known is a better basis for study of the subject than any amount of tables.

It may be of importance to compare the peculiarities of habitual offenders, but it is of greater use to learn how they acquired them. As for the habitual himself, he is not really the problem. His life is seldom a long one, and even if nothing other than is at present were done to, or for, him, he would die out in a generation. I do not say that the question of what we should do with our habituals is not important, but of much more importance is the devising of means for preventing the wrongdoer from acquiring the habit and joining their ranks. A study of confirmed criminals may be interesting pathology, but it is the study of the beginner in crime that will prevent the formation of the criminal class, in so far as it affords means for enabling us to deal sanely with them.

When an atrocious crime is perpetrated there is intense public interest shown in the criminal. He is examined in a distorted mirror and his parts are magnified. The more extraordinary he is, the more monstrous he appears, the greater the sensation. Yet the ordinary men and the ordinary offences are at once the more common and the more important. Here and there a person may be born with such a crooked disposition that it is difficult to see how he could go straight; just as occasionally one of great wisdom enters the world, or a child with more than the usual number of heads or limbs; but the occurrence is quite exceptional, and it is never profitable to generalise from it.

We have been reproached in this country with failure to make a scientific study of the criminal; and the works of foreign writers have been translated for our example and emulation. They contain a certain amount of information, but its value is not apparent. The importance of a book is not to be measured by the difficulty of understanding it. Big and strange words may as easily mask an absence of useful knowledge as convey a fruitful idea, and the man who has anything of importance to say regarding his neighbour—even though that neighbour is a criminal—does not require a pseudo-scientific jargon in which to say it. The criminal is a man or a woman like the rest of us, and information about his head or liis heels, while it may have a special value in relation to his case, should not be confounded with knowledge of himself. He is something more than a brain or a stomach.

Either the so-called criminal characters are the cause of the man’s wrongdoing, the result of it, or have nothing to do with the matter. If they are the cause of the criminal act, how is it that they are admittedly present in others who are not criminals? It would certainly simplify the work of the police if they knew that they could with any degree of safety look for the perpetrator of certain kinds of crime among men with heads of a given shape; but anyone who glances at the illustrated papers will see for himself as many villainous - looking faces among notable people, even among able people, as he will find in a prison. Our forefathers had a rule that when two persons were charged with the same crime and there was a doubt which of them was guilty, the uglier should be condemned. It is not stated whether the officials and governing classes were at that time chosen for their good looks. Fortunately the practice has long since lapsed.

Unless a peculiarity is shown to have a causal relationship to crime its mere existence proves nothing except the fact that it is there. That in some cases physical defects do cause those who suffer from them to make war on society, is undoubtedly the case; but it is very far indeed from being the rule.

There are many people who are prepared to regard a book as learned if it is sufficiently scrappy and contains figures arranged in a tabular form. Yet figures when they deal with other than very simple things are almost invariably misleading; and the more so as they have such an appearance of exactness. It is easy for any two people to count the number of men in a room and to agree as to the result; but ask them to say how many tall men, how many with black hair, how many blue-eyed, how many straight-nosed— and you will get a different result each time. The figures will be exact—they cannot be otherwise—but your knowledge will be the reverse. If this is apparent in such a simple matter as the recording of physical characters, how much more apparent it is when an attempt is made to classify and generalise on men. Most books admit that there are not sufficient data on which to base conclusions, and then proceed to suggest conclusions. The whole science of criminology is illustrated by the composite photographs published gravely as contributions; for a composite is a photograph of nobody at all. It is obtained by the superposition of photographs of different persons, and is itself different from any of them. It may represent them all as they ought to be, but it does not represent any of them as he is. It is the criminal in the abstract—who does not exist. It conveys in itself a warning against averages, for it is a pictorial presentment of an average.

An average is the mean of different numbers. In dealing with masses of people—feeding them, for instance—by providing a certain average supply for each, all may be satisfied ; but whenever the average is applied to individuals it is misapplied, and one finds he has too much, another that he has too little. Measure two men; one is 5 ft. 8 in., the other 5 ft. 4 in.; the average height of both is 5 ft. 6 in., which is the height of neither. So when we have averages of height, weight, etc., given in the case of criminals, we know that we have been told nothing about any of them. The other physical characters of criminals in prison have been noted without any attempt having been made to ascertain whether, and if so when and how, they were acquired, and we are invited to contemplate a number of twisted and bloated faces, many of which could easily be matched among the non-criminals. See these men and women before debauchery has left its mark on them and they are no uglier than some of us who are set over them.

As for the assessment of the mental characters of prisoners, the value of it will largely depend on the ability of the examiner to place himself in touch with them. Few people believe nowadays that by feeling the knobs on the outside of a man’s head you can tell the faculties within, far less whether these faculties will be used for good or ill; and we are not likely to advance the study of the criminal by founding conclusions on the measurements of his head, facial angle, etc. The new phrenology differs from the old in respect that it changes its terms and insists on more exactness of measurement. Like the old, it may be fairly successful in judging men after they have shown their qualities.

No one has yet discovered a reliable means of estimating the nature, quality, and amount of a man’s mental powers from his appearance. We may learn what he says or does, but we can never be sure what he thinks. In practice we are all continually forming estimates of those we meet. Some judge by the clothes, some by the expression, most of us not knowing how. So far as our impressions are concerned, however we think they have been arrived at, we all make mistakes and have all to revise our opinions. The man who prides himself on his ability to read character is usually the man who makes the most mistakes; his confidence misleads his judgment. Even the shrewdest are occasionally deceived after many and varied opportunities of arriving at a correct estimate of their friends or enemies, yet for his own purposes each man’s judgment may be, in the main, satisfactory and no one troubles about his neighbour’s methods; but when they are erected into a science it is time to protest.

The size and shape of the head, its malformations and asymmetry, may be measured with a fair amount of success. This and more has been done with a view to the future identification of individuals; but the theory underlying the practice of taking such measurements is that no two criminals are alike. The theory the criminologists seek to establish is that they are all very much alike. It is stated that so many men who have committed crimes have heads of a certain conformation, have peculiarities in the character of their skulls. If these physical deviations have a causal relation to their conduct, since the heads cannot be altered the criminals are therefore outwith reform. The Church-people, on the other hand, hold that all wrongdoing springs from “the heart”—not meaning thereby the physical organ so called. You cannot give a man a new head free from the objectionable shape; but men have developed a new spirit, and from being bad have become good citizens without undergoing any physical alteration; so that after all it would appear that “The heart aye’s, the part aye, That makes us right or wrong.”


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