The Philosophy of Crime

While in the midst of preparing lectures on seventeenth-century Reformed confessions, I happened upon this interesting  piece (not least given the ongoing debates about prison-reform here in NZ) in the Marlborough Express (from 1886) on ‘The Philosophy of Crime’:

‘It is not often that a prisoner enters into a disquisition upon the philosophy of crime, but one Henry Barr, convicted of sheep stealing before Mr Justice Williams a few days ago, unpacked his heart, and made a remarkable confession as to what the Yankees would call his natural cussedness. Had he been theologically inclined, he might have held himself up as a fine example of the doctrine of original sin, or of the Calvinistic idea of predestination according to the Westminster Confession of Faith. “Once a thief always a thief” is the view commonly held by the police. In Barr’s case there is certainly a good deal to support it. The prisoner stated that there was nothing but a record of evil deeds against him since he was a lad. As far as temptation to crime was concerned, he looked upon himself as a helpless baby. His experience was that a man once in prison could not keep out of it. This conclusion he had arrived at was that he was naturally inclined to evil, and that, in spite of having had good parents and most worthy brothers and sisters, he had given up all hope of struggling against fate. What perplexed him most was the problem that often presented itself to his mind during the lonely hours of solitary confinement. “Am I responsible for what I do?” That he had not been able to solve. The judge answered the question in the affirmative, for he sentenced the man to 10 years imprisonment, adding, however, the somewhat illogical remark (considering that the prisoner had repeatedly undergone long sentences) that the effect of punishment was to act as a deterrent in the repetition of crime. The history of this convict, like that of many others, is a proof that punishment very frequent has no effect as a deterrent of crime. It is well known that the attempts at reforming criminals made within our gaols are complete failures. When a reform is effected it is accomplished outside the prison, and has its basis in giving the prisoner a decent start in life. The Salvation Army and the Discharged Prisoner’s Aid Society have done excellent work in this direction. It is to be regretted that they did not get the opportunity of trying their hand on Barr. The prison whose discharged inmates trouble the State again the least is one in which an elaborate system of compulsory education is followed. As long as we rely upon the perfunctory performance of a chaplain’s duty, our gaol system will produce but an infinitesimally small percentage of reformed characters’. – Marlborough Express, Volume XXII, Issue 25, 30 January 1886, 2.

Chesterton on crime

‘You may think a crime horrible because you could never commit it. I think it horrible because I could commit it. You think of it as something like an eruption of Vesuvius; but that would not really be so terrible as this house catching on fire.’ – G. K. Chesterton, G. K. The Penguin Complete Father Brown (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 587.