By A CHAIRMAN OF QUARTER SESSIONS
pRIME among juveniles has assumed serious, if not alarm- ing, proportions. It is now one of our major social problems. In his Penal Reform in England, Mr. S. K. Ruck, a former Assistant-Director of the Borstal Association, says that "one child out of every 8o throughout the country between the ages of to and 14 is found guilty of an indictable offence." Of the many reports by Chief Constables and other competent authorities which I have considered—and I am not without a long personal experience of the matter—that of the Birming- ham Juvenile Court Justices is, I think, typical. "During the year," it states, "2,680 children under 17 (2,283 boys and 397 girls) appeared before the court, as against 1,985 in 1939. The more serious cases have risen from 1,266 to 1,672."
It is undoubtedly true that during this war, as in the last, the number of offences by young delinquents has substantially increased. From 14,325 brought before the justices in 1913, the number rose to 24,407 in 1917, and declined to 13,999 in 1919. When the official figures for last year are published it will be seen that the war-time rise has been such as to give all concerned not only food for much thought, but, it is hoped, a spur to prompt action. Not, indeed, that action should be delayed till then. Steps -to deal with the grave and growing problem should be taken before the situation becomes still more deplor- able, and, it may be, gets out of hand.
The war-increase is attributed to a number of causes— evacuation, the dispersal and break-up of families and home- life, lack of parental control, temptations during the black-out periods, and so forth. But that has to do with the aggravation of the evil. What have to be tackled are the root-causes which brought youngsters in their thousands to the courts before the war and which, unless effective preventive measures are evolved and applied, will perpetuate and perhaps aggravate the situation in the future days of peace. For this is not a mere war-time problem.
In the year immediately preceding the war, of the total of 78,463 persons found guilty of indictable offences, 36 per cent. were under 17, 15,559 under 14, and 12,317 between 14 and 17. There were 56,192 persons found guilty of larceny, and of these 10,874 were under 14, and 8,876 between that age and 17. It is not without interest to note that those larcenies included 7,956 thefts from shops and stalls, 4,166 of pedal bicycles, 3,733 from unattended vehicles, 3,528 from automatic machines and meters, and 3,597 cases of "larceny by a servant." No fewer than 4,006 under the age of 14, and 2,761 between 14 and 17 were found guilty of breaking and entering.
Much attention—perhaps too much attention—has been, and IS being, paid to the punishment and correction of offenders (quite necessary, of course, if no other means be available of dealing with the matter). In this connexion there is widespread complaint about the limited powers of magistrates. They may send young offenders to approved schools, but such schools are ill crowded to capacity ; they may despatch them to remand homes pending vacancies in the schools, but those homes, too, are lull ; they may board them out in suitable families, but such families are hard to come by, especially in these days ; they illaY impose a fine and order the parents to pay it. These methods are completely ineffective, as experience has shown; to reduce the volume of delinquency. Unhappily, crime among the Young has been taken for granted; and private and official methods have been devised to deal with offenders instead of a large and understanding effort to prevent the commission of offences. A term in an approved school all too often hardens the offender and turns him into a persistent course of crime. An ex- perienced detective once said to me : "Send a youth to a Borstal institution and you complete his education as a criminal." Too sweeping a charge, I have no doubt, but I have on many occa- sions been impressed by the painful fact that when a police officer-reads to the court a prisoner's record, detention at an approved school, and, not infrequently, at a Borstal institution as well, figures in it. In my view, the fundamental objection to the approved school, or any similar system, is that it- brings together a com- munity of offenders, some worse than others. They live together night and day, and have ample opportunity to discuss their old, and to plan new, offences. They know that they are undergoing punishment, and they rebel. In their formative and impressionable years they are away from those currents of influence best calculated to destroy criminal tendencies. And the really bad lads—and some are—exercise a demoralising influence upon their fellows. I should like to see developed a system under which young offenders could live and work among those who are not offenders, from association with whom there would issue a wholesome influence upon those who, perhaps under much temptation, have gone wrong. Remove the atmosphere of that "stern discipline," of which, according to what we hear in the courts, most of the committed offenders stand in such dire need.
Why, for example, could not large numbers of these boys (of suitable types) be sent to work on farms, with proper provi- sion made for their education and recreation? In holidays, at any rate, they would associate with the thousands of healthy- minded lads who in future—if forecasts can be relied upon— will be engaged upon agricultural work. Vocational training should be more widely developed. Harness the energies of the youngsters to work in which they find an absorbing interest, and you stamp out their evil trends and make of them useful craftsmen.
These and other methods that could be indicated deal with the cure: what should be more thoroughly examined are the methods of prevention. And in this vital matter schoolmasters should play an important part. They have an immense influence and opportunity; and the inculcation of a teaching calculated to prevent youth from falling into crime should play a large part in the curriculum of every school. If the Board of Education would do more, the police would have to do less. Morals are far more important than mathematics, and character than caligraphy.
, A more extensive use should be made of the power to remove boys and girls from homes for "care and protection," and a wider interpretation given to that phrase so as to include care and protection not merely from ill-treatment but from environmental influences that are prejudicial. In this, school- masters and our excellent probation-officers could act in close concert. Put boys and girls in such cases in suitable lodgings or hostels and so prevent them from committing offences into which they would otherwise drift—or be driven, for parents in a large number of cases are not guiltless in the instigation of crimes by their children. I have no doubt at all that a very large proportion of both boys and girls can be saved from that first offence which all too often leads on to others.