Posts Tagged ‘criminal class’

“492 Prisoners in Penitentiary,” Kingston Daily Standard. September 5, 1912. Page 02.

Largest Number Since Year 1839.

Sixty Lifers Also Mark Record – Fewer Women Convicts – Parole Release Nearly 600.

Portsmouth Penitentiary now boasts a population of four hundred and nine-two, the largest since 1839, when six hundred and twenty names were on the roll call. Of these, sixty are life prisoners, also a record number. Despite these figures there has been a slight decrease in the number of convictions especially those of a serious nature. This is because of the changed attitude of the judges in regard to capital punishment. Of the 442 souls only eleven are women. This much smaller than usual, the record being 30.

The parole system has been in effect since 1900 and since that time 580 convicts have been released upon the conditions of the act. This, of course, must be taken into consideration when one looks at the figures in total.

Upon the whole the conditions among criminals are better than they were even a few years ago. The parole system is one feature which has been instrumental in reducing that criminal type of convict, who disheartened and desperate, has been truly a menace to society. The realms of insanity and crime have also been more clearly defined, with encouraging results

Read Full Post »

“On referring to the report of the Montreal Jail, it will be seen that the continued increase in the commitments forms a lamentable feature in it. In 1861 the commitments were 3,436; and in 1862, 3,974; an increase of 538, or 15.6 per cent. The same remark which is applied to Toronto is equally true of Montreal. There is a jail population in the latter city, as in the former, which circulates through the streets to the city courts, and from the city courts to the City prison, where it sojourns for a specified number of days, to issue again from the gates and make the usual circuit.of the streets and courts as before. Of the 3,974 committed, 1,526 were persons recommitted.

There has no record been kept here, unfortunately, of the re-commitments of the same person, except for 1862. I cannot, therefore, go back upon previous years, as I have been able to do with respect to the corresponding class in Toronto; but I have taken from the books a list of 649 individuals of those’recommitted during last year.

Those 649 persons had been consequently 2,146 times before the courts in 186 The keeper of the jail, Mr. McGinn, and his assistant, Mr. Laurie, were also kind enough to go over the books with me, and point out tome a list of 75 of the most notorious inhabitants of the prison, giving me the length of time for:which they have been regular frequenters of it, and the number of days generally intervening between their discharge and their re-commitment. Although those officer communicated the facts from memory only, there is not the slightest doubt of their general accuracy.

I confess that – until my duties led me to inquire into and reflect upon the state of crime, as shown by the Common Jail Returns – I had no idea of such results; and I only fear that I will fail in conveying to the minds of others the convictions now impressed upon my own with such force as to induce remedy. Truly do the officers of the prison, who are brought daily and hourly into contact with this moving mass of, crime, declare that prison reform is not to be looked for, so long as the remedy is not applied at its source. The present state of the law, and the custom of the Police and Recorder’s Courts, actually tend to foster crime, and to train up families of criminals to, the second and third generations, in the practice of their profession.

l order to show how the present system acts, I may give a few instances, as related by Mr. McGinn and his deputy, whose known reputation for accuracy and truth places the facts beyond a question.

Mary R., wife of Michael R., was committed, with a child at her breast, as a loose and disorderly person by the Recorder, on the 27th October last, for one month. When in prison she was visited by her husband and a son of about eleven years of age. On the 27th November she was discharged. On the following day, the whole family husband, wife, son and infant – were committed as vagrants, on their own confession, by the Recorder, for another month. On the 28th December they were discharged, and on the 12th January last they were all again re-committed.

John D. was first committed for larceny in 1840, and, frequently afterwards. After a few re-commitments of himself, his wife was committed along with him, having a child in her arms. D. at last was sent to the Penitentiary, and the wife made the jail her home by means of the short commitment system. The child became prostitute at eleven years of age, and the time that she is not now on the streets, she is in the prison.

J. D. and his family were committed as vagrants about eighteen years ago. Two daughters, being then more children, were reared up in jail.’ The parents are now dead, but the girls became prostitutes at thirteen years of age, and are still frequenters of the prison. One of them ‘has now a bastard in her arms, to be trained up in the same steps in which the grand-mother and mother had walked.

John F. became a vagrant about fifteen years ago; and his son has been reared principally in jail. He turned out an expert thief and is now in the Reformatory.

Thomas M. and Pierre L. became inmates of the jail, and had also each a son, who after training in jail, are now in the Reformatory.

In 1848, J. C. was sent to the Penitentiary, after being a regular inmate of the Montreal Jail for some years before. His Montreal Jail life was shared also by his wife and three children. The mother and two children left Montreal soon after the father had been sent to Kingston, but the oldest girl, about eleven years of age, was already a prostitute, and remained.

J. T., senr., was sent to the Penitentiary in September last, after being an inmate of the jail for some time. His son, 15 years old, was sent five years to the Reformatory, and his wife was sent five times to jail during the last year. There are two other children of. whom the oldest is eight years. They will, in all likelihood, follow in their parents’ stops.

Instances might be multiplied to any extent of the efficiency of the Montreal Jail as an academy for crime. A very considerable number of the criminals now about the city, as well as many in the Penitentiary, have spent terms of imprisonment in this jail, before they reached 12 years of age, some of them at first with one or both parents. At the present moment, there are about a dozen children in the prison with their mothers, who, ten years after this, will be thieves and prostitutes on the streets of the city. They will have acquired – all their education, at the government expense, in the school for crime established in this province.

What is the remedy for all this? The first step, undoubtedly, is to put an end to short commitments. If offenders make it clear, by their frequent appearance before a court, that they cannot keep out of jail, the law ought to take them according to their acts, and make a previous sentence a portion of the fresh crime, increasing the imprisonment every time to adults, and in the case of boys sending them to the Reformatory before a second crime is committed. It is not to be wondered at that the expense of the administration of justice reaches the figure which the public accounts exhibit from year to year. I have shewn from the books at Montreal, that 649 worthless vagrants have been tried 2146 times! These re-commitients proceed from the Recorder’s and the Police Courts, and if we reckon the expense of the police, the witnesses and the clerks, and assume them at the moderate rate of $5 for each arrest and trial, we have the sum of $16,560 expended in producing crime, instead of repressing it!

In connexion with the repression and punishment of crime is the employment of the prisoners in the common jails; and it is a question of no small importance to the public.

Under present circumstances, it may be said that the employment of male prisoners is next to nothing. At times, when the corporation of Toronto feels inclined to purchase broken stone from the jail, the prisoners are set to work, and so with respect to Montreal. At this moment, however, there have been about 3000 loads of stone in, the yard at the latter city for some time, which the corporation will not purchase, for some reason or another, as it has been suggested, connected with the letting of contracts by the Road Committee.

The females in the Toronto Jail are employed in sewing to an unlimited extent, and at Montreal they are also engaged in picking oakum. The total amount earned from all sources is stated at $500 for Toronto, and $850 for Montreal.

The county jails afford no employments any description for either males or females, with the exception of sawing wood for the stove; and the small towns in which they are situated seem to be as careful not to encourage work being-done in them, as tie corporations of the larger cities. The town council of Guelph, for instance, was offered the lab or of the prisoners at that jail in breaking stone, if they would pay for the transport’ it to and from the prison yard; but they have not yet acted upon the offer.

In a young country like Canada, where labor is of so much value and where the taxes are paid entirely by a class which does labor, it becomes a question of some moment to consider what is to be done with the mass of idleness which is housed, fed and clothed in our prisons. Setting aside the cases of first commitments, in which the sentences may probably be for short periods of imprisonment, and consequently beyond the reach of regular systematizing, there must be; according to my computation, from 1200 to 1500 vagrants and petty depredators, who come and go from the jails as from their home. and, it is to this class that, I think, the attention of the authorities ought to be at once directed. One would think, as all reason would suggest, that an evil so palpable, and of daily occurrence to so great an extent, in every part of the Province,would have forced itself upon the consideration of intelligent men, and compelled a remedy. On the contrary, however,the legislation of Parliament, and the practice of courts of justice have been directly exercised for producing and nursing it. For the class of habitués,the idea of a jail, instead of presenting an aspect of terror or discomfort, offers them one of a pleasing absence of work, and a certainty of warm lodgings, with abundant food. Every now and then, a paragraph may be seen to the effect, that parties named applied the Court to be committed to prison,and it is of frequent occurrence at the Montreal Jail that the vagrants are entrusted with, and alone carry to the prison, .in their own arms, the warrants under which they are committed.

The first stop, it appears obvious, that should be taken, is to make every recommittal itself a crime, as in Scotland it is a crime to be habit and repute thief. Even under the present system, this would afford relief, first, to the public, who suffer from the depredations of this class of offenders; 2nd, to the police force of the cities and-towns which they frequent, affording to the officers, more time for the duty of protecting the peace and preventing offences on their regular beats; besides diminishing the cause.of complaint. now so frequently brought against the police, that they are never to be found when wanted; 3rd, to the inferior Courts, the principal expense of which is rendered necessary by perpetually having to try the cases in which the class referred to are parties.

The next step is, to set these culprits to some description of work, by which the expenses they have thrown upon society may be lessened, if not reimbursed. This may be done, it appears to me, in two ways: either by the establishment of Central Jails (as already recommended by the Board of Inspectors and favorably entertained by the. late Administration), in which their labor may be systematised and rendered productive; or by employing them in the construction of public works.

The system of central jails could be the soonest established, as there are now jails nearly completed well adapted for the purpose. It would also be attended with less expense for supervision and security against escape than the other. But it would have this disadvantage, that only a few descriptions of occupations could be carried on within them, and a considerable time would necessarily elapse before expertness could be looked for, or consequent, profit.

In a central jails, trades might be carried on, in which males and females could be em ployed, as is now exemplified in tho Penitentiary. And with respect to females, especially I seec no reason why they should not be set to work by the Government, in making up clothing for the Volunteers and Militia, of whom there is every prospect now of there being a standing force in the country. It is only the other day that contracts were given out by the Government for 10,000 pairs of trousers for the Provincial troops, the expense of making which might have been readily saved to the public by collecting the females now scattered through the various prisons into one central jail, and giving them that work to do.

The other mode of employing male prisoners – that of constructing public works –  might be attended with ,perhaps, more expense, but, as I view it, with more direct and visible profit to, the community. From the nature of forced labor and-especially that’ criminals, it can be most advantageously carried on, both in respect to its efficiency, and the expenses of supervision, where a good deal is required within a small space. In the construction of harbors, in the building of locks, or in the excavation of heavy cuts, where a large number of hands can be kept under the eyes of a few overseers or guards, such labor can be employed to advantage.

The public have now to employ policemen to watch, to track, and to arrest them, jailers and turnkeys to guard them, and, under any circumstances, to house, to feed and to clothe them. What more would the Govérnment have to do for them, if it compelled them to do some labor in return? Nothing that I can see.

The whole Canadian shore of Lake Erie is destitute of harbours, to which the storm surprised commerce on its waters can flee for refuge: why not set to work a sufficient gang of the able-bodied men now wasting their own lives, and the hard-earned money of fhe industrious classes in the prisons, and keep them at work until, at every favorable point a harbour of refuge is constructed?

…I cannot bring myself to think that it is right that the criminal portion of the population should be the only one not only exempted from exertions, but supported in plenty at the public expense when the country requires the labor of every available man for opening up and improving its communications.”

–  Inspector James Moir Ferres, “SEPARATE REPORT for the year 1862,” from Annual Report of the Board of Inspectors of Asylums, Prisons &c for the year 1862. Sessional Papers of the Province of Canada, Sessional Papers No. 66, 26 Victoria, A. 1863.

Read Full Post »

“City Items,” Montreal Daily Witness, July 12, 1871. Page 03.

Mary Ann Sullivan, a girl of only 10 years of age, who recently escaped from the Reformatory, was arrested yesterday by Constables Armor and Martel, and to-day was sent back to the Reformatory.

Escaped. – Yesterday a boy named Louis Vian, aged 15 years, was arrested by the detectives on suspicion of being concerned in the Gault outrage. The circumstantial evidence against him was very strong, and a handkerchief which belonged to Mr. Gault was also found in his possession. After his arrest, he was put in the cell along with other prisoners to await examination at the Police Court to-day. During the night, however, Master Louis Vian managed to effect his escape by, it is believed, crawling through the ventilator in the cell door. The aperture in question is less than nine inches square, and Vian must have been very dexterous in getting through and afterwards clearing off from the building without being noticed. Three or four persons previously arrested on suspicion of being concerned in the Gault outrage, were to-day shown to Mr. Gault, but the latter failed to recognize any of them, and they were sent to jail as vagrants.

Attempted Imposition By A Carter. – Until cabmen are peremptorily and severly dealt with, their daily tricks and impositions on the public will never be put down. Charles Lapointe, 21, carter, who resides in Craig street, was charged at the Recorder’s Coourt to-day with refusing hire. It appears that on Tuesday morning Mr. Treasurer Black came off the Quebec boat and prisoner was one of several cabmen who solicited hire. Mr. Black hired Lapointe, who on second thoughts wanted to know where he was going, and if to a fire, and finally, with an oath, refused to drive him. Chief Penton gave Lapointe anything but a good character, and His Honor said that this system of carters bullying people and levying black mail must be stopped; and every case proven would be severely punished. Lapointe was fined $8 or one month in jail.

Loafing Vagrants. – At present there seems to be an unusually large number of loafing vagrants about the city. Louis Deschamp, 35, alias Leon Richer, laborer, from St. Urbain street; Michel Dubois, 34, laborer, St. Dominique steet; Xavier Beauvais, 27, carter, carter, Papineau Road, and a disreputable woman named Adeline Lefebvre, 29, were arrested at 5 o’clock this morning by sub-Constables McCormicck and Depatie, who had watched the gang for some two hours previous, when they were in a field off Sherbrooke street. At the Recorder’s Court to-day, it was stated that the prisoners are strongly suspected of being concerned in some recent robberies, and His Honor committed them each for two months; also Joseph Dupont, 20, vagrant, from Campeau street, against whom the detectives are working up a case of burglary.

Sarah Alcock, 44, an old vagrant, Mary Ann Lanigan, 29, and Elizabeth Dunn, 29, both found loitering on Champs de Mars, were each committed for a month; also Mary Ann McDonnell, 45, and Ann Meaney, 23, who were found in a drunken disgraceful state on Logan’s Farm. His Honor said that a law would soon be in force, by which vagrants for second offence may be committed for two years.

Alphonese Labreque, 24, laborer, and who, the police stated, was the ‘fancy man’ of the keeper of a brothel, was arrested along with Joseph St. Jean, 27, stone-cutter, loitering with a prostitute, and they were each fined $2.50 or 15 days in jail.

POLICE COURT – WEDNESDAY. – A woman who was arrested on a charge of breaking a pane of glass in the door of E. Costello, was discharged for lack of evidence.

Edmund Fegan 62, a vagrant from Common street, was arrested for stealing coal on the wharf and was committed as a vagrant for two months,

Eliza O’Brien, wife of James Mourney, of Colborne Avenue, was charged with using insulting language to Catherine Mullins, wife of James Mourney, Jr., and was fined $10.75, including costs, or fifteen days in all.

Damase Piebe, shoemaker for assaulting Augustin Guibord, was fine $7 including costs or 15 days.

George Clarke, Fil, alias Williamson, alias Henderson, charged with stealing four billiard balls belonging to Mr. Chadwick, St. James street, was remanded for examination. The balls were found in his possession, but Clarke says he brought them with him from the United States early in June last.

RECORDER’S COURT – Wednesday – This morning the sheet contained fifty cases, and nearly one-third of those were persons arrested in connection with a house of ill-fame in St. Elizabeth street, where the police made a raid last night. With such a programme before the Court it was no wonder that the place was thronged by those peculiar and miscellaneous personages, the largest proportion of whom are of a vicious character, who watch the rise and fall of the criminal barometer with an interest that is whetted and increasing in proportion as the details are disgusting.

Frederic Lafontaine, 32, agent, or manager of the Toronto House and Edward Rheaume, 24, shoemaker, who got quarrelling and attempted to fight at the door of the above tavern, were each fined $2.50 or 15 days in jail.

Fabien Beaudouin, 22, carter, drunk in Notre Dame street; Daniel Murphy, 40, agent from Quebec, drunk in St. Paul street; François Ganthier, 48, blacksmith, drunk in Panet street; Michael MccGeary, 36, laborer, drunk, in Commissioner street; J. Bte. Deslauriers, 52, laborer, drunk in St Paul street; J. Bte. Braurmter, 58, laborer, drunk in Perthius street; Jos. Power, 19, laborer, drunk in Manufacturer street, and Daniel Gibson, 34, a respectably dressed man, drunk in Cahboulez Square Fire Station, also a woman, were each fined in small sums for being drunk; while Richard McDonnell, 27, baker, drunk in the city cars, was fine $2 or 15 days.

George McNeil, 32, shoemaker, and George McNulty, 55, laborer, both drunk in Lacroi street, and insulting people, were each fined $2.50 or 15 days.

Joseph Howie, 26, shoemaker, was fined $5 or 30 days, for loitering in Campean street with a prostitute, named Adeline Lefebvre, 39, who was committed for a month.

Thomas Cleary, 29, mechanic, residing in Dorchester street, got drunk last night, and was smashing the furniture and threatened to throw his wife out of the window. As the wife failed to appear, Cleary was let off with a fine of $2.50 or 15 days in jail.

Read Full Post »

“Three Men Sent To The Pen,” Whitby Gazette. June 17, 1915. Page 05.

It is no summer day’s pastime to attempt to escape from the Provincial detention camp, if one might so dub the Asylum farm at Whitby. So Robert Armstrong and Louie Waxman have found to their sorrow. Emboldened perhaps by the leniency shown a prisoner last week who tried to escape and failed, and who was remanded for sentence, Armstrong and Waxman made a break for liberty. They were caught, and His Worship the Police Magistrate gave each two years in Kingston Penitentiary – just as an example to others. Another man, Harold Knudson, who was convicted of stealing a horse from Mrs. John Shaw, of Longford, was also sentenced to two years in the Pen. Knudson was out on parole for another offence, when this theft took place. Sheriff Paxton took the three men to Kingston to-day.

Read Full Post »

“Much of the renewed interest in the history of crime and punishment over the
past two decades has centered on various aspects of the nineteenth-century
notion of the existence of a criminal class. Although little of this research
has focused on a systematic examination of recidivists, recidivism was widely
regarded as the defining feature of the criminal class by most penal officials.
Consequently, in an effort to increase our understanding of the recidivist
population and its judicial treatment, this analysis investigated differences
between recidivists and first-time committals to jail in relation to a number
of individual and offense-related factors, as well as in terms of the nature and
extent of recidivism-related differences in case outcomes.

Looking first at the question of the effect of various sociodemographic
and offense-related factors on recidivism, the results show that those with
the greatest probability of repeat committals were unskilled or semiskilled
workers, Canadian born, intemperate, and charged with vagrancy. Clearly
then, the probability of being committed to jail more than once in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not equally distributed across
all groups in society. Importantly, however, those most likely to be repeat
committals and to be officially defined as recidivists bore little resemblance to
contemporary stereotypes about the criminal class. In particular, contrary to
nineteenth-century beliefs, neither illiteracy nor Irish immigrant status were
significant predictors of recidivism. Nor did repeat committals conform to
the stereotype of professional criminals since they were less likely than firsttime
committals to be charged with larceny. By and large, recidivists were
petty offenders arrested for drunkenness and vagrancy who represented no
great threat to public safety.

These results differ in some ways from prior research, which suggests
that few factors differentiated recidivists from first-time committals in Ontario
local jails. In the most systematic and comprehensive analysis to date,
Michael Katz, Michael Doucet, and Mark Stern (1982) found that only gender
and offense type differentiated repeat committals from those jailed only
once in Wentworth County Jail, Ontario, for the period from 1850 to 1866.
That is, women were more likely than men to be recidivists, and recidivists
were most often charged with various public order offenses. Other more limited
analyses of Ontario jail registers in the nineteenth century reinforce the
conclusions that recidivists were most often charged with drunkenness or
vagrancy, and while women were not necessarily more likely than men to be
repeat offenders, women recidivists tended to have more extensive records
of repeated committals than male recidivists for public order offenses.

In contrast, the results from this analysis suggest that several other factors
including birthplace and intemperance clearly distinguished recidivists
from first-time committals across the decades spanning the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. In addition, of particular significance is the
finding that those with the greatest probability of repeat committals were
in the lowest occupational groups. Taken together, the social and offense related
traits which distinguished recidivists both reflected and reinforced
their greater social marginality, and they serve to highlight most clearly

the disproportionate criminalization of those at the bottom of the social

It has become axiomatic in recent historical studies to emphasize the
ways in which the criminal justice system and the idea of a criminal class
from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries operated to control the
lower classes and to reinforce the larger structures of inequality in society.
The findings from this study suggest that what differentiated recidivists was
not so much that they constituted a distinct criminal class in the sense promulgated
by authorities, but rather that the characteristics of social and economic
disadvantage which typified jail populations as a whole were simply
more pronounced among repeat committals. As in the United States, in
Canada throughout the period considered, those who were most vulnerable
to repeat committals were the visible populations that already constituted
the focus of most police attention—the poor, the apparently idle or
transient, as well as those who were drunk, disorderly, or rowdy in public
places. The preeminent focus of municipal police forces on these offenders
and offenses contributed to a self-fulfilling prophecy. To the extent that
immorality and idleness were viewed as self-evident causes of criminality,
aggressive enforcement of these offenses was thought to prevent more serious
criminal depredations among these offenders. At the same time, defining a
criminal class through aggressive enforcement of these behaviors strengthened
and justified prevailing stereotypes of crime and criminality. In this
way, the dominant ideology of crime and criminals was operationalized and


The examination of case outcomes revealed both similarities and differences
in the factors associated with the harsher outcome of a prison sentence
for recidivists and first-time committals. As expected, controlling for all other
factors, recidivists were punished more severely than first-time committals,
being more likely to receive a prison sentence. However, that a large proportion
of recidivists (and the majority of first-time committals) was simply discharged
without a prison sentence suggests that judges in Middlesex County
as elsewhere did not regard or treat a significant proportion
of those they dealt with on a daily basis as constituting a dangerous
criminal class representing a serious threat to society. Consequently, despite
the intense concern of prison officials with recidivism and calls for judges to
impose harsher sentences, judges themselves appear to have been less convinced of the need to impose prison sentences on a sizable proportion of
repeat committals who came before the courts.

Beyond this finding, the basic fact of social inequality was an important
independent influence on sentence outcome among first-time committals,
with unskilled workers being significantly more likely than higher occupational
groups to be convicted and sentenced to prison. As well, within both
groups, offenders who were single, or who had more than one arrest charge,
were much more likely to receive the harsher outcome of a prison sentence.
A further similarity noted between recidivists and first-time committals was
that offenders charged with assault were least likely to receive a prison sentence.
In large part, this finding reflects the fact that only cases of the least
serious form of assault were included in this analysis. Throughout the era
considered, most cases of common assault consisted of relatively minor disputes
and quarrels between family members and friends and drunken altercations
associated with tavern life, which the courts did not regard or punish
as particularly serious offenses.

Notwithstanding these similarities, some important recidivism-related
differences in the determinants of case outcomes emerged, most notably the
differential effect of gender, moral habits, offense type, and time period. First,
the harsh treatment of women offenders was reserved for recidivists as gender
was not a significant determinant of case outcomes for first-time committals.
Although women represented a small proportion of recidivists, even after
controlling for all other variables, they were punished more severely than
male recidivists.These results reinforce the conclusions from prior historical
research with respect to the ways in which gender stereotypes, and women’s
social status, were translated into the harsher treatment of women offenders
deemed to be immoral or hopelessly incorrigible by prevailing standards. Throughout this era, most women were arrested for various public
order offenses and especially vagrancy, which included prostitution. Moreover,
as noted previously, the available evidence suggests that women tended
to accumulate more extensive arrest records for these offenses than men. The greater loss of respectability experienced by women who came before the
courts, and the unforgiving condemnation of women who repeatedly violated
expected standards of feminine conduct, are exemplified in the disproportionately
harsh dispositions meted out to female recidivists.


Second, despite the importance attached to alcohol as a cause of crime
during this period—a belief given official recognition in the recording of prisoners’
drinking habits in the jail registers—intemperance was a significant
determinant of a prison sentence only among first-time committals. It would
appear that, in sentencing first-time committals, judges took particular note
of their drinking habits and were harsher with those deemed intemperate. In
contrast, among recidivists of whom intemperance was probably assumed to
be a given, this failing obviously had little influence on judges’ sentencing

Third, the results highlight the important and dissimilar effect of offense
type on sentencing decisions for recidivists and first-time committals. Among
recidivists, there were no significant differences in the likelihood of receiving
a prison sentence for larceny, drunkenness, or vagrancy—all were treated
by the courts as more or less interchangeable in a manner consistent with
the dominant ideology of the criminal class. In contrast, among first-time
committals, clear distinctions in case outcomes by offense type were evident.
Those treated most harshly were charged with larceny, while drunkenness
and vagrancy were treated considerably more leniently. To this extent,
the influence of offense type on case outcomes points to judges having substantially
different assessments of the seriousness of various offenses and
using different criteria in their sentencing decisions with respect to these two

Finally, the findings with respect to differences between recidivists and
first-time committals in case outcomes highlight the enduring concern of
correctional authorities with the large number of recidivists, and especially
vagrancy committals, in Ontario jails throughout this era. And, in the context
of these concerns, recidivism served as an important means of separating
the deserving from the undeserving poor. Consequently, recidivists
charged with vagrancy were significantly more likely than first-time committals
charged with vagrancy to be sentenced to prison. Equally important, it is
clear that attempts to reduce the number of repeat committals through harsh
punishment were not limited to the nineteenth century and that the various
criminal justice reforms implemented by the early part of the twentieth century
emphasizing rehabilitation had little impact in changing traditional sentencing
patterns in this regard. In fact, the probability that a recidivist would
be sentenced to prison was actually greater in the early twentieth century
than in the late nineteenth century. So, while Ontario officials may not have

resorted to the repressive nineteenth-century solutions of American tramp
legislation or British habitual criminal legislation, they nonetheless shared the social anxieties and fiscal concerns
that prompted these punitive responses well into the twentieth century.
Consequently, as prison officials continued to call for harsher penal measures
against recidivists, and both local authorities and the provincial government
continued to resist the implementation of noncarceral solutions to the problems
of homelessness, unemployment, and personal tragedy which contributed
to the problem of repeat committals in local jails, the harsh treatment of
recidivists became even more pronounced in the early decades of the twentieth

–  Helen Boritch, “The Criminal Class Revisited: Recidivism and Punishment in Ontario, 1871–1920.” Social Science History 29:1 (spring 2005), pp. 160-165.

Read Full Post »

“Certainly repeat committals constituted a sizable proportion of all committals
to nineteenth-century Ontario prisons. Nonetheless, it is also generally
concluded that the concern with recidivism was unnecessarily alarmist
for several reasons. First, only a small proportion of all recidivists
accumulated extensive records of repeat committals, and the vast majority of
these were arrested and convicted of public order offenses. In this regard, although most recidivists were men, the evidence
suggests that a larger proportion of women than men figured among
the more serious repeat offenders committed to jail numerous times for various
public order offenses. Most of these women were arrested for drunkenness
and vagrancy, the latter offense including prostitution-related offenses.
Second, contrary to prevailing assumptions about the criminal class, most
recidivists did not amass records suggesting a descent from minor transgressions
to more serious crimes against person and property. By and large,
those convicted of the most serious offenses, such as murder, had not previously
been committed to jail, while those recidivists convicted of public
order offenses generally had previous committals for the same offense.To this
extent, there was no striking overlap between the two ends of the criminal
spectrum. Third, according to the published recidivism figures,
the scale of recidivism in Ontario local jails was not increasing over time.
As Oliver found in his recent broad survey of nineteenth-century
Ontario jails, recidivism figures for the province as a whole are remarkably

consistent over time, averaging one-quarter to one-third of the prison population.
Beginning at 32.4 percent in 1868, the proportion of recidivists in
prison reached a high point of 35.8 percent in 1873 and thereafter declined,
to 27.7 percent in 1891.

Although past research suggests that authorities exaggerated the threat posed
by a criminal class of recidivists, questions remain about whether recidivists
differed from nonrecidivists in ways consistent with perceptions of the criminal
class and whether there were significant recidivism-related differences in
punishment outcomes across the two groups. In an effort to provide preliminary
answers to these questions, this analysis based on the Middlesex County,
Ontario, jail registers from 1871 to 1920 has two objectives. In the minds of
most penal authorities, recidivism was the defining feature of the criminal
class and the central issue around which criminal policy was reshaped in the
nineteenth century. First, then, the analysis examines the effect of various
individual and offense-related attributes typically associated with the criminal
class on the probability of recidivism.With few exceptions, previous research examining the existence of a distinct criminal class
has involved comparing prison populations as a whole with the general population
in terms of various sociodemographic characteristics, while the crucial
issue of differences between recidivists and the rest of the prison population
has received only limited attention. This analysis provides an opportunity
to examine this question systematically using a wider range of sociodemographic
and offense-related variables across a longer time span than has been
done to date. 

Second, this research seeks to ascertain whether the factors associated
with court dispositions differed significantly for recidivists and first-time
committals to jail. Given the pervasive belief that the laxity of the criminal
justice system was largely responsible for the problem of rising rates of recidivism,
the question naturally arises as to how these perceptions might have
affected the nature and severity of case outcomes across these two groups.
For the most part, the study of prisons and punishment has been dominated
by works that have sought to provide broad, interpretive sweeps of its history,
and only recently has attention turned toward empirical inquiries into

the factors related to sentence outcomes based on various archival sources. The few existing statistical analyses of sentencing decisions in
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reveal an overall pattern which
highlights the way in which inequality and contemporary assumptions about
the innate criminality of certain groups were systematically reflected and
reinforced in judicial sentencing decisions. Offenders who shared a constellation
of attributes—unskilled workers, Irish immigrants, illiterates, intemperates,
and women—all had higher rates of convictions and prison sentences. However, beyond
these general findings, there is no research specifically examining whether
prevailing notions of the causes of recidivism affected judicial decisions and,
in particular, whether the effect of various individual and case-related factors
on case outcomes differed significantly for recidivists and first-time committals
in ways consistent with these perceptions. 

In considering these issues, it is important to recognize that the idea
of criminal class, and the preoccupation with recidivism, was not limited to
the nineteenth century but continued to shape assumptions about crime, and
institutional responses, well into the early part of the twentieth century on
both sides of the Atlantic. Yet, previous analyses of the criminal class and
recidivism based on prison records typically have focused on relatively short
time spans in the nineteenth century alone. In part, this reflects the availability
and completeness of surviving prison records, as well as various methodological
and technical problems associated with creating large databases
from these primary sources. Thus the
longer time frame examined in this study of jail registers provides a further
way to extend and broaden the scope of historical research on prison

This time frame is significant also because it encompasses numerous
changes instituted at every level of the criminal justice system as part of a
broadly based reform outlook initiated in the late nineteenth century.This process, which included
sentencing reforms and the diversification of the court system consistent
with progressive notions of rehabilitation, evolved gradually and was most
clearly evident in the early decades of the twentieth century.While some have
suggested that these developments signaled less punitive attitudes toward
the minor offenders and offenses that preoccupied the lower courts, others
have found that the effect of these reforms was minimal and that traditional nineteenth-century ideas about criminality and sentencing continued
to dominate criminal justice into the early decades of the twentieth century. One
further advantage, then, of the 50-year time span covered by this research
is that it makes it possible to examine whether the factors associated with
recidivism, as well as sanctioning patterns in relation to recidivists and firsttime
committals, changed significantly from the nineteenth to the twentieth

–  Helen Boritch, “The Criminal Class Revisited: Recidivism and Punishment in Ontario, 1871–1920.” Social Science History 29:1 (spring 2005), pp. 145-48. 

Read Full Post »

“Like their counterparts in Britain and the United States, nineteenth-century
social observers in Canada were convinced that crime was increasing as a
result of a complex set of social conditions, including poverty, urbanism,
intemperance, and illiteracy, which had encouraged an increasingly large proportion
of the working-class population to abandon itself to a life of immorality
and crime. Concerns over the apparent increase in crime, and the rise
of a permanent criminal class, were expressed by the press and government
officials in cities across Canada. However, they were especially pronounced in
Ontario, where the processes of rapid urban expansion and industrialization
were most keenly experienced. By the mid-nineteenth century, the problems
of crime and disorder in Ontario were deemed to have reached crisis proportions. 

At the same time, rapid economic growth and urbanization came to be
identified with progressive social change and as the root causes of social disorder
and crime. It was widely believed that urban environments, with their
large transient populations, encouraged immorality and crime because cities
were destructive of the traditional relationships, values, and social supports
associated with rural communities. The
sense of threat that permeated society over the breakdown in law and order
was given added impetus by the massive scale of immigration into the province.
Irish immigrants, in particular, were singled out as contributing to the
problem of crime because they were seen as uneducated, prone to intemperance
and idleness, and because they did not accept the dominant value system. The connections among all these factors were interwoven
into a causal explanation in which most crime was seen to be committed by a
destructive, self-perpetuating class whose members were homeless, rootless,
urban-based, immigrant, intemperate, and illiterate. 

In a society experiencing dramatic social and economic upheavals, crime
became a central metaphor of disorder and loss of control in all spheres of
life, and the criminal class came to symbolize the ‘‘evils that threatened the
moral and social fabric of society, and that called for powerful measures of
defence’’. As part of the newly prominent role ascribed to
criminals in society, the delineation of a distinct criminal class served to mark

off and reinforce the gulf that existed between the respectable and the disreputable
elements of society.
Increasingly, crime, immorality, and disorder came to be attributed to a residuum
of the dishonest and disreputable poor who congregated in large cities
and who appeared to be immune to the common moral values and standards
of behavior on which the social order rested. Against this backdrop, repeat
offenders stood out as irrefutable evidence that the criminal justice system
was nurturing an entire class of debased and demoralized criminals who had
taken up vice and crime as a profession. 

For the most part in the mid-nineteenth century, few distinctions were
made among criminals as it was generally believed that members of the criminal
class routinely engaged in a wide variety of criminal activities and that
few, if any, differences distinguished different types of offenders. Moreover, it was
assumed that the lives of repeat offenders evidenced a pattern of degeneration
as they began their careers as drunkards, prostitutes, and petty criminals
and went on to become thieves and murderers. Consequently, in the minds
of many, crimes that proceeded from immorality represented as much of a
threat to public order as personal and property crimes. As government officials and the popular press repeatedly stressed throughout this era, drunkenness,
idleness, and profanity were tangible evidence of social deterioration,
which not only threatened social stability, but inevitably led to further, more
serious, lawlessness. 

The concern with petty offenders was one part of a growing focus on
the problem of the habitual offender, which became progressively more pronounced
given the large numbers of offenders imprisoned for drunkenness,
disorderly conduct, and vagrancy. Consequently,
by the latter part of the nineteenth century, official perceptions of the social
danger posed by the criminal class began to shift away from the earlier predominant
concern with professional and organized criminals perpetrating
violent and property crimes to a greater interest in the lesser offenders who
came to be perceived as constituting the largest part of the underclass of
habitual repeat offenders. As a result, the earlier image of an undifferentiated
criminal class was modified to some extent as authorities began sporadically
to make distinctions between two types of recidivists—a small group of dangerous
and professional criminals whose criminality was a chosen career and a much larger group of social inadequates and misfits who primarily perpetrated
petty crimes against the public order. 

Much of the concern with recidivism centered on vagrancy offenses.
Throughout the nineteenth century, offenders charged with vagrancy were a
diverse group, reflecting both the punitive and the more benevolent aspects
of criminal justice. Vagrancy statutes were used to control and punish transients,
prostitutes, and other problem populations in the cities, but it was
also common practice for local police stations and county jails across Canada
to function as quasi-welfare institutions providing shelter to tramps, indigents,
elderly persons, and destitute families without other resources. In an oft-repeated
refrain, prison officials decried the way a population of drunks, vagrants, and
ne’er do wells was exploiting society by using the local jails as lodging in an
atmosphere devoid of deterrence, restraint, or reformation.

For the most part, there was little recognition of the social and economic
disruptions brought on by the rapid urbanization and industrialization
that led so many individuals to be committed to prison on vagrancy
charges. Occasionally, prison officials offered a sympathetic observation that
some of those imprisoned for public order offenses were guilty of no crime
except poverty, old age, or physical incapacity to earn a living and complained
about the unfortunate fact that tight-fisted municipal authorities preferred
to house such populations in jails rather than to establish the more expensive
alternative of specially built facilities for the poor and homeless. And, to a limited extent, prison authorities also sometimes made distinctions
within this group between the ‘‘deserving’’ and ‘‘undeserving’’ poor
and between ‘‘professional’’ as opposed to ‘‘honest’’ tramps who desired
employment. Importantly, the usual criterion in making these distinctions
was recidivism since the dominant ideology was that most of those imprisoned
repeatedly for drunkenness and vagrancy were not ‘‘unfortunates’’ but,
rather, ‘‘able-bodied’’ men and women who through chronic drunkenness
and idleness had become ‘‘criminal vagrants’’ and life-long criminals. 

Overall, then, the large majority of recidivists were viewed as drunken
or vagrant petty offenders who were stubbornly resistant to reform or deterrence.
Consequently, Ontario prison authorities tended to see the primary
solution to the problem of recidivism in fairly straightforward terms of invoking harsher penal measures against this group of offenders.
Throughout the nineteenth century, they reiterated the same set of recommendations
that repeat offenders should be given stiffer sentences, including
indeterminate sentences and the imposition of hard labor. And, more generally,
the continuous and fervent denunciation of recidivism spurred intensive
enforcement of public order offenses by municipal police forces, the enactment
of temperance legislation, and laws mandating longer prison sentences
for drunkenness and vagrancy.”


Helen Boritch, “The Criminal Class Revisited: Recidivism and Punishment in Ontario, 1871–1920.” Social Science History 29:1 (spring 2005), pp. 139-142.

Read Full Post »