Saturday, April 14, 2012

Punishment for Children Throughout the Ages

by Marie Higgins

While trying to decide what to write for my blog this time, I remembered an episode on BBC's Robin Hood that I'd seen recently. (Just to let you know, I'm totally hooked on Robin Hood and this is my second time going through the episodes on Netflix in less than a year.)

For anyone who has seen this, you know how cruel and heartless the Sheriff of Nottingham is and doesn’t care how young or old the person is, the sheriff is going to kill them if he feels like it. On the episode I watched, Little John’s son is taken to jail, and the sheriff is going to torture the lad…just to prove to the people the sheriff follows through with his threats about paying taxes. Of course, this lad didn’t do anything but try to stop the sheriff, which of course landed him in jail. So that made me think about what happened to children when they really committed a crime.

Before Victorian times no distinction was made between criminals of any age. If someone was caught breaking the law – whether they were six years old or sixty years old they were sent to an adult prison. (I’m picturing the dungeon in Robin Hood right now) I wish I knew why the Victorian people looked at this situation differently than in the early ages, but Victorians realized that putting a child in prison was not helping him / her at all. The Victorian people could see that locking up children wasn't likely to make them lead honest lives in the future. However…they did believe in stiff punishments.

In 1854, Reformatory Schools were set up for criminals under sixteen years old. The people who ran these schools were strict and enforced discipline with frequent beatings. Some of these children were there for several years.

In England, the country’s magistrates wielded considerable power. These men presumably saw to justice, but the poor suffered greatly and biased magistrates had children transported to Australia for stealing bread for their families. Poaching, carried on to feed starving families whose land had been enclosed by their wealthy neighbors. (Once again, I’m thinking of Robin Hood)

Public flogging was one form of torture. This punishment started way before Robin Hood’s time – way before Jesus was born – and carried on through the years. During the 18th century, the number of crimes punishable by death rose to about 200. A death sentence could be passed for pick-pocketing, stealing bread or cutting down a tree. In 1823 Sir Robert Peel reduced the number of offenses for which convicts could be executed by over 100. Lord John Russell abolished the death sentence for horse stealing and housebreaking in 1830.

Prisons during the 18th century were overcrowded and filthy. Often prisoners were herded together with no privacy. Prisoners had to provide their own food, and had little access to fresh water. They even had to pay their gaoler for every service!  Now…if you ask me, this is punishment enough!
When I researched this subject, I thought of all those poor people – just like when I watch Robin Hood series. Sad to think that if their methods of punishing people who committed crimes couldn’t stop them, what is our method today going to help? Sometimes it makes me wonder if we punish murders, rapists, and thieves nowadays like they did back then…would we get a different turnout?

Hmm…there is the question of the day. Your thoughts?


I blogged a little about this subject before if you’d like to read more.

About the author:
Marie Higgins is a multi-published author of romance; from refined bad-boy heroes who makes your heart melt to the feisty heroines who somehow manage to love them regardless of their faults. Visit her website / blog to discover more about her –  
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  1. There was a great deal of change in the perception of children and how prisoners--both women and men--were treated in the late 18th century and early 19th century. So although the 18th century had seen the death penalty (hanging) handed out for many crimes, by the end of the century, that had mostly been commuted to transportation. Also, by the second half of the century, petty crime among London boys often sees the boys referred to the Maritime Society which provides them with clothes and some belongings and arranges for them to go to sea (thus learning a useful trade) rather than facing prison or other punishment. And the novels of Patrick O'Brian, for instance, make it quite clear that boys might be beaten but they could not be flogged in the navy.

    The evangelical spirit that prompted William Wilberforce to lobby successfully against slavery and the slave trade also led him to call for better treatment of prisoners--in 1812, the pillory for women was outlawed as was flogging, and for the first time, debtors and their families could no longer be imprisoned in the same cells as felons.

    It's a curious period of transition, the late 18th century--George Eliot always referred to it as a 'pre-moral' age. And I think she may have something there.

  2. Great post! The prison reform effort was part of the larger set of reforms transpiring in Great Britain (and Europe, and US) going on through much of the nineteenth century (e.g. child labor laws, slavery etc)--part of the reaction to industrialization. Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker, was one of the great leaders of this reform effort.

  3. It would seem to be counter productive to put someone in a debtors prison rather than making then work to pay off the debt. That is one crime where restitution could actually be made.

    Violent crimes cannot be condoned but mistakes are made,innocent people convicted, so incarceration with some hope of release is acceptable. One thing in our system {USA} just proving someone innocent after they are in prison does not automatically give them release. And there are times, a blind eye is given to their plight.

    Then there are crimes that should not allow the prison release at any time - ie, deliberate, violent, murder. Some people are evil, period, and no amount of punishment will bring contriteness - these should remain incarcerated.

    This even refers to younger. We have enough tests and knowledge to know when release will only cause more havoc on other innocence.

    But, our justice system, like other areas in society is not fair. If you are poor, you are less likely to get fairness and justice. The same goes for ethnicity, appearance. Money still talks in this area as well.