The manner of treating political prisoners has lately, once again, been the subject of much public discussion in England; and the question has yet to be settled whether it is either wise or just to subject political offenders, men of stainless character, to whose unselfish purpose their bitterest enemies pay tribute, to herd for years with the basest of criminals, and to undergo the most terrible drudgery of prison labour. No doubt the question will soon be solved on the principle of leniency, or, to speak more properly, on the principle which recognises the justice of distinguishing between one offender and another, between the enthusiast who breaks the law in support of what he believes to be an honest political cause, and the common burglar and garrotter. Indeed, there is at present another serious question much discussed in England - the question whether even our basest criminals who are not sent to the gallows are not still, in many instances, subjected to a sort of prison discipline which only tends to make their natures more and more brutal. Some distinguished men, some of our criminal judges of the minor order, are strongly in favour of a system of short sentences, carried out with rigour indeed; but without the more brutalising accompaniments which our prison discipline still recognises and allows. It has to be remembered that since the days when the convict system was finally abolished, and when even the idea of turning Western Australia to account for that purpose had to be absolutely abandoned, we have had for the first time a great system of national and compulsory education put into force throughout Great Britain and Ireland. With the spread of that education, and with the movement going on everywhere in these countries for the improvement of the working classes and the poor generally, it is surely not too much to expect that the baser kinds of crime will grow fewer and fewer, and that there may be less occasion for the rigours of that penal discipline which to so many enlightened observers seems far too rigorous even still. One thing, at all events, may be taken as certain - we shall never again go back to the transportation system. The report of the Committee which sat in 1837 settled that question for ever, even although few observers at the time had the least idea of what the effect of its publication must be. That report turned what the late Charles Reade, the novelist, used to call " the bull's-eye of publicity," on that particular department of our penal system; and it was certain that the English public had only to understand the question thoroughly in order to come to one decision.
It took a long time to bring about that final decision. Again and again some belated public man made a stand for the old system of the convict ship; and there were many feeble-minded legislators who went so far at least in favour of the old practice as to ask pathetically what we were to do with our gaol-birds if we were no longer allowed to send them to any of our colonies or dependencies. But the certain fact is that the report of the Committee gave the system a wound from which it never recovered, from which it bled to death. One of the great reforms made since that time - a reform which has done much to facilitate our dealings with crime - was the thorough organisation and development of the police system in our towns and cities, and, indeed, everywhere over these countries. Sir Robert Peel was the first statesman who gave to London a genuine police force. Before his time there had been nothing but a pitifully inefficient organisation of what were called watchmen, who were the butt and the sport of our satirists from generation to generation. Peel gave to London a real police force; and that force became the model for all the cities of the three kingdoms, and for the country places as well. The great municipal corporations of England and Scotland now, for the most part, retain the control of their own police; and it therefore comes within the powers of the citizens themselves to see that the force is properly-kept up to the level of its duty, that it is an effective machine for the protection of life and property, and for the capture of evil-doers. In Ireland the system is somewhat different, for there the police in general form a sort of semi-military body, kept on the watch to deal with political and agrarian disturbances, and under the direct control of the Crown. It may be hoped, however, that the time is not far distant when the police force of Ireland too may become a purely-civil organisation under the control of the municipal authorities of the country.
We have taken our readers a good deal in advance of the actual time with which this chapter began. But it seemed inconvenient to distract the attention of the reader by dividing the abolition of the transportation system into its separate stages, and taking each according to the date of its accomplishment. The great epoch in the reform was the appointment of the Committee of 1837; all the rest followed from that, and may be considered a part of the same movement. A formal account of the several Committees which Parliament appointed since that time to deal with the same general subject, and of the statutes which were passed to bring about this or that modification of each already modified system, would prove but dry and lifeless reading. As we have already shown the movement is not at its end; and indeed, so long as civilisation goes on broadening and improving, it is certain that we shall have fresh demands made for alterations in our way of dealing with our criminals. Whole shelves of books have been filled since 1837 with the writings of men who have made the question a life-study, on the causes of crime, physical and moral; the incitements to crime coming from social conditions; the criminal himself; and the best means of diminishing crime and bringing the criminal under the influence of education and of religion. But it may be safely taken for granted that there will be no reaction towards the system that sought to terrorise by cruelty, and which seemed sometimes to believe that a man could be made better by forcing into stronger development all the lowest and basest moods and passions of his nature. Those who were regarded as the philanthropic dreamers of 1837 might seem perhaps to have been but modest and cautious reformers when put in comparison with some who are regarded as the dreamers of to-day.