The publication of the Annual Return of the Judicial Statistics for 1887 is not inopportune at the present juncture. The returns show on the whole that the percentage of crime to population is not only not increasing, but is steadily diminishing, if a sufficiently long period of time is taken into account. We have been shocked of late by a procession of crimes, committed in London, of unexampled atrocity and the inference has been drawn that our social condition has been going from bad to worse. So far as the quality of crime is concerned, it is not very easy to gainsay this inference; the Whitechapel murders point unmistakably to something amiss in our social state. But, as regards the quantity of crime, the judicial statistics just published are distinctly reassuring. The returns for England and Wales, it appears, show a decrease of 1.4 per cent in the total number of the criminal classes at large and known to the police in 1886-7, as compared with the numbers in 1885-6. There is also a decrease in the number of houses of bad character equal to 8.1 per cent. The number of indictable offences reported by the police in the same period shows a decrease of 5.6 per cent, and in the number of persons sent for trial at assizes and sessions there is a decrease of 682 in number, or 4.8 per cent. On the other hand, in the number of persons summarily proceeded against before justices there is an increase of 24,111, or 3.7 per cent; while in the total commitments to prison there is a decrease of 6,877, or 3.8 per cent. These figures are not unsatisfactory. They point to a decrease of the criminal population, to a much larger decrease in the number of houses of known bad character, to a satisfactory decrease in the number of indictable offences, and a corresponding decrease in the number of commitments to prison, while the only increase is that of 3.7 per cent in the number of persons summarily proceeded against before justices, that is, in the number of comparatively trifling offences. If we examine the returns of the numbers of the criminal classes in detail and compare them at different periods, we find that of thieves and depredators known to the police, of receivers of stolen goods, and of persons otherwise suspected of criminal habits and propensities, there were 28,729 in 1886-7, 29,226 in 1885-6 and 35,272 ten years ago, in 1876-7. The numbers of these who were under 16 years, in the respective years, were 4,870, 4,872, and 5,588; and the number of females of all ages at the same dates were 6,091, 6,190, and 8,058. Thus not only have the numbers of the known criminal classes decreased in ten years from 35,000 to 28,000, notwithstanding the general increase of population, but at the same time the number of juvenile and female criminals has shown a proportionate decrease.
It is certain therefore, that, whatever change for the worse may be noted in the quality of crime, its quantity manifests an appreciable and progressive decrease. Its distribution, on the other hand, is apparently less satisfactory. For the purpose of dealing with this aspect of the matter, the returns take eleven separate districts or groups of towns. In two of these - namely, the Metropolis, including an average radius of 15 miles round Charing-cross, and the commercial ports of Bristol, Hull, Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Southampton, South Shields, Sunderland, Swansea, Tynemouth, and Yarmouth - there is an increase in the number of known thieves and depredators, receivers of stolen goods, and suspected persons, all at large, of 1.8 per cent and 5.9 per cent respectively, while in the remainder there is a decrease varying from 19.6 per cent in a group of towns depending upon agricultural districts - namely, Bridgwater, Exeter, Hereford, Ipswich, Lincoln, Reading, Shrewsbury, and Winchester - to 0.6 per cent in the Midland counties - namely, Bedford, Berks, Bucks, Cambridge, Hertford, Northampton and Oxford. In this comparison the Metropolis seems to come out badly, but another table furnished by the returns tends, to some extent, to redress the balance. The total proportion of the criminal population at large, as above enumerated, to every 1,000 of the total population was, for 1886-7, in the counties 1.50, in the boroughs 1.40, and in the Metropolis 0.50; and, for 1885-6, in the counties 1.51, in the boroughs 1.45, and in the Metropolis 0.49. Thus for every 100,000 of the population there were 150 criminals or suspected persons at large in the counties, 140 in the boroughs, and only 50 in London. Turning next to the returns of the number of houses of bad character, we find that they have decreased from 3,764 in 1884-5 to 3,424 in 1885-6, and 3,146 in 1886-7. Here, again, the percentage shown by the Metropolis compares very favourably indeed with that in the boroughs, and by no means unfavourably with that in the counties. For every 10,000 of the population there were, in 1886-7, 0.44 of such houses in London, 2.81 in the boroughs, and 0.62 in the counties, the corresponding numbers for the preceding year being respectively 0.49, 3.06 and 0.67. So far the returns show a steady and progressive improvement in the proportion of population of crime, criminals, and opportunities for crime such as are afforded by houses of bad character. But the following passage from the report is less satisfactory:- "In the case of murders as reported to the police, for the last ten years, from 1877-8 to 1886-7, those committed upon persons aged above one year are distinguished from those committed upon infants aged one year and under. It is thus shown, as regards the murder of infants aged one year and under, that in 1886-7, of the 163 murders reported, 77, or 47.2 per cent, were murders of infants aged one year and under; in 1885-6 of the 171 murders reported, 78, or 45.6 percent; in 1884-5, of the 136 murders reported, 55, or 40.4 per cent, in 1883-4 of the 170 murders reported, 82, or 48.2 per cent; and in 1882-3, of the 165 murders reported, 90, or 54.5 per cent, were murders of such class." Thus for the last three years the percentage of infant murder has been increasing somewhat rapidly, though it shows a diminution as compared with the two years 1883-4 and 1882-3. On the other hand, the number of murders in proportion to population shows, in a series of years, with some fluctuations, a steady tendency to decrease. In 1886-7 the number of murders reported was as 1 to 173,564; in 1885-6 it was as 1 to 163,105; in 1884-5 as 1 to 202,181; in 1883-4 as 1 to 159,602; in 1882-3 as 1 to 161,968; and in 1881-2 as 1 to 153,143. There is on the whole a corresponding decrease in the proportion of other serious crimes, but in the case of attempts at suicide the proportion seems to be almost constant. It was 1 to about 23,000 in 1886-7, and 1 to about 24,000 in 1881. It fell to 1 in about 25,000 in 1885-6, and rose to 1 in about 22,000 in 1883-4, but it will be observed that between 1881 and 1886 the proportion has risen in a manner that suggests some disquieting reflections.
On the whole it appears that the amount of crime and the number of criminals throughout the country are tending pretty steadily to decrease. When, however, we come to compare the number of convictions with the number of crimes reported, the returns are less satisfactory. The total number of known thieves at large in 1886-7 is returned as 14,881; the total number of crimes committed was no less than 42,391 and the total number of persons apprehended was 19,045, a proportion of 44.9, as against 42.9 in the preceding year. Of offences against the person the total number committed in 1886-7 was 3,470, and for these offences 2,747 persons were held to bail or committed. This is a percentage of 79.1, and the corresponding percentages for the four preceding years were 78.9, 82.4, 80.2, and 81.5. Of offences against property with violence, the number reported was 6,637, and the number of persons committed was only 1,837, a percentage of 28.1, against percentages of 30.1, 31.2, 32.7 and 31.4 in preceding years. There were 615 malicious offences against property, and here the percentages of committals in the last and four preceding years were respectively 46.7, 60.7, 53.8, 44.6, and 55.7. Of minor offences under the remaining classes specified in the returns the number in 1886-7 was 31,669, yielding a percentage of committals of 28.5. The corresponding percentages in preceding years were 26.8, 27.8, 27.6 and 26.7. It thus appears that the percentage of apprehensions and committals, in respect of the more serious classes of crime has, during the past few years, shown a decided, though not as yet a very serious, tendency to decrease. In the less serious crimes the tendency is the other way, but the general result is not altogether satisfactory. The less serious crimes are, from the nature of the case, more easily detected and less carefully concealed, so that the decrease in the percentage of committals for the more serious crimes would seem to point to some failure in the detective capacity of the police. The proportion of police to population seems to be about stationary. There was one constable to every 766 of the estimated population in 1887, as against one to every 765 in the previous year. As the ratio of crime to population has fallen while the ratio of police to population has remained stationary, the decrease in the ratio of committals to offences of the more serious character is not altogether creditable to the detective and punitive capacities of the police.