Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/June 1890/Education and Crime

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By Rev. A. W. GOULD.

IN the January number of The Popular Science Monthly there was an article by Benjamin Reece on Public Schools as affecting Crime and Vice. In that article Mr. Reece mentions the fact that "in the decade ending with 1880, population having increased thirty per cent and illiteracy only ten per cent, the number of criminals present the alarming increase of eighty-two per cent." And he asks: "Can it be possible that with greater educational facilities there is to be increased crime? Perish the thought! Yet if the instruction of our common schools subdues the tendency to crime, why is it that the ratio of prisoners, being one in every 3,442 in 1850, rose to one in every 1,647 in 1860, one in 1,021 in 1870, and one in 837 in 1880?" He tells us further that "the illiterates of the United States comprise seventeen per cent of the total population. . . . The general average of illiteracy is exceeded by every one of the original slave States with the exception of Missouri, but the average ratio of the mentally and morally unsound is only reached in the State of Maryland. South Carolina, which shows the highest percentage of illiterates, presents the lowest average of any State in the Union as regards insanity and crime"; and his conclusion is that "our condition of decreasing illiteracy and increasing crime" means that "in the adjustment of our schools we have gone too far in our aim for material advancement and development of wealth, and that we are correspondingly losing in the direction of moral growth and culture."

In other words, he thinks that the United States census proves that the increase of prisoners in our prisons is the result of the increase of pupils in our schools. And as I find that these "novel and threatening facts" have aroused some apprehension among those interested in our public-school system, it seems to me desirable that some one should point out the figures in our census which seriously modify, if not wholly destroy, Mr. Reece's alarming inference that our public schools are nurseries of crime.

Figures, like Bible-texts, may not lie, but they can be made to prove almost anything; and it would not be difficult to establish, by our census figures, the exact opposite of Mr. Reece's conclusion, if we may be allowed to use the same reasoning that he does. For his statistics only show that crime and education are both increasing. But that does not prove that the increase in education is the cause of the increase in crime. Diseases have increased during the past half-century, and so has medical skill; but that does not prove that the one increase was caused by the other. Perhaps the increase of diseases would have been far greater had it not been for the increase in the power to cope with them. So education may, for aught Mr. Reece's statistics prove, be the only thing that prevents a still more rapid growth in crime.

The statistics of our last report show that the most enormous strides in developing a criminal class have been taken in those States where ignorance, and not education, most abounds. If we take the ten States that have the largest number of citizens unable to write, we shall find that from 1850 to 1880 the ratio of their prisoners has increased over fivefold, from one in 5,400 to one in 970; from 1860 to 1880 it has grown threefold, or from one in 3,600 to one in 970; while the ten States that have the fewest citizens unable to write have swelled the proportion of their criminals only threefold for the longer period and only fifty per cent for the shorter—the figures being, for 1850 one in 3,100, for 1860 one in 1,500, and for 1880 one in 1,050. So that in the States of greatest illiteracy the relative increase of criminals during the last twenty years has been six times as rapid as in the States of least illiteracy. And if we ask in what classes the most ignorance is to be found, our census tells us that the foreign-born are fifty per cent more illiterate than the natives, and the blacks seven times as illiterate as the whites; and our census tells us. further that the foreign-born furnish one hundred per cent more than their share of criminals, and the blacks one hundred and fifty per cent more than their share.

Do not these facts prove that the advance in crime is the result not of education but of the absence of education? We might think so, if figures had not that reprehensible habit of being all things to all men. Therefore, we may find, upon a more careful examination, that there is some other cause than ignorance for this rapid growth of our prison population in certain parts of our country. If I am not mistaken, there are several such causes, some of them entirely independent of the change in the illiteracy of the nation. One of them lies in the transition from an unsettled condition to a settled condition on our constantly advancing frontier: another is in the change from slavery in the South; and, a third is in the gradual elevation of the standard of human conduct, making crimes of actions that had been only lawful escapades in earlier times.

The first cause comes out clearly if we compare the ten States that were on the frontier in 1850 with ten older States—the New England and Middle States, for instance. In the former the ratio of criminals has been multiplied four or five times during the past thirty years, while in the latter it has only doubled, rising from 244 to 1,148 prisoners in a million inhabitants on the frontier, and from 450 to 1,074 on the seaboard. Of course, it is obvious that in a new country there will be a certain amount of lawless conduct unpunished at first, before sheriffs, courts, and jails are in running order. But the rapid increase in the proportion of criminals, as the State grows older, does not mean more crime; it often means less. The evil-doers are arrested and sentenced, and so get into our prisons and our census; and then we are told that crime is increasing. Kansas had only 289 prisoners to each million of inhabitants in the decade before the rebellion, while it had 1,300 to the same number in the last report; yet every one knows that this State was a far more dangerous place at the earlier time than now. Colorado had only 477 offenders per million at its first census, in 1870, but in 1880 it reported 1,950, a gain of nearly fivefold in a single decade; while on the other hand the older States, like New Hampshire and Connecticut, showed an actual decrease in percentage during these periods.

But the transition from slavery to freedom was a far more efficient cause in swelling the ratio of this class. If we compare ten of the original slave States with our ten New England and Middle States, we shall find that the increase in crime in the slave States has been three or four times as great as in the free States. The former had, for each million of population, only 161 criminals in 1850, and 240 the next decade. But in 1870 they had 829, and in 1880 1,166. This was an increase of sevenfold, while the free States only a little more than doubled their criminal element.

That this was the result of the emancipation is seen in many ways. The sudden leap shows it between the decade before and after the war, or between 1860 and 1880, if 1870 be thought too near the contest to be a fair test. Those twenty years gave a gain of fivefold in the proportion of prisoners of the Southern States, while the Northern States showed a gain of less than forty per cent. Single instances reveal it still more clearly. Mississippi sprang from 67 to 1,158 criminals in a million inhabitants, and other States of the South show nearly as great a gain; while New York and Massachusetts actually declined in their criminal percentage during that time, as did some other Northern States.

The explanation is obvious. Before the war the negroes were slaves, and nearly all their offenses were punished by their masters, so that the State had no occasion to imprison them. But now, from five to ten times as many blacks as whites, in proportion to their numbers, are found in the jails or chain-gangs of the South. And when we remember that the greatest illiteracy is to be found in the former slave States, we-see that the increase of the criminal ratio in the South may not be due wholly to ignorance, in spite of census figures. The ignorance and the crime were both there before the criminals were locked up and counted in the census.

One might, indeed, claim that the lessened ignorance had much to do with revealing this criminal element and imprisoning it. And this brings us to our third cause of the increased ratio of crime. The gradual elevation in the standard of life, and the intervention of the courts in cases which were formerly decided by the bullet or the knife, occasions a rapid increase in the official number of criminals.

Drunkenness, I suppose, was not a crime anywhere in our land half a century ago. Now drunkenness and disorderly conduct form one tenth of all the crime of the country. And naturally the restraint of these offenders will be most complete in the most orderly and educated parts of our land. Accordingly, we find that the ten educated States show a proportion of imprisonments for these offenses tenfold greater than the uneducated States do. The one has 2,865 and the other only 198 in a population three fourths as large. And the educated States record three times as many prisoners as the uneducated States for assault and battery and simple assault. If any one wishes to prove from the census that education is a failure, he could find no stronger facts than these—a tenfold larger share of drunkenness and a threefold larger share of violence in the States where men can read and write than in the States where they can not.

But, of course, no one thinks that the South is more quiet, orderly, and innocent than the North. No one believes that there was not a single case of drunkenness or disorder in all Alabama and Arkansas in 1880, and only a score of cases of assault, while Massachusetts, with a less population, had 597 cases of drunkenness and disorder and 337 cases of assault; yet this is what the census tells us. The natural interpretation must be, that drunkenness and violence are not punished by imprisonment in certain States, while they are in others, and the States that punish least are most illiterate. This interpretation is amply confirmed by the census itself. Though education shows three times the violence that ignorance does, yet ignorance perpetrates three times as many murders as education, and that, too, while two or three of the educated States imprison the murderer for life, and so swell the number, and while the illiterate States do not even think of arresting some murderers, and often acquit others who are most notoriously guilty. It was only last year that all the land heard that a certain Dr. McDow, a married man of Charleston, S. C. murdered a Captain Dawson, simply because he saved a girl whom the doctor was trying to ruin. No one denied the murder, yet the papers tell us that the doctor was triumphantly acquitted and honored by the society of the city as a hero, instead of being counted by the census as a criminal.

And it is only in a high state of society that offenses against virtue cease to be either overlooked or avenged by violence. In this very State of South Carolina there are only four such offenders reported in prison, while Michigan has forty and Massachusetts over two hundred. The latter State, indeed, has more than all the illiterate States together. Yet, are we to think that Michigan is ten times as sinful as South Carolina, or that Massachusetts has more vice than all the ignorant States combined? McDow's case shows that such vice exists, and how it is regarded. A clergyman of the South recently asserted in the Nation—and he has not been contradicted—that only a small minority of the colored women were chaste; yet the census makes them far more virtuous than their white sisters of the North. We do, indeed, hear quite frequently of negroes being lynched for such offenses, but they obviously do not count in the census.

Therefore, though education may swell the list of criminals, there are reasons for thinking that more education and not less is what certain parts of our country need. They need more prisoners. If more men were punished for drunkenness and violence, there would be less murder. If more murderers were executed instead of being lynched or lionized, there would be less violence. It is by checking the lesser offenses that the greater offenses are avoided, though the prisons are filled thereby. And as civilization improves in the South, no doubt the proportion of men in prison will increase, at least for the present; and the whole country can not rise in its standard of moral conduct without increasing the law-breakers, especially while we have to assimilate each year such a large and often lawless element from other lands.

One of the results of raising the mass to a higher moral level is, that individuals here and there drop out; and the higher we are raised the more will drop, and this will continue till those incapable of self-control have disappeared. It is only among savages—where there is no chance to drop, because all are on the ground—that we find no criminals or paupers. And Mr. Reece actually sighs for the "perfect order" found associated with the "densest ignorance" among the cave-dwelling Veddahs and other tribes. Possibly we might attain this "perfect order" if we would imitate the savages in leading a savage life. But that would be a pretty dear price to pay for such order as savages secure.

Most of us prefer civilization with all its drawbacks. We prefer to see our country settled, though we know that jails will be built and occupied. The very convenience of city life is paid for by added crime. The disorder that might be allowed in a wilderness among savages can not be tolerated in a crowded metropolis among civilized people. The ten States that have the largest cities punish fifty per cent more violence and sixty per cent more drunkenness than their share, though they have twenty per cent less than their proportion of murders. Petty crimes come from civilization, great crimes from barbarism. But among barbarians great crimes are called virtues, and petty crimes are unknown or unnoted.

I think, then, we need not fear that universal education is to bring us universal crime. We want more and better education. Of course, it is not the mere ability to read and write that is to save a man from prison. He must learn self-control and acquire a loftier standard of life. Mr. Reece dwells much upon the fact that a large percentage of our criminals can read and write. But that does not prove that their education made them criminals. I dare say a still larger percentage of them can see, yet it was not their ability to see that made them criminals. The densest ignorance may, like total blindness, keep men from crime; but we do not propose to put out our eyes of either mind or body. We will have men learn to see better, morally and physically. It is imperfect education that has brought men to prison, as we see from the constant relation of our criminal class to our illiterate classes. They may, indeed, have some sort of an education, but the vast majority of them are ignorant themselves, and have ignorant kindred and associates; and to be ignorant amid the civilization of to-day is to be jealous and bitter and rebellious.

The very fact that Mr. Reece cites to prove his thesis, that ignorance is innocence and knowledge crime, disproves it most completely. South Carolina, he says, has the highest percentage of illiteracy and the lowest of crime; but, if he had taken one glance below the surface, he would have seen a fact far more "novel and threatening" than any he discovered. Out of the 626 criminals of South Carolina, 570 are black and only 56 are white. Why are there ten times as many blacks as whites in jail, when they constitute only three fifths of the population? The only answer the census gives is in the fact that they are three times as illiterate as the whites. So that the very State summoned to prove that ignorance is exemption from crime, has ten elevenths of its criminals from the most ignorant class in the country. But perhaps Mr. Reece thinks that their ignorance is not quite dense enough, as one in four can still write. They certainly have not yet reached the point where ignorance is bliss.