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JUVENILE OFFENDERS.

At the meeting of the Educational Institute on Tuesday night Mr E. Morrison (Boys’ High School) read the following very interesting paper on the above subject: —

There seem to me to be some special reasons why this should be a fit occasion for the consideration of the subject chosen. The youths whom I have designated as “juvenile offenders,” and who are more commonly called “larrikins,” are cither pupils in actual attendance at our schools or have but recently left them. We, as teachers, know fheir natures intimately ; wo have probably spent more time and trouble over them than over the future legislators, who may be their class fellows; and if we are to have any credit from the latter we must not refuse the discredit from tho former. I do not seek to hint that the responsibility for the existence of such an evil is to be laid at the door of the schoolmaster. My point is : that in the matter of larrikins we are more or less experls, and our opinions might be worth giving. I am, therefore, in hopes that my paper, whatever its own intrinsic merits or demerits, may initiate amongst you to-night a discussion of some real practical value. The question is very prominently before the public at the present moment, and we may be certain that anything worth saying will be readily listened to. The subject at first sight seems simple and easily handled. But it Is very far from being that. The more carefully the problem is considered, the more difficult and almost hopeless seems its solution. The problem is really most intricate, and has to do with far-reaching and subtle causes. At tho outset, therefore, I must disclaim any intention of attempting to exhaust the subject, or to traverse, even hurriedly, anything like the whole field. I can touch merely upon its edge, leaving great stretches of unbroken ground beyond. There is an impression in the Home Country that the colonial boy is much harder to manage, and is even (generally speaking) of much worse character, than the boy in the Mother Country, I gathered this much myself from actual inquiries made a few years ago. There is perhaps nothing to be surprised at in this, nor yet in the magnificent generalisation with which Home people so consistently class together all the Australasian colonies, as if New Zealand and Queensland were as much alike as Y ork and Lincoln. But it does appear to mo strange that so many among ourselves should hold the very same opinion. My observation, so far as it goes, leads to the opposite conclusion, And I think there can be no doubt about it, that in the State schools hero you have more promising material to work upon than they have, on the average, in the Board schools at Home. It is in the nature of things that extremes of good and evil should be more common in the Old Country than in the new. If, as the ‘Daily Times’ remarked tho other day, we begin our civilisation a step higher out hero—and I believe we do—it is also true that we end it a step, or rather a good many steps, lower. VVe are, perhaps, producing few or no men super-eminent in politics, in literature, or in art; but we are just as far from producing the extreme wretchedness, the filth, and the professional crime common in the old world. Our lower classes are, without a doubt, better fed, better clothed, bettor housed, healthier, and more lawabiding than the same classes at Homo. To make that statement is to tay a great deal, when you come to think of all it implies, and yet I do not think the statement can be disproved. As an illustration of our general well-being, take the statistics for infant mortality. The percentage of children that die under five years of age in Australia is more than two-thirds greater than in New Zealand ; in England and Wales it is more than twice as great. The percentage of illegitimate births (though steadily increasing) is on the average of the last ten years only half as large in New Zealand as in Great Britain; and in this matter only two countries of Europe—namely, Ireland and Greece—can show a better record.

In order further to bring out the superior social condition of our laboring classes, I might easily lay before you other figures ; but I shall trouble you with just one or two points more. Take that offence which, though comparatively unimportant in itself, yet lies at the root of so much crime—namely, drunkenness. The convictions for this offence arc year by year showing a decrease. In 1883, out of every 1,000 persons in New Zealand, 12 81 were convicted of drunkenness. Every year since then the proportion has lessened, and in 1887 it stood at 9,01. It may therefore he taken that New Zealand is, for a British colony, singularly sober. But in this connection there is another thing to note : the total number of persons sentenced to imprisonment for this vice in 18S7 was 1,038 Native-born New Zealanders make up rather more than a half of our population, and their share in these 1,038 drunkards ought to have been about 540, It really was only 51. But take the prisoners as a whole. In 1887 the proportion of native-born prisoners ought to have been exactly 51.09 per cent. ; it really was 11.44. Prisoners of English birth ought to have numbered 22.06; they numbered 34 56. Scotland ought to have contributed 9.48 ;it gave 12.77. Ireland ought to have contributed 8.89; it gave 26,56. Australia contributed 6.22 instead of 3.66. These figures would seem to show that natives of New Zealand are growing up to be more sober and more law-abiding than immigrants from the Mother Country or from Australia. In fairness, of course, it must be remembered that a very large proportion of the native population are too young to be figuring in our law courts, either as drunkards or as more s* rious offenders. Still, after making all allowance for this fact, the main conclusion is practically untouched. It is pleasant to notice that, In spite of the steady increase of the percentage of population over fifteen years of age, the percentage of criminals is steadily and even rapidly declining, ranging from 38.08 per 1,000 in 1878 to 26.61 in 1887. This surely is a hopeful sign for New Zealandone that speaks volumes for its future. I have thought it useful thus to introduce my remarks on our juvenile offenders by some consideration of the class of society from which they mostly come. I think it is quite essential to remember that they are children of parents who are for the most part what wo call respectable ; who are as a rule law-abiding aud sober, who live in houses of more than one room, and who have abundance of food, clothing, and fresh air.

'J he problem that I lay before you tonight is not then the problem that so troubles English philanthropists, nor yet is it exactly that which our Australian brothers have to deal with. So far as Dunedin is concerned, and Dunedin may be taken as a type of New Zealand towns, we have neither tho squalid misery and the professional crime of the British slums, nor yet the riotous lawlessness and the downright brutality of Australian larrikinism. Our problem is not so much tho cure of these evils as the prevention of them; and I take it that in this case prevention is not only better, but is easier and cheaper than cure. The name larrikin is not exactly easy to define. It is continually being used in a most indiscriminate and reckless fashion as a convenient term of abuse. _ People of a harsh and critical turn of mind seem to apply the term to anyone of ungentlemanly manners. Tho people I had in my mind when I chose the expression “ juvenile offenders ” for my paper were not only those youths who commit petty offences against the law, and who thereby fall into the clutches of the police, but also those who consort with such, and who, by their noisy rudeness, rowdy behaviour, and foul language, disturb the amenity of the public streets, are an offence against society and a source of corruption to the rising generation.

Now, these offenders are all youthful. 1 am bound to say that it is the invariable testimony of those who ought to know that the New Zealand larrikin barely survives the attainment of manhood, and that he ultimately settles down into a quiet and respectable member of the community. There are exceptions to every rule, but in this case the exceptions are extremely few, and the fact is both comforting to those who believe in letting well alone and encouraging to those who are trying, and mean to keep on trying, to make well better. The youths who are sowing their wild oats in such an objectionable way cannot be so bad at heart. It is true that they amuse themselves in

ways that respectable people cannot approve of, but they must have some substantial good in them, and that substantial good is naturally, and it seems almost invariably, called forth by the responsibilities and cares of manhood.

It is, perhaps, needless to remind you why this evil exists. “ The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us.” Society is an organic body, not a heterogeneous mass of separate individuals, If the head guides the feet into the ditch, it has no right to complain of the resultant mud. If the richer classes of the community have their pleasant vices in life and business, it is a certainty that their poorer brethren will not be too scrupulous in making use of their limited opportunities for amusement. As long as we have the imperfections and vices of the upper classes in New Zealand, so long will we have the evils at present complained of in the lower classes. “ The holiness of the parsonage and parson at one end of the village," it has been said, “ can only be established in the holiness of the tavern and tapster at the other.” There is no complete cure for larrikinism that does not involve the entire regeneration of society ; and every movement that tends even a little to elevate any one class of society does, at the same time, do something for the bettering of all the rest. Until we build up our ideal society in our ideal city we must produce, to a greater or less degree, juvenile lawbreakers. Meantime, all that wo can do is to study the evil, and to seek to lessen its power. Its roots are too deeply fixed in society and in human nature for us to destroy them once for all; but there is no reason in the world, so far ns I know, why we should not be able to keep the growth of the plant within moderate dimensions. Two common beliefs I ask you to guard against. First, the belief that it is mainly the lads themselves that are to blame ; secondly, the belief that this is a newdevelopment of human nature, and that the cities of the Old Country are freer from this evil than we are.

A very little consideration will show that, as society is at present constituted, larrikins are as inevitable as weeds in a garden. The seeds are there ; they have been allowed to gather in the ground for years and years back, and grow they will, whether we like it or not. If wc admit that the lads have any right to bo in the world at all, we cannot blame them for growing up in the way that we have made easiest, and pleasantest, and most natural for them. If any good is to be done for them, it must be done—even if seemingly severe law be the instrument—in a spirit, not of blame, but of sympathy and self blame. Ido not wish to be tedious on this point, but I must insist upou its importance. In every evil deed and evil word of our larrikins wc have a share. When people come practically to believe that, larrikinism will not be so prominent. Then, again, though I have not been able to get statistics on this point, I venture to say that our youths are not more mischievous, more lawless, or more objectionable generally than youths in towns of the same size at Home. It must be remembered that our police supervision is better, and that tho proportion of children under fifteen is greater than anywhere in Australia or in Europe. Besides, we cannot afford to forget that the quantity of animal food consumed by all classes here is, compared with what is consumed at Home, enormous ; and that this is very far from being a trivial matter. Ahorse fed on oats foramonth is much more likely to kick over the traces and bolt than one that has been kept all the time on short commons. And so to some extent it is with the boy. His animal spirits are always at high-pressure point; he must find something to do. If, when his day’s work ia over, he has no school lessons to learn, does not care for reading, and can find no congenial occupation in the house—except perhaps in teaching his little brothers or sisters—it is no wonder if he prefers to go outside to seek for amusement. Indeed, it is no wonder if he is told to go out, just to get him out of the way and keep the house quiet. And the more likely lie is to be a fit subject for tho Industrial School, the less welcome will he bo to spend his evenings at home.

So out be goes and wanders, happily enough, doubtless, along the streets or around the suburbs. He does not go alone. He can pick up a chum or two at every street corner, aud as a rule he prefers to hunt in a pack. Well, how are these youths to spend their evenings? You may be sure that they will at least seek enjoyment. The best of their class will be restrained by the influence of their parents, or of the church, or of an inherited good disposition, from taking part in any amusement essentially evil. Some of them—hut these are few—will even seek out and find occupation that is improving and that will lead to something better. The great majority of them spend their eveni >gs in seeking only for arauatmen f , and many of them are not very particuloras to how they get it. To a band of boys who think themselves men, and who want to force their claim upon public notice, no evening is complete without some spice of adventure. The terror of the law, as embodied in our policemen, doubtless deters them from too frequent robbing of henroosts and orchards, and the like outbreaks ; but once in a while, and, if reports speaks true, a great deal too often for the comfort of dwellers in some localities, these things and worse things than these are done. Nor do wc get quite a fair measure of the extent of the evil by going to our police courts, A vast amount of mischief is done altogether outside of their ken. For instance, just a couple of weeks ago, I heard of an old lady who was selling her house on the Flat, solely because she was plagued out of her life by bonds of larrikins, incited, as she thought, by their parents. Of all charges upon which juvenile offenders are brought before the Court, the commonest by far is petty larceny. At our City Police Court in ISB6, out of ninety-one youths of sixteen years and under convicted, seventy-one were convicted of larceny. Oat of ninety-two convicted in the following year, there were forty-five convicted of larceny ; and in 1888, out of eighty-seven, there were sixty-five convicted of larceny. These figures seem to me alarmingly large. They represent, I believe, the number of convictions rather than the number of persons convicted. But let us suppose there arc seventy separate juvenile offenders, so convicted every year, and that the larrikin element in our streets numbers. as, according toa recent estimate, it does in Wellington, 500; also, that thelarrikin ago extends from ten to sixteen—six years. Put these figures together and you will see that every larrikin during his period of probation has just eighty-four chances of being convicted to every sixteen chances he has of not being convicted. I don’t expect you to accept that result, and I admit that I do not accept it myself. But it is arithmetically correct. Perhaps our larrikins number more than 500 ; or the period of larrikinism may extend over three rather than six years; cr perhaps the same offender is before the Court year after year. Explain the result away ns you may, it is sufficiently astonishing to show tho magnitude of the evil. Still, many of tho class wo brand as larrikins stop short of anything that can be called crime. Without actually reaching that point, they may spend their time in ways almost equally offensive to good citizens and hurtful to themselves. One of the blessings of New Zealand, people say, is the fact that wages are good, and that even a boy just beginning his trade will get liberal pay for his work. In many ways, doubtless, this is a good thing; but the long apprenticeships at nominal wages which prevailed in the Old Country had at least the advantage of keeping the youthful larrikin short of cash. He could not hurt himself much with all he earned, and he was not independent of his parents for many a year after he started work. This is one important reason, it may be noted in passing, for tho weakness of parental control in tho colonics. A little spare cash in the pocket makes a youth feel wonderfully independent, and it enables him also to indulge in a good many luxuries that would be better out of his reach, and that are often both morally and physically hurtful to him. Ono of the standing grievances against the larrikin is that he makes the freest use of all kinds of bad language. This is, to say the very least of it, a most serious offence against good taste; but let us see that in fairness we fit the cap on to the right head. The Australasian colonists generally are notorious for this sort of thing, and, as far as I know, with perfect

justice. In some quarters you would think that swearing had been reduced to a fine art; and I am sure that if a chair for its cultivation were established hero, there would be no need to send Homo for a professor. In this town, at least, where the ordinary English vocabulary is not always strong enough to express the convictions of a civic dignitary at a public meeting, and where the popular adjective is greeted with no worse reprobation than “ roars of laughter,’’ we cannot afford to moralise too reprovingly about the foul language of larrikins. Colonial society as a whole is to blame, and it is unfair to find fault with only one class. It seems to me that our weak-brained youths who think themselves verging on manhood are, as a rule, distinctly of the opinion of the old Scotchwoman, who, with maternal pride, urged upon her minister that her son’s swearing was a “grand ornament to bis conversation.”

I need not dwell upon the evil effects that evenings spent on the streets must have on the forming character of the boy, nor upon the evil lessons ho will learn from his elders in wickedness and depravity. These are self-evident. Happily here the evil is as yet comparatively in its infancy, and is far from having reached the gigantic proportions it has attained in some parts of Australia, But the evil exists, and like ether evils tends to grow worse. If we are to keep it in check there is no doubt we must do more than we are now doing. I think it would pay the Government to do a little more. Actuaries calculate that every honest tradesman at the age of twenty-one is worth LI,00i) to the Government, and that every criminal of the same age costs them LI,OOO to look after. If that is so, in converting a young criminal into an honest workman there must be some saving of public money, provided that the cost of the process docs not erceed L 2,000, Our New Zealand Government, extravagant as it is reputed to be, is not likely ever to reach that maximum.

( To be continued, j

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https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD18890705.2.32

Bibliographic details

JUVENILE OFFENDERS., Issue 7951, 5 July 1889

Word Count
3,492

JUVENILE OFFENDERS. Issue 7951, 5 July 1889

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