This essay will address the influence of Utilitarian thought in the introduction of policing during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. As a preface to the main essay, the circumstances that had been causing concern up to that point will be addressed, with the argument for whether Utilitarian thought is still present in today’s policing and prison system concluding it. In Britain, a large population meant more poverty which brought with it desperation, which meant more crime.

There was a rise of the new middle class who saw themselves as the new rich, and were adamant no one was going to take their newly gained money, and the power that they had gained resulted in them being willing to do anything to not return to being poor. The middle classes began to coax the police presence on the streets to be of a more similar standing to that already in place within the City of London and other urban areas. There were not enough trained police at this time, so punishments were determined by the individuals ability to pay.

From the poor there was widespread anger at the lack of a voice, and they were concerned greatly with the unfairness the legal system in place at that time was giving them. (Briggs J, Harrison C, McInnes A and Vincent D 1996) The arrival of a new type of policing force would simply bestow more power upon the rich, and would control their already limited rights. There was widespread fear amongst the rich living in the city of London, that changes in policing would alter the privileges they had been enjoying under the old policing system. There were also concerns about the civil rights the creation of a local body would bring.

A change was urgently needed. The government was being called upon to respond to rebellion taking place from the poor. There were several reform movements as well as the middle class at this time wanting to revolutionalise the policing system. One of these reform movements was led by Jeremy Bentham, the Utilitarian movement. “Utilitarianism – the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary). Utilitarians were of the field of thought that the interests of society as a whole were of a greater importance than the interests of the individual solely.

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The Utilitarians had a three tier view of punishment, “firstly it must deter wholly or confine the criminal to lesser crime, secondly it must correct behaviour, and thirdly it must be as cheap as possible, and in no case exceed the cost of what it seeks to control” (Briggs J, Harrison C, McInnes A and Vincent D 1996 pg 159). Bentham and his followers believed that individuals would be more likely to weigh up the benefits to themselves of undertaking criminal activity, versus the punishment that the activity would incur.

Bentham firmly believed that the role of the police should be clear and concise, backed up by the community rather than solely being in the Government’s control. Bentham believed that the individual should be answerable to their crime, and the action of the community should be to send them to prison to reform. Up until now the death penalty was controlling the criminal by the nature of the punishment but was allowing no room for reform from the criminal. (Briggs J, Harrison C, McInnes A and Vincent D 1996)

The Utilitarian school of thought would work for both the Government and the population as a whole. It was a functional and effective way of policing. The good of the many had to outweigh the good of the individual. The individual had to be educated into believing that it was in their best interests not to commit crime, and the introduction of a trained force that could earn respect from the individual rather than disapproval was the best way forward. The Utilitarian influence on the Government was evident at this time.

Bentham pointed out in his “Introduction to the Principles of Morals & Legislation” published in 1789 that there should be a fundamental review of use of prisons for sentencing, as opposed to more crimes getting the death penalty, as “all punishment is an evil, which under the theory of utility should be administered only when it promises to exclude some even greater evil” (Briggs J, Harrison C, McInnes A and Vincent D 1996 p168). Bentham in 1791 had a plan for reforming prisons with his idea for the creation of the ‘Panopticon’ in his opinion the perfect prison. He believed by observing the prisoners, they would see reform taking place.

The offender was to be in isolation for the first eighteenth months of his sentence, dependent upon the offence. Bentham believed that it was time for the individual to take responsibility for the criminal activities they themselves had undertaken, and for the punishment to fit the crime. Bentham’s Panopticon was, in his view, the solution to the problems society had been suffering. The Panopticon could be a countrywide way of curbing the behaviour of offenders, with the added benefit of the accountants being kept happy with the design structure of the building not requiring many staff! (Briggs J, Harrison C, McInnes A and Vincent D 1996)

In 1794, Bentham acquired a site at Millbank, but the government would not release any funding for the project. In 1816 the first national penitentiary was opened on the Millbank site. Some of Bentham’s structural ideas were incorporated into Milbank’s seven pentagons. “The Benthamite plan of prison architecture had much to commend it” (Briggs J, Harrison C, McInnes A and Vincent D 1996 pg 168). Bentham believed that “the pleasure to be derived from crime had to be outweighed by the punishment that followed” (Rawlings P 1999 pg 85). By the mid nineteenth century behaviour was being controlled by a reward versus punishment system.

Prisoners were being rewarded for good behaviour or punished for bad behaviour. The prison punishment system at this time was set within the structure of the building, this meant that the prisoners were being made to behave in a certain way, they were being given no choice except to reform, by spending lengthy amounts of time in confinement. Bentham hoped that Open Days advertising the message of the ‘non pleasure experience’ the offender would encounter would deter individuals in offending. However, a difficulty arose with the Open Days when mainly middle classes visited which resulted in offending patterns not altering.

In 1863 a new set of policies were introduced involving longer periods of isolation, longer work periods and exercise for the offender to undertake during their stay in prison. It could be argued that today as prison is intended for reform, the punishment fitting the crime, there is in place a respected police force upholding the law, policing is benefiting society as a whole and its intention is in educating individuals into not wanting to commit crime, that these are the Utilitarian thoughts being firmly in place.

In conclusion, the Utilitarians had set out to influence the introduction of an “effective, efficient, functional, practical, sensible, serviceable and useful” policing system to Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. (The Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of Utilitarianism). By the nineteenth century, there was strong Utilitarian influence guiding many of the new policies, not punishing offenders, but encouraging their reformation, which has been carried through into the modern day policing and prison system.


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