(Inside Science) -- From the mid-19th through early 20th centuries, children arrested for crimes in Victorian and Edwardian England were much less likely to wind up back in jail than youthful offenders are now, a team of English sociologists have reported. They credit, among other things, a penal system that provided young offenders with job training.
Pamela Cox, professor of sociology at the University of Essex and her colleagues found that a mere 22 percent of young criminals were convicted of crimes a year after they got out of the juvenile justice system. Only six percent of the study's subjects went on to a life of crime.
The recidivism rate — the rate of people who commit a crime to go on to commit another — in England now is 73 percent.
It is apparently impossible to calculate a recidivism rate for the U.S. because the criminal justice system is in the hands of 51 jurisdictions, each with its own definitions and processes, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Some states don't collect the data at all.
The researchers followed the records of 400 juveniles sent to vocational schools or reformatories from 1870 to 1910. They followed another 100 children who were either siblings or who had committed very minor crimes to act as a control. They reported their findings to a meeting of the British Sociology Association in Glasgow earlier this month.
The system used in the Victorian age came after a reform in the middle of the 19th century after publicity about cruelty and corruption within the prison system.
After the reform, Cox said, almost all the young offenders were given vocational training whether they went into reformatory schools – incarceration – or assigned to trade schools and apprenticeships. Girls learned to be domestic servants; boys learned farming, shoemaking, tailoring or other skills.
The government made considerable efforts to train the children, even moving two navy ships, the HMS Akbar and the HMS Indefatigable, to the River Mersey where boys were trained to be sailors. When their training was complete, they joined the Royal Navy.
Everyone was released from the system when they reached the age of 16.
You didn't have to be a criminal to get into the system, Cox said. Even those children "who were considered 'vulnerable' to predation, poverty and the 'inheritance' of criminal dispositions" were taken, including orphans.
Those thought to be irredeemable were transported to the English penal colony in Australia.
Those incarcerated did not have an easy time even after the reforms. But most left trained to be responsible adults. Cox said improved life chances in the growing economy of the Industrial Revolution and a government safety net also contributed to the decrease in recidivism.
Credit for the reforms often goes to Charles Dickens and his 1837-1839 serial novel, Oliver Twist, although Dickens scholars think that is over-stated. John Jordan, director of the Dickens Project at the University of California, Santa Cruz, however, said the wildly-popular novel did bring public attention to the issues. Dickens' main character, the young orphan Oliver, is pulled into the system against his will.
Oliver is put in a workhouse, and is eventually thrown out to apprentice with a funeral director. He eventually ends up involved with a gang of youthful pickpockets in London run by the infamous Fagin.
Fagin's gang was modeled after the gangs that beset real English streets. The character Fagin was based on Isaac ("Ikey") Solomon, who ran just such a pack. Not all the crimes of Fagin's gang were petty: In the novel, Jack Dawkins (a.k.a. the Artful Dodger) is caught after a burglary, tried, and shipped to Australia. Oliver is only rescued from the system by benign intermediaries.
It is true, Cox admitted, that the crimes the Victorian kids committed -- like pickpocketing -- bear little resemblance to the activities of gangs today, who often deal in drugs and crimes of violence. Juveniles who committed the crimes of modern gangs would have simply been hanged even if they were children.
The comparison of the seriousness of their crimes is a weakness in the study, Cox admits.
Charles Frazier, professor emeritus of criminology and law at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, said that while he thought the study was valuable, making comparisons between times is perilous.
"There are all kinds of things that are not comparable," Frazier said.
"There is no universal accepted definition of recidivism. Researchers generally use whatever data they have access to." There are, and were then, varying standards on how records are kept and recidivism is measured, he said.
"It's what we have," Cox said.
Cox said the U.S. had a similar system until the middle of the 20th century. Now probation and incarceration -- sometimes as adults -- is the norm.
"I wouldn't say the Victorians were more enlightened than we are by any stretch," Frazier said. "But we are not a helluva lot more enlightened than they were then."
Not all the subjects in the Essex study thrived however. A large proportion of the boys died in the trenches of World War I.