Sir F. Burdett
said, that seeing the secretary for the home department in his place, he would present a petition with which he had been entrusted by Mr. Martin Stapylton, a magistrate in the North Riding of Yorkshire. The right hon. gentleman had probably seen and heard something of disputes regarding the tread-mill among the magistracy at Northallerton, the majority of whom had been in the habit of sending persons before trial to this very degrading and laborious employment. An act had been passed during the last session upon this subject, and it had been accompanied by a general explanation, that prisoners committed for trial were not fit objects of such a punishment. Nevertheless, the individuals in question had persevered in the former practice, which appeared to the petitioner both illegal and oppressive. He therefore prayed the interposition of parliament: and in the opinion of the hon. baronet, it was loudly called for, to put a stop to a proceeding unwarranted by the spirit of the law of the land, as it inflicted punishment before a jury had decided that any guilt existed. He trusted that some effectual steps would be taken without delay to correct the misinterpretation that prevailed in some quarters, and which was daily leading to acts of the grossest injustice. He hoped that some effective measures would be adopted, either to amend the law, if a mistake prevailed upon the subject, or to correct the practice if it were illegally persevered in. It ought not for a moment to be suffered to exist after this exposure of its oppression and injustice.
Mr. Secretary Peel
said, that the subject had been recently before the court of King's Bench, and it would be premature to discuss it at present, more particularly as the hon. member for Shrewsbury had given notice of a specific motion upon the subject. He readily agreed, that if the application of the tread-mill before trial were not illegal, it was at all events decidedly impolitic. The chief benefit of its discipline was, that it inflicted a stigma, and a disgrace, a moral punishment, which would be lost if it were used before trial. Upon a principle of justice therefore as well as of expediency, he thought the punishment of the tread-mill ought not to be inflicted before trial.
Sir F. Burdett
said, he could not conceive the slightest doubt upon the illegality of the punishment before trial. It was a compulsory punishment upon men 140 not proved guilty of any offence. The Judges of the Court of King's bench had evaded the real question, and had not determined upon the main point at all they had merely said, that a prisoner was only entitled to the county allowance if he refused to work. But, suppose the case of a person so refusing to work; the mischief of this sort of punishment was worse in its principle to society, than the injury sustained by the example of the inability and obstinacy of any prisoner. He would repeat, that the practice was highly illegal, because the prisoner was in general entitled to bail before trial, if he could obtain it. If it was his misfortune to be unable to obtain the necessary bail, was it not quite enough that his lot must be imprisonment, without painful labour being coercively superadded? If it was the lot of a prisoner to be long committed before trial, his confinement and this tread-mill might amount to a far greater punishment than could be inflicted upon him, even if guilt were legally established against him. Besides, they should bear in mind, that the new system of prison discipline precluded the prisoner from receiving whatever sustenance his friends could afford him; and, was he before trial to be so placed, as to have to encounter the privation of a gaol allowance inadequate to fair human sustenance, or be exposed to a severe personal punishment? After this he hoped that common sense and decent feeling would prevent a repetition of such injustice.
§ Mr. Peel
said, that between him and the hon. baronet there was no material difference of opinion. Whatever, he repeated, might be the strict law, upon which he was not prepared or qualified to decide, he had not a moment's doubt as to the inexpediency of placing persons on the tread-mill before they had been found guilty of any crime.
§ Mr. Stuart Wortley
said, that the magistrates at Northallerton felt a strong conviction that they were acting legally in the course they had pursued. The Court of King's-bench had satisfied them that they were right ["No, no"]. Such appeared to him to be the result of the decision of the judges. The hon. member, however, agreed in the inexpediency of such committals, and should be happy to see the matter finally settled by a distinct enactment.
§ Ordered to lie on the table.