These figures, it is true, do not tell us much about the effects of conditional sentences in Belgium, as we might expect from the brevity of the experiment; so that the question still remains in the theoretical phase.
The statistics of the Massachusetts probation system are not much more instructive.
According to the decennial report (1879-88) of Mr. Savage, probation officer at Boston, imprisonment was remitted in the county of Suffolk (including Boston) to 322 persons in 1879 and to 880 in 1888; whilst the number officially recorded for the following year was 994. In the course of ten years the probation officer inquired into the cases of 27,052 persons liable to supervision. Of these, 7,251 were put on probation, and 580 were deprived of the benefit of the law.
The grounds on which the probation system was applied in Massachusetts were strikingly different from the circumstances under which conditional sentences were recorded in Belgium. Thus in Boston there were put on probation, between 1879 and 1888, 3,161 persons charged with drunkenness for the first time, 222 charged with habitual drunkenness, 211 with drunkenness for the third time, 958 with theft, 764 with solicitation, 470 with inflicting bodily harm, 274 with disorderly conduct and idleness, 240 with violation of domicile, especially with intrusion in business premises.
Thus, apart from the difference of penal legislation and social life in the two countries, the Boston system is applied mainly to drunkards, who are not true criminals by the mere fact of intoxication.
As for the statistics of ascertained relapse, which in Boston reached 64 out of 1,125 (6 per cent.) in 1889, I think they should be received with caution. In the case of every new penal or penitentiary system or measure, we never fail to receive more or less wonderful figures on the results obtained; but the common fate of all these splendid results has always been that they dwindle down, even if they do not turn into a negative quantity, so as to indicate the necessity of other more practical and serviceable measures. The reason is, and will continue to be the same, namely, that legislators, judges, and prison warders have no adequate knowledge of criminals, and their activity is anything but harmonious. This accounts for the superficial character, if nothing more, of the measures which are taken, and which apply far more to the crime than to the criminal, without so much as touching the true and deep-seated roots of crime. Hence also the inevitable disillusion, almost before the new device is a month old.
I by no means admit the two principal objections of MM. Kirchenheim and Wach, that the conditional sentence is repugnant to the principle of absolute justice, according to which every offence should be visited by a corresponding punishment, and that short terms of imprisonment, if they have not always produced a good result, ought not to be abolished, but only applied in a more suitable and efficacious manner.
The first objection will not weigh much with those who are guided by the principles and method of the positive school. As M. Gautier says, it is absolutely useless to dispute about consequences when we start from premisses so opposed to each other as retributive justice, according to which every fault demands a proportional punishment--``fiat justitia pereat mundus''--and social defence, according to which a justice without social advantage is an unjust justice, afflicted with metaphysical degeneracy.