Local law enforcers in Gloucestershire were, by the early 19th century, becoming concerned at what they saw as inefficiencies within the criminal justice system, resulting in minor offenders being tried, at great expense, at Assizes or Quarter Sessions, when their punishments were fairly mild (by the standards of the time).
Having so many petty offenders scheduled to appear in formal trials meant an increased workload for judges, who had to stick to strict timetables in order to appear at every Quarter Session on their circuit. So in 1836, local magistrates petitioned the House of Commons, arguing that they should take on more of the work of investigating more minor crimes, and sentencing those found guilty – effectively making the criminal justice system more local.
In their petition, the magistrates – together with concerned residents of Gloucestershire, who added their signatures – set out some statistics to support their proposals: during 1835, 372 people were found guilty of a crime at Assizes or the four Gloucester Quarter Sessions for the year. Of these:
- 104 were sentenced to 3 months or less in prison, with or without hard labour, solitary confinement or whipping.
- of these 104, 55 received 2 months or less in prison;
- 20 of those who received sentences of under 3 months were aged under 17;
- 10 of those who received sentences of under 2 months were aged under 17.
The compilation of these statistics shows that local Justices of the Peace were concerned about the number of young people, receiving a fairly small sentence, who were having to go on trial at the Quarter Sessions, and the high number who could, they felt, be dealt with some other way.
Their concern that Assize and Quarter Session trials should be reserved for the more serious crimes, and criminals, shows a desire to reform the criminal justice system that had more similarities to the medieval system than a modern, industrial society’s claims to civilised behaviour.