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A modern society's typical response to crime and other offences against social norms, punishment can take many forms, from the most extreme, the death penalty, to simple sanctions such as the fine or the caution. Beyond the field of crime it can be found in other social institutions, including the family, schools, military barracks and workplaces. What is acceptable punishment in some settings is frowned on, or prohibited, in others.

Historically what may be most interesting about punishment is the way it changes over time, but in fragmented fashion. Corporal punishment was abolished in Victorian state schools in 1983, but it had long been banished from the workplace, and had even disappeared as a sanction of the criminal courts. At the end of the 20th century, legislators worried over whether parents should any longer be allowed to smack their children.

The generality of punishment suggests that it may differ less between city and country than do many other social practices. In the area of criminal justice, however, the city has a privileged place. From its earliest decades Melbourne has played an important role as a place of punishment of those convicted of crimes. Victoria's penitentiary (an invention of the 19th century that was intended to reform its inhabitants) was located here, at Pentridge, while the death penalty was administered at the old Melbourne Gaol or later at Pentridge itself. The city has also been the place where the most serious crimes are tried, and the most exemplary punishments determined.

Punishment in the city is an act of State power; its form is determined by the outcome of a trial or hearing presided over by a judge or magistrate, its administration overseen by a sheriff or prisons administration or justice department. In the earliest days of Melbourne not all inhabitants were liable to the jurisdiction of these authorities. The realities of settlement meant that Aboriginal peoples in the Port Phillip District were in an ambiguous position, and hence doubts were entertained over a number of decades about whether the courts might try to punish Aboriginal people for offences committed inter se (between themselves). Aboriginal law and custom meant that some actions for which they might ordinarily be charged, tried and punished in common law were in fact punishments administered in pursuit of a remedy for injuries or wrongs committed by another Aboriginal person. In 1843 a future chief justice, Redmond Barry, defended the Aboriginal Bon Jon, persuading Judge Willis that British courts were not competent to decide cases between Aboriginal people. Judge Willis was, however, overruled by the superior judges sitting in Sydney, and an early opportunity for the official recognition of Aboriginal customary law and punishment was forgone.

While the city remains the most likely place for the public display of those charged and convicted, caught on television cameras as they arrive or leave the court, the most striking contrast between the modern and the pre-modern city is the absence of public displays of punishment. Sketches of early Melbourne show prisoners in stocks, a wooden apparatus of ancient origin into which the sentenced prisoner would be locked in humiliating display for all to see. In these early decades the city was also witness to public executions; at the first, in 1841, 'Garryowen' (journalist Edmund Finn) recalled that 6000 people had gathered at Gallows Hill for the execution of Bob and Jack, Aboriginal men from Van Diemen's Land who had killed local settlers. By the 1860s, however, public executions were out of favour. They encouraged popular displays sometimes sympathetic to the criminal and even provoked public disorder in a manner distasteful to urban elites.

In the subsequent one hundred years the death penalty was applied, behind prison walls, and with decreasing frequency, but with a correlative increase in controversy. Nearly a century separated two hangings that convulsed the city. On 11 November 1880 bushranger Ned Kelly was hanged at Melbourne Gaol while a crowd of 5000 gathered outside, many using the opportunity to express their sympathy for the most famous colonial outlaw. When Ronald Ryan was hanged at Pentridge Prison in 1967, the accompanying public protest was enough to ensure it was the last execution in Australia's history.

Punishment of the body was not confined to the stocks and the gallows. Some offences, including those occurring within prisons, attracted corporal punishment. As late as 1967 the punishment of whipping was still considered by the State's Chief Justice to be a desirable option. Debate against it appealed to humanitarian sentiments that had been instrumental in limiting its use in the past, and former University of Melbourne criminologist Norval Morris called up other memories of a history Melbourne had largely forgotten, namely its part in the convict story. Although whipping was infrequent, it nevertheless survived longer in Victoria and South Australia than in the convict-heritage States such as New South Wales.

A paradox of capital and corporal punishment was that their emotional power seemed to increase as they became less frequent and more hidden from public display. The interest of modern-day visitors to the museum of Old Melbourne Gaol in the material remnants of these forms of punishment (the gallows where Ned Kelly was hanged, the flogging triangle where prisoners were once whipped) is a sign of their potency as cultural relics. Even while in use, these instruments of punishment were hidden from general view. Yet the seclusion of execution was something of a conjuring trick. Since the purpose of punishment always includes elements of retributive satisfaction as well as moral lessons about the rewards of crime, it became necessary to publicise the event through the media. Hence Melburnians learned of the details of each execution or corporal punishment through the journalism of writers on the city's newspapers. From his diaries while governor of Melbourne Gaol, we know that John Buckley Castieau would venture out in the 1870s to gather newspaper journalists to witness and record, for the edification of their readers, these ceremonies of punishment. Such punishments were meant to convey a message to those well beyond the prison walls.

For most offenders, however, punishment has not involved formal corporal punishment. Over time the range of penalties has expanded to include not only imprisonment and the fine (the principal options available until the mid-20th century), but also now probation, parole (early release from prison), community-service orders and good-behaviour bonds. The reasons for the changing range of penalties are instructive. Punishment is expressive, serving sometimes to condemn the actions of a law-breaker and in other cases to condemn the person who has committed the act. In the two centuries since European settlement of Australia, the rationales for punishment have fluctuated between measures aimed at the crime itself and those aimed at the person committing the crime. The 19th-century faith in the possibility that a person might be reformed in a prison - the ideal of a penitentiary such as Pentridge - gave way during the early 20th century to a greater focus on the individual characteristics of those who were to be punished. A result was the development of the 'indeterminate sentence', typically served in a non-urban prison such as the reformatory at Castlemaine. In time this penalty gave way to probation.

Returning from an international tour, the Victorian inspector-general of prisons, A.R. Whatmore, recommended in 1951 a wholesale reform of the system of punishment, with a new focus on the system of probation, in which those convicted would not be sentenced to a prison term but instead subjected to supervision by a probation officer who would develop a program of rehabilitation of the offender. Even those who served time in prison would increasingly be released conditionally, before their sentences expired, on parole. The changing emphasis on the status of the prisoner as a citizen who requires supervised reintegration into society was equally found in the treatment of juvenile delinquents. By the 1980s these trends developed into new sanctions, including the community-service order.

Some of these changes can be seen in a comparison of the punishment of offenders convicted in the lower courts over time. In the later 19th century the magistrates typically sentenced the convicted offender to a fine or imprisonment. By the 1970s the result was much less likely to be imprisonment, with most offenders being fined, placed on probation or required to pay a bond to be of good behaviour. In the 1990s there was a swing back to imprisonment for more serious offenders, but community-based sanctions also expanded.

As these trends in sentencing and available penalties suggest, the segregation of distinct populations has been a signal ideal of modern punishment, but only haltingly accomplished in practice. Typical of early difficulties was the Debtors' Prison at Melbourne Gaol in the 1870s. There debtors were kept in separate accommodation with their own yard. The keepers regarded their presence as a nuisance since they had special privileges, such as freedom from the vetting of their mail or subjection to labour. Although statutes intended to abolish imprisonment for debt were passed in the 1840s, Victoria maintained into the 1990s its quaintly named Imprisonment of Fraudulent Debtors Act 1958, punishing those who found themselves in contempt of court for failing to pay a civil debt.

Punishment has distinguished between male and female, child and adult. Originally Pentridge had been designed in the 1850s as a penitentiary for both women and men, but cost-cutting resulted in plans for the female accommodation being abandoned. It was not until 1894 that the Female Penitentiary was opened at Coburg, unimaginative in design but healthier than the old Melbourne Gaol accommodation. It would be replaced by the modified asylum buildings at Fairlea in 1925, where Victoria's women prisoners would be housed until 1996.

The separation of juveniles, both male and female, from adult institutions was a norm from the 1860s, on the principle that contamination by adult prisoners would prevent any prospect of rehabilitation. At the same time these institutions also fostered conditions in which the abuse of their inmates would occasionally come to public notice, provoking inquiry and sporadic reform. At the Jika Juvenile Reformatory male juveniles were subjected to a strict regime of military discipline and ineffectual education in the 1870s, abusive enough to prompt an official inquiry in 1878. In 1955 Judge John Barry's official inquiry into the treatment of juvenile delinquency sought to replace punishment with rehabilitation and reintegration of those whose family and social circumstances had led them astray. In such a perspective, offending was a by-product of dysfunctional environments, especially urban environments, and remedies were to be found not in punishment but in social reform, social work and education. The cycle of institutional decay, inquiry and new approaches to offending continues to this day.

While occasionally the object of attention from penal reformers, church groups and even prisoners' action groups, the administration of punishment has been for most of Melbourne's history a public function. Initially the sheriff managed the prisons and lock-ups of the city, but from the 1870s the prisons administration of the colony was the responsibility of an inspector-general. The diversification of penalties in the course of the 20th century broadened the management of punishment from a Department of Prisons to one involving probation, parole and even 'community services'. By the 1980s punishment of crime was managed by an 'Office of Corrections'. During the administration of Liberal premier Jeff Kennett, Victoria became a focus for new initiatives in the privatisation of punishment. By 1998 nearly half the State's prisoners were being managed in privately run institutions, reminiscent of the pre-colonial arrangements of 18th-century Great Britain, when prisons were managed privately. Perhaps prisons were no longer the State's monopoly, yet demands to criminalise the smacking of children suggested that government would not too readily vacate the field of punishment.

Mark Finnane