This infamous crucible of truth is a still-existing monument of that primitive and savage legal system, which called trials by fire and boiling water, or the accidental decisions of combat, judgments of God, as if the rings of the eternal chain in the control of the First Cause must at every moment be disarranged and put out for the petty institutions of mankind. The only difference between torture and the trial by fire and water is, that the result of the former seems to depend on the will of the accused, and that of the other two on a fact which is purely physical and extrinsic to the sufferer; but the difference is only apparent, not real. The avowal of truth under tortures and agonies is as little free as was in those times the prevention without fraud of the usual effects of fire and boiling water. Every act of our will is ever proportioned to the force of the sensible impression which causes it, and the sensibility of every man is limited. Hence the impression produced by pain may be so intense as to occupy a man’s entire sensibility and leave him no other liberty than the choice of the shortest way of escape, for the present moment, from his penalty. Under such circumstances the answer of the accused is as inevitable as the impressions produced by fire and water; and the innocent man who is sensitive will declare himself guilty, when by so doing he hopes to bring his agonies to an end. All the difference between guilt and innocence is lost by virtue of the very means which they profess to employ for its discovery.
Romilly’s first idea with respect to the reform of the criminal law was a sufficiently humble one. It was nothing more than to raise the amount of the value of the property, the theft of which should expose a man to death. Twelvepence, as fixed by the statute of Elizabeth, originally signified a much greater theft than it had come to signify after a lapse of two centuries. Romilly had at first no idea of removing the death penalty for theft; his only hope was to get it affixed to a graver theft than the larceny of a shilling. Yet even so he could not bring himself to consult with the judges on the subject of his intended bill, for ‘he had not the least hope they would approve of the measure.’The more speedily and the more nearly in connection with the crime committed punishment shall follow, the more just and useful it will be. I say more just, because a criminal is thereby spared those useless and fierce torments of suspense which are all the greater in a person of vigorous imagination and fully conscious of his own weakness; more just also, because the privation of liberty, in itself a punishment, can only precede the sentence by the shortest possible interval compatible with the requirements of necessity. Imprisonment, therefore, is simply the safe custody of a citizen pending the verdict of his guilt; and this custody, being essentially disagreeable, ought to be as brief and easy as possible. The shortness of the time should be measured both by the necessary length of the preparations for the trial and by the seniority of claim to a judgment. The strictness of confinement should be no more than is necessary either for the prevention of escape or for guarding against the concealment of the proof of crimes. The trial itself should be finished in the shortest time possible. What contrast more cruel than that between a judge’s ease and a defendant’s anguish? between the comforts and pleasures of an unfeeling magistrate on the one hand, and the tears and wretchedness of a prisoner on the other? In general, the weight of a punishment and the consequence of a crime should be as efficacious as possible for the restraint of other men and as little hard as possible for the individual who is punished; for one cannot call that a proper form of society, where it is not an infallible principle, that its members intended, in constituting it, to subject themselves to as few evils as possible.
Would you prevent crimes, then see that enlightenment accompanies liberty. The evils that flow from knowledge are in inverse ratio to its diffusion; the benefits directly proportioned to it. A bold impostor, who is never a commonplace man, is adored by an ignorant people, despised by an enlightened one. Knowledge, by facilitating comparisons between objects and multiplying men’s points of view, brings many different notions into contrast, causing them to modify one another, all the more easily as the same views and the same difficulties are observed in others. In the face of a widely diffused national enlightenment the calumnies of ignorance are silent, and authority, disarmed of pretexts for its manifestation, trembles; whilst the rigorous force of the laws remains unshaken, no one of education having any dislike to the clear and useful public compacts which secure the common safety, when he compares the trifling and useless liberty sacrificed by himself with the sum-total of all the liberties sacrificed by others, who without the laws might have been hostile to himself. Whoever has a sensitive soul, when he contemplates a code of well-made laws, and finds that he has only lost the pernicious liberty of injuring others, will feel himself constrained to bless the throne and the monarch that sits upon it.
This useless prodigality of punishments, by which men have never been made any better, has driven me to examine whether the punishment of death be really useful and just in a well organised government. What kind of right can that be which men claim for the slaughter of their fellow-beings? Certainly not that right which is the source of sovereignty and of laws. For these are nothing but the sum-total of the smallest portions of individual liberty, and represent the general will, that is, the aggregate of individual wills. But who ever wished to leave to other men the option of killing him? How in the least possible sacrifice of each man’s liberty can there be a sacrifice of the greatest of all goods, namely, of life? And if there could be that sacrifice, how would such a principle accord with the other, that a man is not the master of his own life? Yet he must have been so, could he have given to himself or to society as a body this right of killing him.
In order that a punishment may be just, it must contain only such degrees of intensity as suffice to deter men from crimes. But as there is no one who on reflection would choose the total and perpetual loss of his liberty, however great the advantages offered him by a crime, the intensity of the punishment of servitude for life, substituted for capital punishment, has that in it which is sufficient to daunt the most determined courage. I will add that it is even more deterrent than death. Very many men face death calmly and firmly, some from fanaticism, some from vanity, which almost always attends a man to the tomb; others from a last desperate attempt either no longer to live or to escape from their misery; but neither fanaticism nor vanity have any place among fetters and chains, under the stick, under the yoke, in a cage of iron; the wretch thus punished is so far from terminating his miseries that with his punishment he only begins them.It would, therefore, be a mistake to ascribe to one, who only discusses social conventions and their consequences, principles contrary either to natural law or to revelation, for the reason that he does not discuss them. It would be a mistake, when he speaks of a state of war as anterior to a state of society, to understand it in the sense of Hobbes, as meaning that no obligation nor duty is prior to the existence of society, instead of understanding it as a fact due to the corruption of human nature and the want of any expressed sanction. It would be a mistake to impute it as a fault to a writer who is considering the results of the social compact that he does not admit them as pre-existent to the formation of the compact itself.But whatever tendency might have been arising in theory or in practice about this time to mitigate the severity of our laws was destined to receive a dead check from the publication in 1784 and 1785 respectively of two books which deserve historical recollection. The first was Madan’s ‘Thoughts on Executive Justice,’ in which the author, adopting Beccaria’s principle of the certainty of punishment as the best check on crime, advocated an unflinching carrying out of the laws as they stood. ‘It was,’ says Romilly, ‘a strong and vehement censure upon the judges and the ministers for their mode of administering the law, and for the frequency of the pardons which they granted. It was very much read, and certainly was followed by the sacrifice of many lives.’
Is it possible, then, so beforehand to apportion punishments to crimes that when a crime is committed it shall be but necessary to refer to a code and at once detect its appropriate punishment? Or must the law be general in its language, and leave a wide margin to the discretion of the judge? Beccaria would have the judicial function confined solely to the ascertainment of the fact of a crime, its punishment preordained by the law. On the other hand it is said, that it is impossible to anticipate every case that may arise; that no two cases are ever alike; that it is better to leave the nice adjustment of penalties to the wisdom and impartiality of a judge, and only limit his discretion by rules of a most expansive description.The Chinese penal code of 1647 is probably the nearest approach to Beccaria’s conception, and nothing is more marvellous than the precision with which it apportions punishments to every shade of crime, leaving no conceivable offence, of commission or omission, without its exact number of bamboo strokes, its exact pecuniary penalty, or its exact term or distance of banishment. It is impossible in this code to conceive any discretion or room for doubt left to the judicial officers beyond the discovery of the fact of an alleged crime. But what is practicable in one country is practicable in another; so that the charge so often urged against thus eliminating judicial discretion, that it is fair in theory but impossible in practice, finds itself at direct issue with the facts of actual life.
What should men think when they see wise magistrates and grave priests of justice with calm indifference causing a criminal to be dragged by their slow procedure to death; or when they see a judge, whilst a miserable wretch in the convulsions of his last agonies is awaiting the fatal blow, pass away coldly and unfeelingly, perhaps even with a secret satisfaction in his authority, to enjoy the comforts and pleasures of life? ‘Ah’ they will say, ‘these laws are but the pretexts of force, and the studied cruel formalities of justice are but a conventional language, used for the purpose of immolating us with greater safety, like victims destined in sacrifice to the insatiable idol of tyranny. That assassination which they preach to us as so terrible a misdeed we see nevertheless employed by them without either scruple or passion. Let us profit by the example. A violent death seemed to us a terrible thing in the descriptions of it that were made to us, but we see it is a matter of a moment. How much less terrible will it be for a man who, not expecting it, is spared all that there is of painful in it.’详情
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