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One thing that might be done, which would also serve at the same time to keep a prisoner’s family from want, the main source of crime, would be the formation of a Prisoners’ Fund, for his and their benefit. For this there is a precedent in a quite recent Act. For the Act, which abolished the forfeiture of a felon’s property, enabled the Crown to appoint an administrator of it, for the benefit of the persons injured by the crime and the felon’s family, the property itself and its income reverting ultimately to the convict or to his representatives. There could, however, be no objection in justice to the forfeiture of a proportionate part of every felon’s property, such forfeiture to be dedicated to the formation of a fund, out of which assistance should be given, both to the families of prisoners during their custody and to the prisoners themselves on their discharge.[62] Such a fund might be still further increased by the substitution of a lien on a man’s wages or income for many minor offences now punished, but not prevented, by imprisonment.It may be said that all such absurdities are past; that the Jews, the Athenians, the Chinese, the Europeans of the middle ages can scarcely be cited as reasonable beings; that they had no rational theory of punishment, and that their errors have been long since discarded. But at least their example suggests that even in our own system there may be inconsistencies and blemishes which custom and authority hide from our eyes.

Sir Robert Peel, who was the first Ministerial law reformer, succeeded in getting the death penalty repealed for several crimes which were practically obsolete, but forty kinds of forgery alone still remained capital offences.

For the same reason it is of little avail to call in question, as Beccaria does, the right of society to inflict death as a punishment. There may be a distinction between the right of society and its might, but it is one of little comfort to the man who incurs its resentment. A man in a dungeon does better to amuse himself with spiders and cobwebs than with reflections on the encroachment of the law upon his liberty, or with theories about the rights of government. Whenever society has ceased to exercise any of its powers against individuals, it has not been from the acceptance of any new doctrine as to its rights, but from more enlightened views as to its real interests, and a cultivated dislike of cruelty and oppression.The lighting of a city by night at the public expense; the distribution of guards in the different quarters; simple moral discourses on religion, but only in the silent and holy quiet of churches, protected by public authority; speeches on behalf of private and public interests in national assemblies, parliaments, or wherever else the majesty of sovereignty resides—all these are efficacious means for preventing the dangerous condensation of popular passions. These means are a principal branch of that magisterial vigilance which the French call police; but if this is exercised by arbitrary laws, not laid down in a code of general circulation, a door is opened to tyranny,[221] which ever surrounds all the boundaries of political liberty. I find no exception to this general axiom, that ‘Every citizen ought to know when his actions are guilty or innocent.’ If censors, and arbitrary magistrates in general, are necessary in any government, it is due to the weakness of its constitution, and is foreign to the nature of a well organised government. More victims have been sacrificed to obscure tyranny by the uncertainty of their lot than by public and formal cruelty, for the latter revolts men’s minds more than it abases them. The true tyrant always begins by mastering opinion, the precursor of courage; for the latter can only show itself in the clear light of truth, in the fire of passion, or in ignorance of danger.

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[178] 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.’CHAPTER XXXVIII. FALSE IDEAS OF UTILITY.What can be thought of an author who presumes to establish his system on the débris of all hitherto accepted notions, who to accredit it condemns all civilised nations, and who spares neither systems of law, nor magistrates, nor lawyers?

It was by the advice of Scarlett, Lord Abinger, that he ventured to aim at the repeal of all statutes punishing mere theft with death; but, deeming it hopeless to urge their abolition all at once, he resolved to begin with that famous statute of Elizabeth which made it a capital crime to steal a handkerchief or anything else from the person of another which was of the value of a shilling. His bill to effect this[60] passed both Houses the same year it was introduced (1808), in spite of the strong opposition of the great legal dignitaries in either House. The statute was based, said Judge Burton, on the experience of two and a half centuries. The alternative punishment of transportation for seven years, said the Attorney-General, would be too short; it should be for more years than seven, if not for life. If any change of punishment were necessary, said Lord Ellenborough, it should be transportation for life.Lastly, among the crimes of the third kind are especially those which disturb the public peace and civic tranquillity; such as noises and riots in the public streets, which were made for the convenience of men and traffic, or fanatical sermons that excite the easily roused passions of the curious multitude. For their passions gather force from the number of hearers, and more from a certain obscure and mysterious enthusiasm, than from clear and quiet reasoning, which never has any influence over a large mass of men.

Beccaria entertains a similar despair of truth. The history of mankind represents a vast sea of errors, in which at rare intervals a few truths only float uppermost; and the durability of great truths is as that of a flash of lightning when compared with the long[9] and dark night which envelops humanity. For this reason he is ready to be the servant of truth, not her martyr; and he recommends in the search for truth, as in the other affairs of life, a little of that ‘philosophical indolence’ which cares not too much about results, and which a writer like Montaigne is best fitted to inspire.[6]CHAPTER XI. OATHS.

But, to turn from this unpleasant episode of Beccaria’s life, Catharine II., soon after his return to Milan, invited him to St. Petersburg, to assist in the preparation of her intended code of laws. It would seem from one of Pietro Verri’s letters that Beccaria was at first inclined to accept the proposal,[15] but it is improbable that any such offer would really have tempted him to exchange Italian suns for Russian snows, even if Kaunitz and Firmian had not resolved to remove the temptation, by making his talents of service at home. This they did by making him Professor of Political Economy in the Palatine School of Milan, in November 1768; and his published lectures on this subject form the largest work he ever wrote.CHAPTER XXIII. PROPORTION BETWEEN CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS.It is impossible to prevent all the disorders that may arise in the universal conflict of human passions. Their increase depends on that of population and on the crossings of private interests, which cannot be directed with geometrical exactness to the public welfare. In political arithmetic the calculation of probabilities must be substituted for mathematical exactness. Glance at the history of the world, and you will see disorders increase with the increase of the bounds of empire; thus national feeling being to the same extent diminished, the general inducement to crime increases with the greater interest of each individual in such disorders, and on this account the necessity for aggravating penalties ever continues to increase.


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Some crimes tend directly to the destruction of society or to the sovereign who represents it; others affect individual citizens, by imperilling their life, their property, or their honour; whilst others, again, are actions contrary to the positive or negative obligations which bind every individual to the public weal.To examine and distinguish all the different sorts[120] of crimes and the manner of punishing them would now be our natural task, were it not that their nature, which varies with the different circumstances of times and places, would compel us to enter upon too vast and wearisome a mass of detail. But it will suffice to indicate the most general principles and the most pernicious and common errors, in order to undeceive no less those who, from a mistaken love of liberty, would introduce anarchy, than those who would be glad to reduce their fellow-men to the uniform regularity of a convent.That Penology is still only in its experimental stage as a science, in spite of the progress it has made in recent times, is clear from the changes that are so constantly being made in every department of our penal system. We no longer mutilate nor kill our criminals, as our ancestors did in the plenitude of their wisdom; we have ceased to transport them, and our only study now is to teach them useful trades and laborious industry. Yet whether we shall better bring them to love labour by compulsory idleness or by compulsory work, whether short imprisonment or long is the most effective discipline, whether seclusion or association is least likely to demoralise them, these and similar questions have their answers in a quicksand of uncertainty. This only may experience be said to have yet definitely proved, that very little relation exists in any country between the given quantity of crime and the quantity or severity of punishment directed to its prevention. It has taken thousands of years to establish this truth, and even yet it is but partially recognised over the world.

The first class of crimes—that is, the worst, because they are the most injurious to society—are those known as crimes of high treason. Only tyranny and ignorance, which confound words and ideas of the clearest meaning, can apply this name, and consequently the heaviest punishment, to different kinds of crimes, thus rendering men, as in a thousand other cases, the victims of a word. Every crime, be it ever so private, injures society; but every crime does not aim at its immediate destruction. Moral, like physical actions, have their limited sphere of activity, and are differently circumscribed, like all the movements of nature, by time and space; and therefore only a sophistical interpretation, which is generally the philosophy of slavery, can confound what eternal truth has distinguished by immutable differences.I said that the promptness of punishment is more useful, because the shorter the interval of time between the punishment and the misdeed, the stronger and the more lasting in the human mind is the association of these ideas, crime and punishment, so that insensibly they come to be considered, the one as the cause and the other as its necessary and inevitable consequence. It is a proved fact that the association of ideas is the cement of the whole fabric of the human intellect, and that without it pleasure and pain would be isolated and ineffective feelings. The further removed men are from general ideas and universal principles, that is, the more commonplace they are, the more they act by their immediate and nearest associations, to the neglect of remoter and more complex ones, the latter being of service only[187] to men strongly impassioned for a given object of pursuit, inasmuch as the light of attention illuminates a single object, whilst it leaves the others obscure. They are also of service to minds of a higher quality, because, having acquired the habit of running rapidly over many subjects at a time, they possess facility in placing in contrast with one another many partial feelings, so that the result of their thoughts, in other words, their action, is less perilous and uncertain.



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