CHAPTER XIX. THE PROMPTNESS OF PUNISHMENTS.The case of infanticide suggests similar thoughts. When we remember that both Plato and Aristotle commended as a valuable social custom that which we treat as a crime; when we recall the fact that the life of a Spartan infant depended on a committee of elders, who decided whether it should live or perish, we shall better appreciate the distance we have travelled, or, as some would say, the progress we have made, if we take up some English daily paper and read of some high-minded English judge sentencing, at least formally, some wretched woman to death, because, in order to save her child from starvation or herself from shame, she has released it from existence. Yet the feeling, of which such a sentence is the expression, is often extolled as one of the highest triumphs of civilisation; and the laws, as if there were no difference between adult and infant life, glory in protecting the weakness of a child by their merciless disregard for the weakness of its mother.Nothing could be more interesting than Lord Kames’ account of the growth of criminal law, from the rude revenges of savages to the legal punishments of civilised States; but it was probably intended by its author less as an historical treatise than as a veiled attack upon the penal system of his country. It is, therefore, a good illustration of the timidity of the Theoretical school against the overwhelming forces of the Practical school of law, which, of course, included the great body of the legal profession; and it is the first sign of an attempt to apply the experience of other countries and times to the improvement of our own jurisprudence.
But although the laws of every country thus recognise in different degrees the retributive nature of punishment, by their constant attention to its apportionment to crime, there is another corollary of the desirability of a just proportion between the two, which has never been, nor is ever likely to be, accepted: namely, that from the point of view of the public interest, which in theory is the only legal view, it is no mitigation of a crime that it is a first offence, nor any aggravation of one that it is the second.
The second question is, whether it is expedient to place a reward on the head of a known criminal, and to make of every citizen an executioner by arming him against the offender. Either the criminal has fled from his country or he is still within it. In the first case the sovereign encourages the commission of a crime and exposes its author to a punishment, being thereby guilty of an injury and of an usurpation of authority in the dominions of another, and authorising other nations to do the same by himself. In the second case the sovereign displays his own weakness, for he who has the power wherewith to defend himself seeks not to purchase it. Moreover, such an edict upsets all ideas of morality and virtue, which are ever ready to vanish from the human mind at the very slightest breath. Now the laws invite to treachery, and anon they punish it; with one hand the legislator tightens the bonds of the family, of kindred, and of friendship, whilst with the other he rewards whosoever violates and despises them; always in self-contradiction, he at one moment invites to confidence the suspicious natures of men, and at another scatters mistrust broadcast among them. Instead of preventing one crime, he causes a hundred. These are the resources of weak nations, whose laws are but the temporary repairs of a ruined building that totters throughout. In proportion as a nation becomes enlightened, good faith and mutual confidence become necessary, and tend ever more to identify themselves with true policy. Tricks, intrigues, dark and indirect paths, are for the most part foreseen, and the general quickness of all men collectively over-reaches and blunts that of single individuals. The very ages of ignorance, in which public morality inclines men to obey the dictates of private morality, serve as instruction and experience for the ages of enlightenment. But laws which reward treachery and stir up clandestine hostility by spreading mutual suspicion among citizens, are opposed to this union of private and public morality, a union which is so necessary, and to the observance of which individuals might owe their happiness, nations their peace, and the universe a somewhat longer period of quiet and repose from the evils which at present pervade it.The very severity of a punishment leads men to dare so much the more to escape it, according to the greatness of the evil in prospect; and many crimes are thus committed to avoid the penalty of a single one. Countries and times where punishments have been most severe have ever been those where the bloodiest and most inhuman deeds have been committed, the same spirit of ferocity that guided the hand of the legislator having guided also that of the parricide and assassin; on the throne dictating iron laws for the villanous souls of slaves to obey, and in the obscurity of private life urging to the slaughter of tyrants, only to create fresh ones in their stead.Two other fatal consequences flow from the cruelty of punishments, and are contrary to their very purpose, the prevention of crimes. The first is, that it is not so easy to preserve the essential proportion between crime and punishment, because, however much a studied cruelty may diversify its forms, none of them can go beyond the extreme limit of endurance which is a condition of the human organisation and sensibility. When once this extreme limit is attained, it would be impossible to invent such a corresponding increase of punishment for still more injurious and atrocious crimes as would be necessary to prevent them. The other consequence is, that impunity itself arises from the severity of punishments. Men are restrained within limits both in good and evil; and a sight too atrocious for humanity can only be a passing rage, not a constant system, such as the laws ought to be; if the latter are really cruel, either they are changed, or themselves give rise to a fatal impunity.
Thus, the two writers to whom Beccaria owed most were Montesquieu and Helvetius. The ‘Lettres Persanes’ of the former, which satirised so many things then in custom, contained but little about penal laws; but the idea is there started for the first time that crimes depend but little on the mildness or severity of the punishments attached to them. ‘The imagination,’ says the writer, ‘bends of itself to the customs of the country; and eight days of prison or a slight fine have as much terror for a European brought up in a country of mild manners as the loss of an arm would have for an Asiatic.’ The ‘Esprit des Lois,’ by the same author, probably contributed more to the formation of Beccaria’s thoughts than the ‘Lettres Persanes,’ for it is impossible to read the twelfth book of that work without being struck by the resemblance of ideas. The ‘De L’Esprit’ of Helvetius was condemned by the Sorbonne as ‘a combination of all the various kinds of poison scattered through modern books.’ Yet it was one of the most influential books of the time. We find Hume recommending it to Adam Smith for its agreeable composition father than for its philosophy; and a writer who had much in common with Beccaria drew from it the same inspiration that he did. That writer was Bentham, who tells us that when he was about twenty, and on a visit to his father and stepmother in the country, he would often walk behind them reading a book, and that his favourite author was Helvetius.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.
In every criminal case a judge ought to form a complete syllogistic deduction, in which the statement of the general law constitutes the major premiss; the conformity or non-conformity of a particular action with the law, the minor premiss; and acquittal or punishment, the conclusion. When a judge is obliged, or of his own accord wishes, to make even no more than two syllogisms, the door is opened to uncertainty.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.
Count Pietro Verri was the son of Gabriel, who was distinguished alike for his legal knowledge and high position in Milan. At the house of Pietro, Beccaria and the other friends used to meet for the discussion and study of political and social questions. Alessandro, the younger brother of Pietro, held the office of ‘Protector of Prisoners,’ an office which consisted in visiting the prisons, listening to the grievances of the inmates, and discovering, if possible, reasons for their defence or for mercy. The distressing sights he was witness of in this capacity are said to have had the most marked effect upon him; and there is no doubt that this fact caused the attention of the friends to be so much directed to the state of the penal laws. It is believed to have been at the instigation of the two brothers that Beccaria undertook the work which was destined to make his name so famous.
In the first place, our public works prisons, however excellent for their material results, are so many schools of crime, where for the one honest trade a man learns by compulsion he acquires a knowledge of three or four that are dishonest. ‘I have become acquainted,’ says a released convict, ‘with more of what is bad and evil, together with the schemes and dodges of professional thieves and swindlers, during the four years I served the Queen for nothing, than I should have done in fifty years outside the prison walls.’ ‘The association rooms at Dartmoor are as bad as it is possible for anything to be … they are really class-rooms in the college of vice, where all are alike students and professors. The present system in most instances merely completes the man’s vicious and criminal education, instead of in the slightest degree reforming him.’ It has been attempted in various ways to obviate this difficulty, by diminishing opportunities of companionship; but the real demoralisation of prison life is probably due less to the actual contact of bad men with one another than to the deadened sense of criminality which they derive from the feeling of numbers, just as from the same cause the danger of drowning is forgotten on the ice. Prisoners in gangs lose all shame of crime, just as men in armies forget their native horror of murder.Ramsay argues that the penal laws of a particular country can only be considered with reference to the needs of a particular country, and not in the abstract; that the government of a country will always enforce laws with a view to its own security; and that nothing less than a general revolution will ever make the holders of political power listen for a moment to the claims of philosophers.
But, in spite of the liberalism of the Count, the penal laws and customs of Lombardy remained the same; and the cruel legal procedure by torture existed still, untouched by the salutary reforms effected in other departments of the Government. There was the preparatory torture, to extort confession from criminals not yet condemned; there was torture for the discovery of a criminal’s accomplices; and there was the extraordinary or greater torture, which preceded the execution of a sentence of death. It is true that torture could only be applied to crimes of a capital nature, but there was scarcely an act in the possible category of crimes that was not then punishable with death. Proofs of guilt were sought almost entirely from torture and secret accusations, whilst penalties depended less on the text of any known law than on the discretion—that is, on the caprice—of the magistrate.
In the second place, a large proportion of the habitual criminal class is formed of weak-minded or imbecile persons, notorious for the repeated commission of petty thefts, crimes of violence and passion, and confessed to be ‘not amenable to the ordinary influences of self-interest or fear of punishment.’ It is now proposed to separate this class of prisoners from others; but is punishment operative on them at all? Is not their proper place an asylum?CHAPTER XXXII. OF DEBTORS.
The opponents of capital punishment may fairly, therefore, draw an argument in their favour from the fact that so many parts of the world have found it not incompatible with the general security of life to erase the death penalty from their list of deterrent agencies. It is better to rely on so plain a fact than on statistics which, like two-edged weapons, often cut both ways. The frequency of executions in one country and their total absence in another may severally coexist with great numerical equality in the number of murders committed in each. It is always better, therefore, to look for some other cause for a given number of murders than the kind of punishment directed to their repression. They may depend on a thousand other things, which it is difficult to ascertain or eliminate. Thus both in Bavaria, where capital punishment has been retained, and in Switzerland, where it had been abolished in 1874, murders have increased greatly in recent years; and this fact has, with great probability, been attributed to the influence of bad habits contracted during the Franco-German war.The more cruel punishments become, the more human minds harden, adjusting themselves, like fluids, to the level of objects around them; and the ever living force of the passions brings it about, that after a hundred years of cruel punishments, the wheel frightens men only just as much as at first did the punishment of prison.But if penal laws thus express the wide variability of human morality, they also contribute to make actions moral or immoral according to the penalties by which they enforce or prevent them. For not only does whatever is immoral tend to become penal, but anything can be made immoral by being first made penal; and hence indifferent actions often remain immoral long after they have ceased to be actually punishable. Thus the Jews made Sabbath-breaking equally immoral with homicide or adultery, by affixing to each of them the same capital penalty; and the former offence, though it no longer forms part of any criminal code, has still as much moral force against it as many an offence directly punishable by the law.详情
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