The right to ask such a question derives itself from recent experience. In 1853 the country decided to shorten terms of penal servitude as compared with those of the then expiring system of transportation, for which they were to be substituted. Four years later it was resolved to equalise terms of penal servitude with those formerly given of transportation, though transportation for seven years was still to have its equivalent in three of penal servitude. Then came the garrotting year, 1862, in consequence of which the minimum term of penal servitude was raised to five years, whilst no sentence of penal servitude, after a previous conviction of felony, was to be for less than seven years. Now again the tide has turned in favour of shorter sentences, and it is officially proposed to relinquish the latter minimum of servitude as too severe, and as leading in practice to sentences of simple imprisonment, which on the other hand are declared to be too slight.
This, then, is the way to avoid confounding the relations and invariable nature of things, which, being unlimited by time and in ceaseless operation, confounds and overturns all narrow regulations that depart from it. It is not only the arts of taste and pleasure which have for their universal principle the faithful imitation of nature; but the art of politics itself, at least that which is true and permanent, is subject to this general maxim, since it consists in nothing else than the art of directing in the best way and to the same purposes the immutable sentiments of mankind.It is not easy in the days of a milder administration of penal laws than a century ago the most sanguine could have dreamed of to do full justice to those who laboured, as Beccaria and his friends did, at the peril of their lives and liberties, for those very immunities which we now enjoy. We cannot conceive that it should ever have been necessary to argue against torture, or that it should have been a bold thing to do so; still less can we conceive that it should ever have had its defenders, or that men should have been contented with the sophism, that it was indeed an evil, but an evil which was necessary and inevitable.
Frederick the Great had already abolished it in Prussia; it had been discontinued in Sweden; it was not recognised in the military codes of Europe, and Beccaria said it was not in use in England. This was true generally, although the peine forte et dure, by which a prisoner who would not plead was subjected to be squeezed nearly to death by an iron weight, was not abolished till the year 1771.
Paley agreed with Beccaria that the certainty of punishment was of more consequence than its severity. For this reason he recommended ‘undeviating impartiality in carrying the laws into execution;’ he blamed the ‘weak timidity’ of juries, leading them to be over-scrupulous about the certainty of their evidence, and protested against the maxim that it was better for ten guilty men to escape than for one innocent man to perish. A man who fell by a mistaken sentence might, he argued, be considered as falling for his country, because he was the victim of a system of laws which maintained the safety of the community.Of all the attacks which the publication of the ‘Dei Delitti’ provoked, the bitterest came naturally from a theological pen. At the very time that Beccaria’s work appeared, the Republic of Venice was occupied in a violent contest touching the Inquisitorial Council of Ten; and imagining that Beccaria’s remarks about secret accusations had been directed against the procedure of their famous tribunal, whilst they attributed the work to a Venetian nobleman called Quirini, they forbade its circulation under pain of death. It was on their behalf and with this belief that the Dominican Padre, Facchinei, took up his pen and wrote a book, entitled, ‘Notes and Observations on the “Dei Delitti,”’ in which he argued, among other things, not only that secret accusations were the best, cheapest, and most effective method of carrying out justice, but that torture was a kind of mercy to a criminal, purging him in his death from the sin of falsehood.Hence both in the state of extreme political liberty and in that of extreme political subjection the ideas of honour disappear or get perfectly confused with others. For in the former the despotism of the laws renders the pursuit of the favour of others of no avail; and in the latter state the despotism of men, by destroying civil existence, reduces everybody to a precarious and temporary personality. Honour, therefore, is one of the fundamental principles of those monarchies that are a mitigated form of despotism, being to them what revolutions are to despotic States, namely, a momentary return to the state of nature, and a reminder to the chief ruler of the condition of primitive equality.
Whosoever will read with a philosophical eye the codes and annals of different nations will find almost always that the names of virtue and vice, of good citizen and criminal, are changed in the course of ages, not in accordance with the changes that occur in the circumstances of a country, and consequently in conformity with the general interest, but in accordance with the passions and errors that have swayed different legislators in succession. He will observe full often, that the passions of one age form the basis of the morality of later ones; that strong passions, the offspring of fanaticism and enthusiasm, weakened and, so to speak, gnawed away by time (which reduces to a level all physical and moral phenomena) become little by little the prudence of the age, and a useful instrument in the hand of the strong man and the clever. In this way the vaguest notions of honour and virtue have been produced; for they change with the changes of time, which causes names to survive things; as also with the changes of rivers and mountains, which form frequently the boundaries of moral no less than of physical geography.Persons guilty of lesser crimes are usually either punished in the obscurity of a prison, or transported, as an example to nations who have given no offence, to a distant and therefore almost useless servitude. Since the gravest crimes are not those which men are tempted to commit on the spur of the moment, the public punishment of a great misdeed will be regarded by most men as strange and of impossible occurrence; but the public punishment of lighter crimes, to which men’s thoughts more readily incline, will make an impression, which, at the same time that it diverts the mind from them, will restrain it still more from crimes of greater gravity. Punishments should not only be proportioned to one another and to crimes in point of force, but also in the mode of their infliction.
Happy were humanity, if laws were now dictated to it for the first time, when we see on the thrones of Europe beneficent monarchs, men who encourage the virtues of peace, the sciences and the arts, who are fathers to their people, who are crowned citizens, and the increase of whose authority forms the happiness of their subjects, because it removes that intermediate despotism, more cruel because less secure, by which the people’s wishes, always sincere, and always attended to when they can reach the throne, have been usually intercepted and suppressed. If they, I say, suffer the ancient laws to exist, it is owing to the infinite difficulties of removing from errors the revered rust of many ages; which is a reason for enlightened citizens to desire with all the greater ardour the continual increase of their authority.These customs had doubtless their defenders, and left the world not without a struggle. It must have cost some one, whosoever first questioned the wisdom of hanging animals or murdering a criminal’s relations, as much ridicule as it cost Beccaria to question the efficacy of torture or the right of capital punishment. But the boldness of thought in that unknown reformer was probably lost sight of in the arrogance of his profanity, and he doubtless paid with his own neck for his folly in defending the pig’s.
But these periods of time will not be lengthened in exact proportion to the atrocity of crimes, since the probability of a crime is in inverse ratio to its atrocity. It will, then, be necessary to shorten the period for inquiry and to increase that of prescription; which may appear to contradict what I said before, namely, that it is possible to inflict equal penalties on unequal crimes, by counting as a penalty that period of imprisonment or of prescription which precedes the verdict. To explain to the reader my idea: I distinguish two kinds of crimes—the first, atrocious crimes, beginning with homicide and including all the excessive forms of wickedness; the second comprising less considerable crimes. This distinction is founded in human nature. Personal security is a natural right, the security of property a social one. The number of motives which impel men to violate their natural affections is far smaller than those which impel them, by their natural longing for happiness, to violate a right which they do not find written in their hearts but only in the conventions of society. The very great difference between the probability of these two kinds of crime respectively makes it necessary that they should be ruled by different principles. In cases of the more atrocious crimes, because they are more uncommon, the time for inquiry ought to be so much the less as the probability of the innocence of the accused is greater; and the time of prescription ought to be longer, as on an ultimate definite sentence of guilt or innocence depends the destruction of the hope of impunity, the harm of which is proportioned to the atrocity of the crime. But in cases of lesser criminality, where the presumption in favour of a man’s innocence is less, the time for inquiry should be longer; and as the harm of impunity is less, the time of prescription should be shorter. But such a division of crimes ought, indeed, not to be admitted, if the danger of impunity decreased exactly in proportion to the greater probability of the crime. One should remember that an accused man, whose guilt or innocence is uncertain, may, though acquitted for lack of proofs, be subjected for the same crime to a fresh imprisonment and inquiry, in the event of fresh legal proofs rising up against him, so long as the time of prescription accorded by the laws has not been past. Such at least is the compromise that I think best fitted to preserve both the liberty and the security of the subject, it being only too easy so to favour the one at the expense of the other, that these two blessings, the inalienable and equal patrimony of every citizen, are left unprotected and undefended, the one from declared or veiled despotism, the other from the turbulence of civil anarchy.
1. When the proofs of a fact are dependent one on another—that is to say, when each single proof rests on the weight of some other—then the more numerous the proofs are, the smaller is the probability of the fact in question, because the chances of error in the preliminary proofs would increase the probability of error in the succeeding ones.The third consequence is this: if it were proved that the severity of punishments were simply useless (to say nothing of being directly opposed to the public good and to the very object of preventing crimes), even in that case it would be contrary not only to those beneficent virtues that flow from an enlightened reason, which prefers to rule over happy human beings than over a flock of slaves, the constant victims of timid cruelty, but it would be also contrary to justice and to the nature of the social contract itself.
How easily might the farseeing legislator hinder a large part of culpable bankruptcy, and relieve the misfortunes of the industrious and innocent! The public and open registration of all contracts; freedom to every citizen to consult them in well-kept documents; a public bank formed by wisely-apportioned taxes upon prosperous commerce, and intended for the timely relief of any unfortunate and innocent member of the company;—such measures would have no real drawback and might produce numberless advantages. But easy, simple, and great laws, which await but the signal of the legislator, in order to scatter riches and strength through a nation—laws which would be celebrated from generation to generation in hymns of gratitude—are either the least thought of or the least desired of all. An uneasy and petty spirit, the timid prudence of the present moment, and a circumspect stiffness against innovations, master the feelings of those who govern the complex actions of mankind.详情
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