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.
If we consult the human heart we shall therein discover the fundamental principles of the real right of the sovereign to punish crimes.Thus before his death Beccaria saw torture almost entirely abolished in Europe, and a general tendency spreading to follow the spirit of the changes he advocated in other details of criminal law. Probably no other theorist ever lived to witness so complete an adoption of his principles in practice, or so thorough a transformation of the system he attacked. It is possible that he but gave body and voice to ideas of change already widely prevalent in his time; but the merit of a man belongs none the less to himself, who changes the instability of public opinion into an active and solid force, and who gives distinct expression to the longings vaguely felt by a multitude.
Men of letters as a rule did not speak with this boldness, but in conscious opposition to professional and popular feeling expressed their doubts with a hesitation that was almost apologetic. So, for example, Goldsmith could not ‘avoid even questioning the validity of that right which social combinations have assumed of capitally punishing offences of a slight nature.’ Strange, that in England such an argument should ever have seemed a daring novelty, a thing to be said tentatively and with reserve!
Would you prevent crimes, then cause the laws to be clear and simple, bring the whole force of a nation to bear on their defence, and suffer no part of it to be busied in overthrowing them. Make the laws to favour not so much classes of men as men themselves. Cause men to fear the laws and the laws alone. Salutary is the fear of the law, but fatal and fertile in crime is the fear of one man of another. Men as slaves are more sensual, more immoral, more cruel than free men; and, whilst the latter give their minds to the sciences or to the interests of their country, setting great objects before them as their model, the former, contented with the passing day, seek in the excitement of libertinage a distraction from the nothingness of their existence, and, accustomed to an uncertainty of result in everything, they look upon the result of their crimes as uncertain too, and so decide in favour of the passion that tempts them. If uncertainty of the laws affects a nation, rendered indolent by its climate, its indolence and stupidity is thereby maintained and increased; if it affects a nation, which though fond of pleasure is also full of energy, it wastes that energy in a number of petty cabals and intrigues, which spread distrust in every heart, and make treachery and dissimulation the foundation of prudence; if, again, it affects a courageous and brave nation, the uncertainty is ultimately destroyed, after many oscillations from liberty to servitude, and from servitude back again to liberty.
There was a time when nearly all penalties were pecuniary. Men’s crimes were the prince’s patrimony; attempts against the public safety were an object of gain, and he whose function it was to defend it found his interest in seeing it assailed. The object of punishment was then a suit between the treasury, which exacted the penalty, and the criminal: it was a civil business, a private rather than a public dispute, which conferred upon the treasury other rights than those conferred upon it by the calls of the public defence, whilst it inflicted upon the offender other grievances than those he had incurred by the necessity of example. The judge was, therefore, an advocate for the treasury rather than an impartial investigator of the truth, an agent for the Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than the protector and minister of the laws. But as in this system to confess a fault was the same thing as to confess oneself a debtor to the treasury, that being the object of the criminal procedure in those days, so the confession of a crime, and a confession so managed as to favour and not to hurt fiscal interests, became and still remains (effects always outlasting their causes so long) the centre point of all criminal procedure. Without such confession a criminal convicted by indubitable proofs will incur a penalty less than the one legally attached to his crime; and without it he will escape torture for other crimes of the same sort which he may have committed. With it, on the other hand, the judge becomes master of a criminal’s person, to lacerate him by method and formality, in order to get from him as from so much stock all the profit he can. Given the fact of the crime as proved, confession affords a convincing proof; and, to make this proof still less open to doubt, it is forcibly exacted by the agonies and despair of physical pain; whilst at the same time a confession that is extra-judicial, that is tendered calmly and indifferently, and without the overpowering fears of a trial by torture, is held insufficient for a verdict of guilt. Inquiries and proofs, which throw light upon the fact, but which weaken the claims of the treasury, are excluded; nor is it out of consideration for his wretchedness and weakness that a criminal is sometimes spared from torture, but out of regard for the claims which this entity, now mythical and inconceivable, might lose. The judge becomes the enemy of the accused, who stands in chains before him, the prey of misery, of torments, and the most terrible future; he does not seek to find the truth of a fact, but to find the crime in the prisoner, trying to entrap him, and thinking it to the loss of his own credit if he fail to do so, and to the detriment of that infallibility which men pretend to possess about everything. The evidence that justifies a man’s imprisonment rests with the judge; in order that a man may prove himself innocent, he must first be declared guilty: that is called an offensive prosecution; and such are criminal proceedings in nearly every part of enlightened Europe, in the eighteenth century. The real prosecution, the informative one—that is, the indifferent inquiry into a fact, such as reason enjoins, such as military codes employ, and such as is used even by Asiatic despotism in trivial and unimportant cases—is of very scant use in the tribunals of Europe. What a complex maze of strange absurdities, doubtless incredible to a more fortunate posterity! Only the philosophers of that time will read in the nature of man the possible actuality of such a system as now exists.
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.Yet Lord Ellenborough was one of the best judges known to English history; he was, according to his biographer, a man ‘of gigantic intellect,’ and one of the best classical scholars of his day; and if he erred, it was with all honesty and goodness of purpose. The same must be said of Lord Chief Justice Tenterden’s opposition to any change in the law of forgery. His great merits too as a judge are matter of history, yet when the Commons had passed the bill for the abolition of capital punishment for forgery, Lord Tenterden assured the House of Lords that they could not ‘without great danger take away the punishment of death.’ ‘When it was recollected how many thousand pounds, and even tens of thousands, might be abstracted from a man by a deep-laid scheme of forgery, he thought that this crime ought to be visited with the utmost extent of punishment which the law then wisely allowed.’ The House of Lords again paused in submission to judicial authority.There are some crimes which, are at the same time frequent in society and yet difficult to prove, as adultery, pederasty, infanticide.
Whoever, therefore, shall wish to honour me with his criticisms, I would have begin with a thorough comprehension of the purpose of my work—a purpose which, so far from diminishing legitimate authority, will serve to increase it, if opinion can effect more over men’s minds than force, and if the mildness and humanity of the government shall justify it in the eyes of all men. The ill-conceived criticisms that have been published against this book are founded on confused notions, and compel me to interrupt for a moment the arguments I was addressing to my enlightened readers, in order to close once for all every door against the misapprehensions of timid bigotry or against the calumnies of malice and envy.If it be said that a second conviction makes it necessary for society to protect itself by stronger measures against a member who thus defies its power, it may be asked whether this is not an application of exactly the same reasoning to the crimes of individuals, which as applied to the crimes of all men generally led our ancestors so far astray in the distribution of their punishments. Nothing could have been more plausible than their reasoning: ‘The punishment in vogue does not diminish the crime, therefore increase the punishment.’ But nothing could have been less satisfactory than the result, for with the increase of punishment that of crime went hand in hand. The same reasoning is equally plausible in the case of individuals, with the same perplexing question resulting in the end: ‘How comes it that, in spite of the threatened greater punishment, the majority of criminals are yet old offenders?’
An error, not less common than it is contrary to the object of society—that is, to the consciousness of personal security—is leaving a magistrate to be the arbitrary executor of the laws, free at his pleasure to imprison a citizen, to deprive a personal enemy of his liberty on frivolous pretexts, or to leave a friend unpunished in spite of the strongest proofs of his guilt. Imprisonment is a punishment which, unlike every other, must of necessity precede the declaration of guilt; but this distinctive character does not deprive it of the other essential of punishment, namely, that the law alone shall determine the cases under which it shall be merited. It is for the law, therefore, to point out the amount of evidence of a crime which shall justify the detention of the accused, and his subjection to examination and punishment. For such detention there may be sufficient proofs in common report, in a man’s flight, in a non-judicial confession, or in the confession of an accomplice; in a man’s threats against or constant enmity with the person injured; in all the facts of the crime, and similar indications. But these proofs should be determined by the laws, not by the judges, whose decisions, when they are not particular applications of a general maxim in a public code, are always adverse to political liberty. The more that punishments are mitigated, that misery and hunger are banished from prisons, that pity and mercy are admitted within their iron doors, and are set above the inexorable and hardened ministers of justice, the slighter will be the evidences of guilt requisite for the legal detention of the suspected.详情
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