Whatever improvement our penal laws have undergone in the last hundred years is due primarily to Beccaria, and to an extent that has not always been recognised. Lord Mansfield is said never to have mentioned his name without a sign of respect. Romilly referred to him in the very first speech he delivered in the House of Commons on the subject of law reform. And there is no English writer of that day who, in treating of the criminal law, does not refer to Beccaria.
It is, then, proved that the law which imprisons subjects in their own country is useless and unjust. The punishment, therefore, of suicide is equally so; and consequently, although it is a fault punishable by God, for He alone can punish after death, it is not a crime in the eyes of men, for the punishment they inflict, instead of falling on the criminal himself, falls on his family. If anyone objects, that such a punishment can nevertheless draw a man back from his determination to kill himself, I reply, that he who calmly renounces the advantages of life, who hates his existence here below to such an extent as to prefer to it an eternity of misery, is not likely to be moved by the less efficacious and more remote consideration of his children or his relations.
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.Corporal and painful punishments should not be inflicted for those crimes which have their foundation in pride, and draw from pain itself their glory and nutriment. For such crimes ridicule and infamy are more fitted, these being penalties which curb the pride of fanatics by the pride of the beholders, and only let truth itself escape their tenacity by slow and obstinate efforts. By such an opposition of forces against forces, and of opinions against opinions, the wise legislator destroys that admiration and astonishment among a people, which a false principle causes, whose original absurdity is usually hidden from view by the plausible conclusions deduced from it.
In a period of ten years, from 1867 to 1876, the total number of principal indictable offences committed in the metropolis against property—and these constitute the great majority of crimes—were 117,345. But the apprehensions for these offences were only 26,426, the convictions only 19,242. In other words, the chances against apprehension for such crimes as burglary or larceny are four to one in favour of the criminal, whilst the chances against his conviction and punishment are fully as high as six to one. When we thus find that only 16 per cent. of such crimes receive any punishment, the remaining 84 per cent. escaping it altogether, and that only 22 per cent. are even followed by apprehension, we shall the more admire the general efficacy of our criminal machinery, in which prevention by punishment plays so small a part.So signal a success in France was a sufficient guarantee of success elsewhere. A knowledge of the book must have speedily crossed the Channel, for Blackstone quoted it the very year after its publication. It was first translated into English in 1768, together with Voltaire’s commentary; but just as Morellet’s translation professed to have been published at Philadelphia, so the English translator kept his name a secret. The Economical Society of Berne, which was accustomed to bestow a gold medal on the writer of the best treatise on any given subject, violated its own rules in favour of the anonymous writer of the ‘Delitti,’ inviting him to disclose his name, and to accept the gold medal ‘as a sign of esteem due to a citizen who had dared to raise his voice in favour of humanity against the most deeply engrained prejudices.’
Any action that is not included between the two above-indicated extremes can only be called a crime or punished as such by those who find their interest in so calling it. The uncertainty of these limits has produced in different nations a system of ethics contrary to the system of laws, has produced many actual systems of laws at total variance with one another, and a quantity of laws which expose even the wisest man to the severest penalties. Consequently the words virtue and vice have become of vague and variable meaning, and from the uncertainty thus surrounding individual existence, listlessness and a fatal apathy have spread over political communities.
It is well known that Lord Tenterden refused ever to sit again in the House of Lords if the Reform Bill became law, and that he predicted that that measure would amount to the political extinction of the Upper House. As regards the history of our criminal law Lord Tenterden was right, for the period of long pauses had passed away, and rapid changes were made with but short intervals of breathing-time. From the year the Reform Bill passed the school of Beccaria and Bentham achieved rapid successes in England. In 1832 it ceased to be capital to steal a horse or a sheep, in 1833 to break into a house, in 1834 to return prematurely from transportation, in 1835 to commit sacrilege or to steal a letter. But even till 1837 there were still 37 capital offences on the statute-book; and now there are only two, murder and treason. Hanging in chains was abolished in 1834; the pillory was wholly abolished in 1837; and the same year Ewart, after many years’ struggle, obtained for prisoners on trial for felony the right (still merely a nominal one) of being defended by counsel.
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.That the punishments of long custody by which we now defend our lives and properties are out of all proportion to the real needs of social existence is indicated by such a fact as that no increase of crime used to attend the periodical release of prisoners which was for long, if it is not still, customary in Russia at the beginning of each reign. Neither in India, when on the Queen’s assumption of the title of Empress, a pardon was granted to about one-tenth of the prison population, did any increase of crime ensue, as, according to all criminal reasoning, it should have done, if the safety of society depends on the custody of the criminal class. In Sweden a low rate of crime seems to be a direct consequence of a low scale of punishment. Of those condemned to travaux forcés, which may vary from a period of two months to a period for life, 64 per cent. are condemned for one year, and only 3 per cent. are condemned for seven years; whilst sentences to the latter period in England form between 50 and 60 per cent. of the sentences to penal servitude.
PREFACE.The second consequence is, that the sovereign, who represents society itself, can only form general laws, obligatory on all; he cannot judge whether any one in particular has broken the social compact, for in that case the nation would be divided into two parties, one represented by the sovereign, asserting the violation of such contract; the other by the accused, denying the same. Hence the necessity of a third person to judge of the fact; in other words, of a magistrate, whose decisions shall simply consist of affirmations or denials of particular facts, and shall also be subject to no appeal.
Romilly also injured his cause by a pamphlet on the criminal law, in which he criticised severely the doctrines of Paley. So strongly was this resented, that in 1810 his bill to abolish capital punishment for stealing forty shillings from a dwelling-house did not even pass the Commons, being generally opposed, as it was by Windham, because the maintenance of Paley’s reputation was regarded as a great object of national concern. That is to say, men voted not so much against the bill as against the author of a heresy against Paley.If blind ignorance is less pernicious than confused half-knowledge, since the latter adds to the evils of ignorance those of error, which is unavoidable in a narrow view of the limits of truth, the most precious gift that a sovereign can make to himself or to his people is an enlightened man as the trustee and guardian of the sacred laws. Accustomed to see the truth and not to fear it; independent for the most part of the demands of reputation, which are never completely satisfied and put most men’s virtue to a trial; used to consider humanity from higher points of view; such a man regards his own nation as a family of men and of brothers, and the distance between the nobles and the people seems to him so much the less as he has before his mind the larger total of the whole human species. Philosophers acquire wants and interests unknown to the generality of men, but that one above all others, of not belying in public the principles they have taught in obscurity, and they gain the habit of loving the truth for its own sake. A selection of such men makes the happiness of a people, but a happiness which is only transitory, unless good laws so increase their number as to lessen the probability, always considerable, of an unfortunate choice.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 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.
Pederasty, so severely punished by the laws, and so readily subjected to the tortures that triumph over innocence, is founded less on the necessities of man, when living in a state of isolation and freedom, than on his passions when living in a state of society and slavery. It derives its force not so much from satiety of pleasure as from the system of education now in vogue, which, beginning by making men useless to themselves in order to make them useful to others, causes, by its too strict seclusion, a waste of all vigorous development, and accelerates the approach of old age.详情
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