Sir James Mackintosh, who succeeded Romilly as law reformer, in 1820 introduced with success six penal reform bills into the House of Commons; but the Lords assented to none of them that were of any practical importance to the country. They agreed, indeed, that it should no longer be a capital offence for an Egyptian to reside one year in the country, or for a man to be found disguised in the Mint, or to injure Westminster Bridge; but they did not agree to remove the capital penalty for such offences as wounding cattle, destroying trees, breaking down the banks of rivers, or sending threatening letters. It was feared that if the punishment were mitigated, the whole of Lincolnshire might be submerged, whole forests cut down, and whole herds destroyed. As to the Shoplifting Bill, they would not let death be abolished for stealing in shops altogether, but only where the value of the theft was under 10l. That seemed the limit of safe concession.There are a few obvious remedies by which the inducements to crime might be easily diminished. In 1808 Sir Samuel Romilly brought in a bill, to provide persons tried and acquitted of felony with compensation, at the discretion of the judge, for the loss they incurred by their detention and trial. This was objected to, on the ground that the payment of such compensation out of the county rates would discourage prosecutions; and the only justice done to men falsely accused from that day to this is the authorisation given to goal-governors in 1878 to provide prisoners, who have been brought from another county for trial at the assizes and have been acquitted, with means of returning to their own homes. Something more than this is required to save a man so situated from falling into real crime.As a matter of fact the law affords a very clear proof, that its real purpose is to administer retributive justice and that punishment has no end beyond itself, by its careful apportionment of punishment to crime, by its invariable adjustment between the evil a man has done and the evil it deals out to him in return. For what purpose punish offences according to a certain scale, for what purpose stay to measure their gravity, if merely the prevention of crime is the object of punishment? Why punish a slight theft with a few months’ imprisonment and a burglary with as many years? The slight theft, as easier to commit, as more tempting accordingly, should surely have a harder penalty affixed to it than a crime which, as it is more difficult, is also less probable and less in need of strong counter-inducements to restrain it. That the law never reasons in this way is because it weighs offences according to their different degrees of criminality, or, in other words, because it feels that the fair retaliation for the burglary is not a fair retaliation for the theft.
Lord Ellenborough, on the last day but one of May 1810, appealed to their lordships to pause, before they passed the Shoplifting Bill and gave their assent to the repeal of a law which had so long been held necessary for the security of the public. No one, he insisted, was more disposed than himself to the exercise of clemency, but there was not the slightest ground for the insinuations of cruelty that had been cast on the administration of the law. If shoplifting did not require the penalty of death, the same rule would have to apply to horse- and sheep-stealing; and, in spite of all that was said in favour of this speculative humanity, they must all agree, that prevention of crime should be the chief object of the law, and that terror alone could prevent the crime in question. Those who were thus speculating in modern legislation urged that punishment should be certain and proportionate; but he could satisfy the House that any attempt to apply a punishment in exact conformity to the offence would be perfectly ludicrous. He had consulted with the other judges, and they were unanimously of opinion that it would not be expedient to remit this part of the severity of the criminal law. He therefore entreated them to pause.Suicide is a crime to which a punishment properly so called seems inadmissible, since it can only fall upon the innocent or else upon a cold and insensible body. If the latter mode of punishing the crime makes no more impression on the living than would be made by inflicting violence on a statue, the other mode is unjust and tyrannical, inasmuch as political freedom necessarily presupposes the purely personal nature of punishment. Men love life only too much, and everything that surrounds them confirms them in this love. The seductive image of pleasure, and hope, that sweetest illusion of mortals, for the sake of which they swallow large draughts of evil mixed with a few drops of contentment, are too attractive, for one ever to fear, that the necessary impunity of such a crime should exercise any general influence. He who fears pain, obeys the laws; but death puts an end in the body to all the sources of pain. What, then, will be the motive which shall restrain the desperate hand of the suicide?
Of what kind, then, will be the punishments due to the crimes of nobles, whose privileges form so great a part of the laws of different countries? I will not here inquire whether this traditional distinction between nobles and commons be advantageous in a government, or necessary in a monarchy; nor whether it be true that a nobility forms an intermediate power in restraint of the excesses of the two extremes, and not rather a caste which, in slavery to itself and to others, confines all circulation of merit and hope to a very narrow circle, like those fertile and pleasant oases scattered among the vast sand-deserts of Arabia; nor whether, supposing it to be true that inequality is inevitable and useful in society, it be also true that such inequality should subsist between classes rather than individuals, and should remain with one part of the body politic rather than circulate through the whole; whether it should rather perpetuate itself than be subject to constant self-destruction and renovation. I will confine myself to the punishments proper for nobles, affirming that they should be the same for the greatest citizen as for the least. Every distinction of honour or of riches presupposes, to be legitimate, a prior state of equality, founded on the laws, which regard all subjects as equally dependent on themselves. One must suppose the men, who renounced their natural state of despotic independence, to have said: ‘Let him who is more industrious than his fellows have greater honours, and let his fame be greater among his successors; let him who is more prosperous and honoured hope even to become more so, but let him fear no less than other men to break those conditions by virtue of which he is raised above them.’ True it is that such decrees did not emanate in a convocation of the human race, but such decrees exist in the eternal relations of things; they do not destroy the supposed advantages of a nobility, though they prevent its abuses; and they make laws feared, by closing every admission to impunity. And if any one shall say that the same punishment inflicted upon a noble and upon a commoner is not really the same, by reason of the diversity of their education, and of the disgrace spread over an illustrious family, I will reply, that the sensibility of the criminal is not the measure of punishment, but the public injury, and that this is all the greater when committed by the more highly favoured man; that equality of punishment can only be so when considered extrinsically, being really different in each individual; and that the disgrace of a family can be removed by public proofs of kindness on the part of the sovereign towards the innocent family of the criminal. And who is there but knows that formalities which strike the senses serve as reasonings with the credulous and admiring populace?
A farm labourer, with a wife and four children, and earning eleven shillings a week, was imprisoned in the county gaol for two months for the theft of a pound of butter. Soon after his release sickness entered his home, and to supply his children’s wants he again yielded to temptation and stole twelve duck’s eggs. For this he was sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude; or rather not for this theft, but because he had already incurred a severe punishment for a theft of some butter. The sentence was most perfectly lawful, but was it not perfectly unjust?
Laws are the conditions under which men, leading independent and isolated lives, joined together in society, when tired of living in a perpetual state of war, and of enjoying a liberty which the uncertainty of its tenure rendered useless. Of this liberty they voluntarily sacrificed a part, in order to enjoy the remainder in security and quiet. The sum-total of all these portions of liberty, sacrificed for the good of each individually, constitutes the sovereignty of a nation, and the sovereign is the lawful trustee and administrator of these portions. But, besides forming this trust-fund, or deposit, it was necessary to protect it from the encroachments of individuals, whose aim it ever is not only to recover from the fund their own deposit, but to avail themselves of that contributed by others. ‘Sensible motives,’ were therefore wanted to divert the despotic will of the individual from re-plunging into their primitive chaos the laws of society. Such motives were found in punishments, established against transgressors of the laws; and I call them sensible motives, because experience has shown that the majority of men adopt no fixed rules of conduct, nor avoid that universal principle of dissolution, observable alike in the moral as in the physical world, save by reason of motives which directly strike the senses and constantly present themselves to the mind, counterbalancing the strong impressions of private passions, opposed as they are to the general welfare; not eloquence, nor declamations, nor the most sublime truths have ever sufficed to curb the passions for any length of time, when excited by the lively force of present objects.Some courts promise impunity to an accomplice in a serious crime who will expose his companions, an expedient that has its drawbacks as well as its advantages. Among the former must be counted the national authorisation of treachery, a practice which even criminals detest; for crimes of courage are less pernicious to a people than crimes of cowardice, courage being no ordinary quality, and needing only a beneficent directing force to make it conduce to the public welfare, whilst cowardice is more common and contagious, and always more self-concentrated than the other. Besides, a tribunal which calls for the aid of the law-breaker proclaims its own uncertainty and the weakness of the laws themselves. On the other hand, the advantages of the practice are, the prevention of crimes and the intimidation of the people, owing to the fact that the results are visible whilst the authors remain hidden; moreover, it helps to show that a man who breaks his faith to the laws, that is, to the public, is likely also to break it in private life. I think that a general law promising impunity to an accomplice who exposes a crime would be preferable to a special declaration in a particular case, because in this way the mutual fear which each accomplice would have of his own risk would tend to prevent their association; the tribunal would not make criminals audacious by showing that their aid was called for in a particular case. Such a law, however, should accompany impunity with the banishment of the informer.… But to no purpose do I torment myself to dissipate the remorse I feel in authorising the inviolable laws, the monument of public confidence, the basis of human morality, to resort to treachery and dissimulation. What an example to the nation it would be, were the promised impunity not observed, and were the man who had responded to the invitation of the laws dragged by learned quibbles to punishment, in spite of the public troth pledged to him! Such examples are not rare in different countries; neither, therefore, is the number small, of those who consider a nation in no other light than in that of a complicated machine, whose springs the cleverest and the strongest move at their will. Cold and insensible to all that forms the delight of tender and sensitive minds, they arouse, with imperturbable sagacity, either the softest feelings or the strongest passions, as soon as they see them of service to the object they have in view, handling men’s minds just as musicians do their instruments.
The year before its publication 51 malefactors were executed in London, the year after 97, whilst not long afterwards was seen the rare spectacle of nearly 20 criminals hung at a time. Romilly was so much shocked at what he considered the folly and inhumanity of Madan’s book that he wrote a short tract of observations upon it, of which he sent a copy to each of the judges. But it is characteristic of the feeling of that time that only a hundred copies of his tract were sold. It was, however, from that time that Romilly began to make the criminal law his special study, so that to Madan indirectly our country owes the efforts of Romilly.
Nor was it only in Europe that Beccaria’s influence thus prevailed, for as soon as the American Colonies had shaken off their English connection they began to reform their penal laws. When the Revolution began there were in Pennsylvania nearly twenty crimes punishable by death, and within eighteen years of its close the penal code was thoroughly transformed, it being ordained in 1794 that no crime should any longer be capital but murder in the first degree. It is true that this was but a return to the principles adopted by Penn on the settlement of the colony, but Penn’s penal code was annulled by Queen Anne, and the English Government insisted on a strict adherence to the charter from Charles II., which enjoined the retention of the Statute and the Common Law of England. When, therefore, the new Constitution was formed in 1776, the arguments of Beccaria gave fresh life to the memories of Penn.CHAPTER XXX. THEFTS.
Such contradictions between the laws of a family and the fundamental laws of a State are a fertile source of other contradictions between public and private morality, giving rise consequently to a perpetual conflict in every individual mind. For whilst private morality inspires fear and subjection, public morality teaches courage and freedom; whilst the former inculcates the restriction of well-doing to a small number of persons indiscriminately, the latter inculcates its extension to all classes of men; and whilst the one enjoins the constant sacrifice of self to a vain idol, called ‘the good of the family’ (which is frequently not the good of any single member that composes it), the other teaches men to benefit themselves, provided they break not the laws, and incites them, by the reward of enthusiasm, which is the precursor of their action, to sacrifice themselves to the good of their country. Such contradictions make men scorn to follow virtue, which they find so complicated and confused, and at that distance from them, which objects, both moral and physical, derive from their obscurity. How often it happens that a man, in reflecting on his past actions, is astonished at finding himself dishonest. The larger society grows, the smaller fraction of the whole does each member of it become, and the more is the feeling of the commonwealth diminished, unless care be taken by the laws to reinforce it. Societies, like human bodies, have their circumscribed limits, extension beyond which involves inevitably a disturbance of their economy. The size of a State ought apparently to vary inversely with the sensibility of its component parts; otherwise, if both increase together, good laws will find, in the very benefit they have effected, an obstacle to the prevention of crimes. Too large a republic can only save itself from despotism by a process of subdivision, and a union of the parts into so many federative republics. But how effect this, save by a despotic dictator with the courage of Sylla and as much genius for construction as he had for destruction? If such a man be ambitious, the glory of all the ages awaits him; and if he be a philosopher, the blessings of his fellow-citizens will console him for the loss of his authority, even should he not become indifferent to their ingratitude. In proportion as the feelings which unite us to our own nation are weakened, do those for the objects immediately around us gain in strength; and it is for this reason that under the severest despotism the strongest friendships are to be found, and that the family virtues, ever of an exalted character, are either the most common or the only ones. It is evident, therefore, how limited have been the views of the great majority of legislators.It is not useless to repeat what others have written, namely, that the best method of preventing this crime is to punish the aggressor—in other words, the man who gives rise to the duel—declaring him to be innocent who without his own fault has been constrained to defend that which existing laws do not assure to him, that is, opinion.
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.The success which attended Romilly’s Privately Stealing Bill and the failure which attended almost all his other efforts was probably due to the fact that larceny from the person without violence was, as has been said, the one single kind of offence which had Paley’s sanction for ceasing to be capital. But the very success of his first bill was the chief cause of the failure of his subsequent ones. For, capital punishment having been removed for mere pilfering, prosecutions became more frequent, and the opponents of reform were thus able to declare that an increase of theft had been the direct consequence of the abolition of the capital penalty. It was in vain to point out, that the apparent increase of theft was due to the greater readiness of individuals to prosecute and of juries to convict, when a verdict of guilt no longer involved death as the consequence.
CHAPTER VII. PROOFS AND FORMS OF JUDGMENT.So great, however, did the changes appear to be, that Sir James Mackintosh declared, towards the close of his life, that it was as if he had lived in two different countries, such was the contrast between the past and the present. Yet Sir James died in the very year that the first Reform Bill passed, and it was not till after that event that any really great progress was made towards ameliorating the penal laws.详情
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