The majority of mankind lack that vigour which is equally necessary for the greatest crimes as for the greatest virtues; whence it would appear, that both extremes are contemporaneous phenomena in nations which depend rather on the energy of their government and of the passions that tend to the public good, than on their size and the constant goodness of their laws. In the latter the weakened passions seem more adapted to maintain than to improve the form of government. From which flows an important consequence, namely, that great crimes in a nation do not always prove its decline.It is unhappily no mere theory, that the majority of crimes are committed precisely by those who risk most in committing them; by those, that is, who commit them with the aggravated penalty full in view. By the existing law (of which both the Criminal Code- and the Penal Servitude-Commissioners have proposed the mitigation) anyone convicted of felony after a previous conviction for felony is liable to penal servitude for life, or to imprisonment with hard labour for four years, with one or more whippings. The minimum punishment for a second conviction of felony is seven years. Yet, with the knowledge of such increased punishments before their eyes, with the full consciousness of their liabilities as old offenders, official statistics show that of both the male and female convicts in the English convict prisons considerably more than half have incurred previous convictions. Of the male convicts in 1878, 79 per cent., and of the female 89 per cent., were cases of reciduous crime. May it not, then, be argued from such a failure of the system to an error in the principle on which it rests? For is it not evident that the aggravated penalty does as little to deter as the original punishment does to reform?
The second epoch of history consists in the hard and terrible transition from errors to truth, from the darkness of ignorance to the light. The great clash between the errors which are serviceable to a few men of power and the truths which are serviceable to the weak and the many, and the contact and fermentation of the passions at such a period aroused, are a source of infinite evils to unhappy humanity. Whoever ponders on the different histories of the world, which after certain intervals of time are so much alike in their principal episodes, will therein frequently observe the sacrifice of a whole generation to the welfare of succeeding ones, in the painful but necessary transition from the darkness of ignorance to the light of philosophy, and from despotism to freedom, which result from the sacrifice. But when truth, whose progress at first is slow and afterwards rapid (after men’s minds have calmed down and the fire is quenched that purged a nation of the evils it suffered), sits as the companion of kings upon the throne, and is reverenced and worshipped in the parliaments of free governments, who will ever dare assert that the light which enlightens the people is more injurious than darkness, and that acknowledging the true and simple relations of things is pernicious to mankind?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.
Palpable but consecrated abuses, which in many nations are the necessary results of a weak political constitution, are Secret Accusations. For they render men false and reserved, and whoever may suspect that he sees in his neighbour an informer will see in him an enemy. Men then come to mask their real feelings, and by the habit of hiding them from others they at last get to hide them from themselves. Unhappy they who have come to that; who, without clear and fixed principles to guide them, wander lost and confused in the vast sea of opinions, ever busied in saving themselves from the horrors that oppress them, with the present moment ever embittered by the uncertainty of the future, and without the lasting pleasures of quiet and security, devouring in unseemly haste those few pleasures, which occur at rare intervals in their melancholy lives and scarcely console them for the fact of having lived! Is it of such men we can hope to make intrepid soldiers, defenders of their country and crown? Is it among such men we shall find incorrupt magistrates, able with their free and patriotic eloquence to sustain and develop the true interests of their sovereign, ready, with the tribute they bear, to carry to the throne the love and blessings of all classes of men, and thence to bring back to palaces and cottages alike peace and security, and that active hope of ameliorating their lot which is so useful a leaven, nay, which is the life of States?The reader of this treatise will perceive that I have omitted all reference to a certain class of crime, which has deluged Europe with human blood; a crime which raised those fatal piles, where living human bodies served as food for the flames, and where the blind multitude sought a pleasant spectacle and a sweet harmony from the low dull groans, emitted by wretched sufferers from volumes of black smoke, the smoke of human limbs, whilst their bones and still palpitating entrails were scorched and consumed by the flames. But reasonable men will see that the place, the age, and the subject suffer me not to inquire into the nature of such a crime. It would be too long and remote from my subject to show, how a perfect uniformity of thought ought, contrary to the practice of many countries, to be a necessity in a State; how opinions, which only differ by the most subtle and imperceptible degrees, and are altogether beyond the reach of human intelligence, can yet convulse society, when one of them is not legally authorised in preference to the others; and how the nature of opinions is such, that, whilst some become clearer by virtue of their conflict and opposition, (those that are true floating and surviving, but those that are false sinking to oblivion,) others again, with no inherent self-support, require to be clothed with authority and power. Too long would it be to prove, that howsoever hateful may seem the government of force over human minds, with no other triumphs to boast of but dissimulation and debasement, and howsoever contrary it may seem to the spirit of gentleness and fraternity, commanded alike by reason and the authority we most venerate, it is yet necessary and indispensable. All this should be taken as clearly proved and conformable to the true interests of humanity, if there be anyone who, with recognised authority, acts accordingly. I speak only of crimes that spring from the nature of humanity and the social compact; not of sins, of which even the temporal punishments should be regulated by other principles than those of a narrow philosophy.
It may be asked, How far was Beccaria the first to protest against the cruelty and absurdity of torture? To this it must be replied that although actually he was not the first, he was the first to do so with effect. The difference between previous writers on the subject and Beccaria is the difference between a man whose ideas are in advance of those of his age and a man who raises the ideas of his age to a level with his own. So early as the sixteenth century Montaigne, in his ‘Essay on Conscience,’ had said plainly enough that the putting a man to the rack was rather a trial of patience than of truth; that pain was as likely to extort a false confession as a true one; and that a judge, by having a man racked that he might not die innocent, caused him to die both innocent and racked. Also Grevius Clivensis wrote a work whilst in prison in Amsterdam, in which he sought to prove that torture was iniquitous, fallacious, and unchristian. This was published in 1624; and nearly a century later a Jesuit, Spee, wrote against the use of torture, as also against the cruel practices in force against witches. And in later days Montesquieu, twenty years before Beccaria, had gone so far as to say that, since a civilised nation like England had abandoned torture without evil consequences, it was therefore unnecessary; but he followed the subject to no definite conclusion.
Something, however, occurred more fatal to the reform of our penal laws than even the philosophy of Paley, and that was the French Revolution. Before 1790 there had been 115 capital offences in France; so that to alter the criminal law in England was to follow a precedent of unpleasant auspices. Reform not unnaturally savoured of revolution, and especially a reform of the penal laws. In 1808 Romilly said he would advise anyone, who desired to realise the mischievous effects of the French Revolution in England to attempt some legislative reform on humane and liberal principles. With bitterness he tells the story of a young nobleman, who, addressing him insolently at the bar of the House of Commons, informed him that he for his part was for hanging all criminals. Romilly observed that he supposed he meant punishments should be certain and the laws executed, whatever they were. ‘No, no,’ was the reply, ‘it isn’t that. There is no good done by mercy. They only get worse: I would hang them all up at once.’ And this represented the prevalent opinion. Windham, in a speech against the Shoplifting Bill, inquired, ‘Had not the French Revolution begun with the abolition of capital punishment in every case?… Was such a system as this was to be set up without consideration against that of Dr. Paley!’
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?’
The good faith of contracts and the security of commerce compel the legislator to assure to creditors the persons of insolvent debtors. But I think it important to distinguish the fraudulent from the innocent bankrupt, the former of whom should receive the same punishment as that assigned to false coiners, since it is no greater crime to falsify a piece of coined money, the pledge of men’s mutual obligations, than to falsify those obligations themselves. But the innocent bankrupt—he who, after a searching inquiry, has proved before his judges that the wickedness or misfortune of some one else, or the inevitable vicissitudes of human prudence, have despoiled him of his substance—for what barbarous reason ought such an one to be thrown into prison, and deprived of the only poor benefit that remains to him, a barren liberty, in order to suffer the agonies of the really guilty, and, in despair at his ruined honesty, to repent perhaps of that innocence, by which he lived peacefully under the protection of those laws that it was not in his power not to offend against? Laws, too, dictated by the powerful by reason of their rapacity, and endured by the feeble by reason of that hope, which generally glimmers in the human heart, and leads us to believe that unfavourable contingencies are reserved for others, favourable ones for ourselves! Men left to their natural feelings love cruel laws, however much, as subject to them themselves, it might be for their individual interest that they should be mitigated; because their fear of being injured by others is greater than their desire to inflict injuries themselves.
A still greater honour was the commentary written by Voltaire. The fact that only within a few miles of his own residence a girl of eighteen had been hung for the exposure of a bastard child led Voltaire to welcome Beccaria’s work as a sign that a period of softer manners and more humane laws was about to dawn upon the world’s history. Should not a people, he argues, who like the French pique themselves on their politeness also pride themselves on their humanity? Should they retain the use of torture, merely because it was an ancient custom, when the experience of England and other countries showed that crimes were not more numerous in countries where it was not in use, and when reason indicated the absurdity of inflicting on a man, before his condemnation, a punishment more horrible than would await his proved guilt? What could be more cruel, too, than the maxim of law that a man who forfeited his life forfeited his estates? What more inhuman than thus to punish a whole family for the crime of an individual, perhaps condemning a wife and children to beg their bread because the head of the family had harboured a Protestant preacher or listened to his sermon in a cavern or a desert? Amid the contrariety of laws that governed France, the object of the criminal procedure to bring an accused man to destruction might be said to be the only law which was uniform throughout the country.
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The opinion that each citizen should have liberty to do whatsoever is not contrary to the laws, without fear of any other inconvenience than such as may arise from the action itself—this is the political dogma that should be believed by the people and promulgated by the chief magistrates, a dogma as sacred as that of the incorrupt guardianship of the laws, without which there can be no legitimate society; a just compensation to mankind for their sacrifice of that entire liberty of action which belongs to every sensitive being, and is only limited by the extent of its force. This it is that forms liberal and vigorous souls, and enlightened minds; that makes men virtuous with that virtue which can resist fear, and not with that flexible kind of prudence which is only worthy of a man who can put up with a precarious and uncertain existence.详情
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