Penal laws are the expression of the moral sentiments of mankind, and either are as variable as the other. In Holland it was once a capital offence to kill a stork, and in England to cut down a man’s cherry-tree. For a Roman lady to drink wine was as heinous a sin as adultery, for either of which she incurred the extreme sentence of the law. In Athens idleness was for a long time punishable; though to a Spartan an Athenian fined for idleness seemed to be punished for keeping up his dignity. In Mexico drunkenness was a graver crime than slander; for whilst the slanderer lost his ears or lips, the drunken man or woman was clubbed or stoned to death.
By the same rule, in the case of theft, the value of the thing stolen, with some equivalent for the trouble of its recovery, taken from the offender or made a lien on his earnings, appears to be all that justice can demand. Sir Samuel Romilly, himself second to none as a lawyer, wrote seventy years ago: ‘If the restitution of the property stolen, and only a few weeks’ or even but a few days’ imprisonment were the unavoidable consequence of theft, no theft would ever be committed.’ Yet the following sentences are taken at random from authentic English sources: three months’ imprisonment for stealing a pipe, six months for stealing a penny, a twelvemonth for stealing an umbrella, five years’ penal servitude for stealing some stamps from a letter, seven years for stealing twopence. In such cases the principle of vindictiveness exceeds the limits of necessity, and therefore of justice; whilst the law loses all its dignity as the expression of unimpassioned resentment.It does not follow, because the laws do not punish intentions, that therefore a crime begun by some action, significative of the will to complete it, is undeserving of punishment, although it deserves less than a crime actually committed. The importance of preventing an attempt at a crime justifies a punishment; but, as there may be an interval between the attempt and the execution, the reservation of a greater punishment for a consummated crime may present a motive for its non-completion.
When Beccaria wrote against capital punishment, one great argument against its abolition was its practical universality. It had been abolished in ancient Egypt by king Sabaco, in the best period of the Roman Republics by the Porcian law, and in the time of the Roman Empire by Calo-Johannes. But these cases were too remote from modern times to lend much weight to the general argument. At that time Russia alone of all the countries in the world had, from the accession of the Empress Elizabeth, afforded a practical example of the fact, that the general security of life is not diminished by the withdrawal of the protection of capital punishment. But since that time this truth has become less and less a theory or speculation, and it now rests on the positive experience of no inconsiderable portion of the world. In Tuscany, Holland, Portugal, Russia, Roumania, Saxony, Prussia, Belgium, and in ten of the United States of America, the death penalty has either been abolished or discontinued; and can it be thought that the people of those countries are so indifferent to the safety of their lives as to be content with a less efficient legal protection than is vouchsafed in countries where the protection is death?
It is sometimes the custom to release a man from the punishment of a slight crime when the injured person pardons him: an act, indeed, which is in accordance with mercy and humanity but contrary to public policy; as if a private citizen could by his remission do away with the necessity of the example in the same way that he can excuse the reparation due for the offence. The right of punishing does not rest with an individual, but with the community as a whole, or the sovereign. An individual can only renounce his particular portion of that right, not annul that of all the rest.Torture, again, is employed to discover if a criminal is guilty of other crimes besides those with which he is charged. It is as if this argument were employed: ‘Because you are guilty of one crime you may be guilty of a hundred others. This doubt weighs upon me: I wish to ascertain about it by my test of truth: the laws torture you because you are guilty, because you may be guilty, because I mean you to be guilty.’
What should men think when they see wise magistrates and grave priests of justice with calm indifference causing a criminal to be dragged by their slow procedure to death; or when they see a judge, whilst a miserable wretch in the convulsions of his last agonies is awaiting the fatal blow, pass away coldly and unfeelingly, perhaps even with a secret satisfaction in his authority, to enjoy the comforts and pleasures of life? ‘Ah’ they will say, ‘these laws are but the pretexts of force, and the studied cruel formalities of justice are but a conventional language, used for the purpose of immolating us with greater safety, like victims destined in sacrifice to the insatiable idol of tyranny. That assassination which they preach to us as so terrible a misdeed we see nevertheless employed by them without either scruple or passion. Let us profit by the example. A violent death seemed to us a terrible thing in the descriptions of it that were made to us, but we see it is a matter of a moment. How much less terrible will it be for a man who, not expecting it, is spared all that there is of painful in it.’The following is the kind of reasoning adopted by the thief or the assassin, whose only motives for not breaking the laws are the gallows or the wheel. (I know that the analysis of one’s own thoughts is an art only learnt by education, but a thief does not the less act according to certain principles because he is unable to express them). ‘Of what sort,’ he argues, ‘are these laws that I am bound to observe, that leave so great an interval between myself and the rich man? He denies me the penny I ask of him, and excuses himself by ordering from me a work of which he himself knows nothing. Who has made these laws? Were they not made by rich and powerful men, who have never deigned to visit the wretched hovels of the poor, who have never divided a musty loaf of bread amid the innocent cries of famished children and the tears of a wife? Let us break these bonds, which are fatal to the greater number, and only useful to a few indolent tyrants; let us attack injustice in its source. I will return to my state of natural independence; I will live for some time happy and free on the fruits of my courage and address; and if the day should ever come when I have to suffer and repent for it, the time of suffering will be short, and I shall have one day of misery for many years of liberty and pleasure. As the king of a small band, I will correct the errors of fortune, and see these tyrants pale and tremble before one, whom in their insolent arrogance they rated lower than their horses or their dogs.’ Then religion hovers before the mind of the criminal, who turns everything to a bad use, and offering him a facile repentance and an almost certain eternity of bliss does much to diminish in his eyes the horror of that last tragedy of all.
These truths were recognised by the Roman legislators, for they inflicted torture only upon slaves, who in law had no personality. They have been adopted by England, a nation, the glory of whose literature, the superiority of whose commerce and wealth, and consequently of whose power, and the examples of whose virtue and courage leave us no doubt as to the goodness of her laws. Torture has also been abolished in Sweden; it has been abolished by one of the wisest monarchs of Europe, who, taking philosophy with him to the throne, has made himself the friend and legislator of his subjects, rendering them equal and free in their dependence on the laws, the sole kind of equality and liberty that reasonable men can ask for in the present condition of things. Nor has torture been deemed necessary in the laws which regulate armies, composed though they are for the most part of the dregs of different countries, and for that reason more than any other class of men the more likely to require it. A strange thing, for whoever forgets the power of the tyranny exercised by custom, that pacific laws should be obliged to learn from minds hardened to massacre and bloodshed the most humane method of conducting trials.If the interpretation of laws is an evil, it is clear that their obscurity, which necessarily involves interpretation, must be an evil also, and an evil which will be at its worst where the laws are written in any other than the vernacular language of a country. For in that case the people, being unable to judge of themselves how it may fare with their liberty or their limbs, are made dependent on a small class of men; and a book, which should be sacred and open to all, becomes, by virtue of its language, a private and, so to speak, a family manual.
Some crimes are injuries to a man’s person, others to his property, and the former should certainly be punished by corporal punishments.Since, therefore, there is more to fear from a punished than from an unpunished criminal, there is the less reason to regret the general impunity of crime. There is indeed a large class of crimes for the prevention of which more would be done, by leaving them to their natural consequences, and to the strong power against them which the general interests and moral feelings of mankind will always enforce, than by actual punishment. It is particularly crimes of dishonesty which are best punished by the mere fact of their discovery. By the Norwegian law if an offender holds any official place he is punished, not by fine or imprisonment, but by the loss of his office and all the privileges connected with it. And if we imagine a country without any legal penalty at all for theft or dishonesty, thieves and their tribe would soon find their proper punishment, by that process of social shifting, which would drive them to the most deleterious or dangerous occupations of life even more effectually than it so drives them at present. The less dependence is placed on the penal sanctions of crime, the stronger do the moral restraints from it become.
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.
CHAPTER XX. CERTAINTY OF PUNISHMENTS—PARDONS.详情
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