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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.[50] Of the male convicts in 1878, 79 per cent.,[93] 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?


There is no need to follow in further detail the life of Beccaria, for from this time to his death twenty-six years afterwards he never did nor wrote anything which again placed him conspicuously in the world’s eye.[16] His time was divided between the calls of his family and his country, but even as a member of the Government he never filled any very important post nor distinguished himself in any way above his colleagues. Three years before his death he became a[28] member of a committee for the reform of the civil and criminal jurisprudence, and he and his former friend Pietro Verri lived to see many of the ideals of their youth become the actualities of their manhood, themselves helping to promote their accomplishment. It is characteristic of Beccaria that on two several occasions, when the King of Naples came to visit him in his house, he absented himself purposely from the irksomeness of an interview. So he lived to the age of fifty-six, little noticed by the world, a lover of solitude rather than of society, preferring a few friends to many acquaintances, leading a quiet and useful life, but to the last true to the philosophy he had professed in his youth, that it is better to live as a spectator of the world than as one with any direct interest in the game.D’Alembert, Diderot, Helvetius, Buffon, Hume, illustrious names, which no one can hear without emotion! Your immortal works are my continual study, the object of my occupation by day, of my meditation in the silence of night. Full of the truth which you teach, how could I ever have burned incense to worshipped error, or debased myself to lie to posterity? I find myself rewarded beyond my hopes[6] in the signs of esteem I have received from these celebrated persons, my masters. Convey to each of these, I pray you, my most humble thanks, and assure them that I feel for them that profound and true respect which a feeling soul entertains for truth and virtue.

CHAPTER III. THE INFLUENCE OF BECCARIA IN ENGLAND.Or to take a stronger case. A deserter from the ranks escapes to his home, breaks into it at night, robs an infirm father of all the savings he has provided for his old age, and in a struggle for their possession so injures him that he dies. Must the law disclaim all indignation, all resentment, in the punishment it inflicts, and say to such a ruffian that it only deals hard with him in order to warn others by his example, and with the pious hope of making a good man of him in the future? If resentment is ever just, is it wrong to give it public expression? If it is natural and right in private life, why should it be a matter of shame in public life? If there is such a thing as just anger for a single man, does it become unjust when distributed among a million?

As to the obscurity you find in the work, I heard, as I wrote, the clash of chains that superstition still shakes, and the cries of fanaticism that drown the voice of truth; and the perception of this frightful spectacle induced me sometimes to veil the truth in clouds. I wished to defend truth, without making myself her martyr. This idea of the necessity of obscurity has made me obscure sometimes without necessity. Add to this my inexperience and my want of practice in writing, pardonable in an author of twenty-eight,[3] who only five years ago first set foot in the career of letters.Injuries that are personal and affect a man’s honour—that is, the fair share of favour that he has a right to expect from others—should be punished with disgrace.

They who have thought that the criminal’s intention was the true measure of crimes were in the wrong. For the intention depends on the actual impression of things upon a man, and on his precedent mental disposition, things which vary in all men and in each man, according to the very rapid succession of his ideas, his passions, and his circumstances. It would, therefore, be necessary to form not only a particular code for each citizen, but a fresh law for every crime. Sometimes with the best intentions men do the greatest evil to society; and sometimes with the very worst they do it the greatest good.There seem to be three principal reasons why, under our present system, crime still keeps its general level, irrespective of all changes in our degrees of punishment.

The End

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CHAPTER XIX. THE PROMPTNESS OF PUNISHMENTS.But the laws should fix a certain space of time both for the defence of the accused and for the discovery[158] of proofs against him. It would place the judge in the position of a legislator were it his duty to fix the time necessary for the latter. In the same way those atrocious crimes, whose memory tarries long in men’s minds, deserve, when once proved, no prescription in favour of a criminal who has fled from his country; but lesser and obscure crimes should be allowed a certain prescription, which may remove a man’s uncertainty concerning his fate, because the obscurity in which for a long time his crimes have been involved deducts from the bad example of his impunity, and the possibility of reform meantime remains to him. It is enough to indicate these principles, because I cannot fix a precise limit of time, except for a given system of laws and in given social circumstances. I will only add that, the advantage of moderate penalties in a nation being proved, the laws which shorten or lengthen, according to the gravity of crimes, the term of prescription or of proofs, thus making of prison itself or of voluntary exile a part of the punishment, will supply an easy classification of a few mild punishments for a very large number of crimes.

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.Capital punishment being less general in the world now than torture was when Beccaria wrote, it seems to be a fair logical inference that it is already far advanced towards its total disappearance. For the same argument which Voltaire applied in the case of torture cannot fail sooner or later to be applied to capital punishment. ‘If,’ he says, ‘there were but one nation in the world which had abolished the use of torture; and if in that nation crimes were no more frequent than in others, … its example would be surely sufficient for the rest of the world. England alone might instruct all other nations in this particular; but England is not the only nation. Torture has been abolished in other countries, and with success; the question, therefore, is decided.’ If in this argument we read capital punishment instead of torture, murders instead of crimes, and Portugal instead of England, we shall best appreciate that which is after all the strongest argument against capital punishment, namely, that it has been proved unnecessary for its professed object in so many countries that it might safely be relinquished in all.



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