Infanticide equally is the result of the unavoidable dilemma in which a woman is placed who from weakness or by violence has fallen. Finding herself placed between the alternative of infamy on the one side, and the death of a being insentient of its pains on the other, how can she fail to prefer the latter to the infallible misery awaiting both herself and her unhappy offspring? The best way to prevent this crime would be to give efficient legal protection to weakness against tyranny, which exaggerates those vices that cannot be hidden by the cloak of virtue.Nor are such scruples to convict unreasonable, when we consider the number who on apparently conclusive evidence have been falsely and irrevocably condemned to death. Playgoers who have seen ‘The Lyons Mail’ will remember how barely Lesurques, the Parisian gentleman, escaped punishment for the guilt of Dubosc, the robber and murderer. But the moral of the story is lost in the play, for Lesurques actually was executed for the crime of Dubosc, by reason of the strong resemblance he bore to him, the latter only receiving the due reward for his crimes after the innocent man had died as a common murderer on the scaffold. Then there are cases in which, as in the famous case of Calas, some one having committed suicide, some one else is executed as the murderer. That dead men tell no tales is as true of men hung as of men murdered, and the innocence of an executed man may be proved long afterwards or not at all.
The first trace of Beccaria’s influence in England appeared in the first edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries, of which the book on the Criminal Laws was published the very next year after the appearance of the Italian treatise. That Blackstone was well acquainted with it is proved by his frequent reference to it in treating of crimes. From Beccaria he argues that the certainty of punishments is more effectual than their severity, and finds it absurd to apply the same punishment to crimes of different malignity. Blackstone was also the first professional lawyer to find fault with the frequency of capital punishment in England, and to point out as ‘a melancholy truth’ the presence of 160 actions in the statute book which were felonies without benefit of clergy.
CHAPTER XL. OF THE TREASURY.The right to ask such a question derives itself from recent experience. In 1853 the country decided to shorten terms of penal servitude as compared with those of the then expiring system of transportation, for which they were to be substituted. Four years later it was resolved to equalise terms of penal servitude with those formerly given of transportation, though transportation for seven years was still to have its equivalent in three of penal servitude. Then came the garrotting year, 1862, in consequence of which the minimum term of penal servitude was raised to five years, whilst no sentence of penal servitude, after a previous conviction of felony, was to be for less than seven years. Now again the tide has turned in favour of shorter sentences, and it is officially proposed to relinquish the latter minimum of servitude as too severe, and as leading in practice to sentences of simple imprisonment, which on the other hand are declared to be too slight.Nothing is more dangerous than that common axiom, ‘We must consult the spirit of the laws.’ It is like breaking down a dam before the torrent of opinions. This truth, which seems a paradox to ordinary minds, more struck as they are by a little present inconvenience than by the pernicious but remote consequences which flow from a false principle enrooted among a people, seems to me to be demonstrated. Our knowledge and all our ideas are reciprocally connected together; and the more complicated they are, the more numerous are the approaches to them, and the points of departure. Every man has his own point of view—a different one at different times; so that ‘the spirit of the laws’ would mean the result of good or bad logic on the part of a judge, of an easy or difficult digestion; it would depend now on the violence of his passions, now on the feebleness of the sufferer, on the relationship between the judge and the plaintiff, or on all those minute forces which change the appearances of everything in the fluctuating mind of man. Hence it is that we see a citizen’s fate change several times in his passage from one court to another; that we see the lives of wretches at the mercy of the false reasonings or of the temporary caprice of a judge, who takes as his rightful canon of interpretation the vague result of all that confused series of notions which affect his mind. Hence it is that we see the same crimes punished differently by the same court at different times, owing to its having consulted, not the constant and fixed voice of the laws, but their unstable and erring interpretations.
But if the custody of the criminal class has been overrated as a preventive of crime, or regarded as the sole preventive instead of one amongst many, it does not follow that crime on that account must be left to itself. It only follows that we should trust to punishment less and to other agencies more in our war with crime, and that we should seek to check the latter at its source, not in its full stream, by attending to the improvement of the general conditions of life. It is quite certain, for instance, that the spread of education, of which Beccaria wrote in terms of such despair, means the diminution of crime; and as the majority of crimes are committed between the ages of twenty and forty, it may be predicted that from the present year onwards the great Act of 1870 will bear increasing fruit in lowering our criminal statistics. More too may be hoped for from the electric light than from any multiplication of prisons.
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!’CHAPTER XXXI. SMUGGLING.
As soon as the proofs of a crime and its reality are fully certified, the criminal must be allowed time and opportunity for his defence; but the time allowed must be so short as not to interfere with the speediness of his punishment, which, as we have seen, is one of the principal restraints from crime. A false philanthropy seems opposed to this shortness of time; but all doubt will vanish, on reflection that the more defective any system of law is, the greater are the dangers to which innocence is exposed.Almost any number of the ‘Times’ will illustrate the same thing. Take the account of the Middlesex Sessions of February 24, 1880. There we find the case of a man and woman sentenced to seven and five years’ penal servitude respectively. What enormities had they committed? The man had stolen three-halfpence from somebody; and the woman, who was a laundress, had stolen two skirts, of the value of six shillings, from a vendor of sheep’s trotters. The man had incurred previously seven years’ penal servitude for a robbery with violence, and the woman had three times in her life been sentenced to imprisonment. But is it just that, because a man has been severely punished once, no rule nor measure shall be observed with him if he incur punishment again? And might not a vendor of sheep’s trotters have been satisfied, without a laundress becoming a burden to the State?
Given the necessity of the aggregation of mankind, and given the covenants which necessarily result from the very opposition of private interests, a scale of offences may be traced, beginning with those which tend directly to the destruction of society, and ending with acts of the smallest possible injustice committed against individual members of it. Between these extremes are comprised all the actions opposed to the public welfare which are called crimes, and which by imperceptible degrees decrease in enormity from the highest to the lowest. If the infinite and obscure combinations of human actions admitted of mathematical treatment, there ought to be a corresponding scale of punishments, varying from the severest to the slightest penalty. If there were an exact and universal scale of crimes and punishments, we should have an approximate and general test by which to gauge the degrees of tyranny and liberty in different governments, the relative state of the humanity or wickedness of different nations. But the wise legislator will rest satisfied with marking out the principal divisions in such a scale, so as not to invert their order, nor to affix to crimes of the first degree punishments due to those of the last.The greater the number of those who understand and have in their hands the sacred code of the laws, the fewer will be the crimes committed; for it is beyond all doubt that ignorance and uncertainty of punishments lend assistance to the eloquence of the passions. Yet what shall we think of mankind, when we reflect, that such a condition of the laws is the inveterate custom of a large part of cultivated and enlightened Europe?
The case of infanticide suggests similar thoughts. When we remember that both Plato and Aristotle commended as a valuable social custom that which we treat as a crime; when we recall the fact that the life of a Spartan infant depended on a committee of elders, who decided whether it should live or perish, we shall better appreciate the distance we have travelled, or, as some would say, the progress we have made, if we take up some English daily paper and read of some high-minded English judge sentencing, at least formally, some wretched woman to death, because, in order to save her child from starvation or herself from shame, she has released it from existence. Yet the feeling, of which such a sentence is the expression, is often extolled as one of the highest triumphs of civilisation; and the laws, as if there were no difference between adult and infant life, glory in protecting the weakness of a child by their merciless disregard for the weakness of its mother.CHAPTER XLI. THE PREVENTION OF CRIMES—OF KNOWLEDGE—MAGISTRATES—REWARDS—EDUCATION.Why then did Pietro Verri not write it himself? The answer would seem to be, out of deference for the position and opinions of his father. It was some time later that Gabriel defended the use of torture in the Milanese Senate, and Pietro wrote a work on torture which he did not publish in his father’s lifetime. It was probably due also to the father’s position that Alessandro held his office of Protector of the Prisoners, so that there were obvious reasons which prevented either brother from undertaking the work in question.
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.
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.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.详情
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