If we consult the human heart we shall therein discover the fundamental principles of the real right of the sovereign to punish crimes.
In these ‘Notes and Observations’ Beccaria and his work were assailed with that vigour and lucidity for which the Dominican school of writing has always been so conspicuous. The author was described as ‘a man of narrow mind,’ ‘a madman,’ ‘a stupid impostor,’ ‘full of poisonous bitterness and calumnious mordacity.’ He was accused of writing ‘with sacrilegious imposture against the Inquisition,’ of believing that ‘religion was incompatible with the good government of a state;’ nay, he was condemned ‘by all the reasonable world as the enemy of Christianity, a bad philosopher, and a bad man.’ His book was stigmatised as ‘sprung from the deepest abyss of darkness, horrible, monstrous, full of poison,’ containing ‘miserable arguments,’ ‘insolent blasphemies,’ and so forth.
But the honour of having been the first country to lay aside the use of torture undoubtedly belongs to England, just as the honour of having been the first in modern times to abolish capital punishment, except for political offences, belongs to Russia; and the practical example thus afforded by our laws probably did more for the general abolition of the custom than any written treatise on the subject ever would have done alone. English and foreign jurists long delighted to honour the Common Law for its non-recognition of torture. But though torture was contrary to the Common Law, and even to Magna Charta, it was not contrary to Prerogative; and until the Commonwealth it was used as matter of course in all grave accusations at the mere discretion of the monarch and Privy Council. Therefore Beccaria pointed to England as a country which did not use torture with more justice than Grotius had done, who, when the rack was still in use amongst us, quoted England as a proof that people might safely live without torture.But these periods of time will not be lengthened in exact proportion to the atrocity of crimes, since the probability of a crime is in inverse ratio to its atrocity. It will, then, be necessary to shorten the period for inquiry and to increase that of prescription; which may appear to contradict what I said before, namely, that it is possible to inflict equal penalties on unequal crimes, by counting as a penalty that period of imprisonment or of prescription which precedes the verdict. To explain to the reader my idea: I distinguish two kinds of crimes—the first, atrocious crimes, beginning with homicide and including all the excessive forms of wickedness; the second comprising less considerable crimes. This distinction is founded in human nature. Personal security is a natural right, the security of property a social one. The number of motives which impel men to violate their natural affections is far smaller than those which impel them, by their natural longing for happiness, to violate a right which they do not find written in their hearts but only in the conventions of society. The very great difference between the probability of these two kinds of crime respectively makes it necessary that they should be ruled by different principles. In cases of the more atrocious crimes, because they are more uncommon, the time for inquiry ought to be so much the less as the probability of the innocence of the accused is greater; and the time of prescription ought to be longer, as on an ultimate definite sentence of guilt or innocence depends the destruction of the hope of impunity, the harm of which is proportioned to the atrocity of the crime. But in cases of lesser criminality, where the presumption in favour of a man’s innocence is less, the time for inquiry should be longer; and as the harm of impunity is less, the time of prescription should be shorter. But such a division of crimes ought, indeed, not to be admitted, if the danger of impunity decreased exactly in proportion to the greater probability of the crime. One should remember that an accused man, whose guilt or innocence is uncertain, may, though acquitted for lack of proofs, be subjected for the same crime to a fresh imprisonment and inquiry, in the event of fresh legal proofs rising up against him, so long as the time of prescription accorded by the laws has not been past. Such at least is the compromise that I think best fitted to preserve both the liberty and the security of the subject, it being only too easy so to favour the one at the expense of the other, that these two blessings, the inalienable and equal patrimony of every citizen, are left unprotected and undefended, the one from declared or veiled despotism, the other from the turbulence of civil anarchy.
Capital punishment makes an impression in prospect which, with all its force, does not fully meet that ready spirit of forgetfulness, so natural to man even in his most important concerns, and so liable to be accelerated by his passions. As a general rule, men are startled by the sight of violent sufferings, but not for long, and therefore such impressions are wont so to transform them as to make of ordinary men either Persians or Spartans; but in a free and settled government impressions should rather be frequent than strong.
But at least, it will be thought, we have by this time arrived at some principles about punishment which correspond with the eternal truths of equity. Is not Equality, for instance, one of the primary essentials of punishment? Does it not stand as a penal axiom with almost the sanction of a moral law that all men should suffer equally for equal crimes? Yet, if by equality be meant the same punishment, the same kind of labour, the same term of servitude, the same pecuniary fine—and this is the only thing it can mean—what more obvious than that the same punishment for rich and poor, for young and old, for strong and weak, for men and women, for educated and uneducated, will bring to the constitution of a penal code the utmost inequality the imagination can conceive? Beccaria insists that the law can do no more than assign the same extrinsic punishment to the same crime; that is, the same punishment, regardless of all other external considerations; and he calls for the infliction of the same punishment on the nobleman as on the commoner. Let it be so; but the same punishment is no longer an equal one; and hence from this very demand for equality springs the demand for its very opposite, for what Bentham calls the equability of punishment; that is, consideration for the different circumstances of individual criminals. So that the same nominal punishment not being the same real one, equality of punishment appears to be a chimera, and the law, which punishes, say, a distinguished officer less severely than it punishes a costermonger for the same crime, errs perhaps really less from actual equality than if it condemned both to precisely the same punishment.If we would bring to the study of Beccaria’s treatise the same disposition of mind with which he wrote it, we must enter upon the subject with the freest possible spirit of inquiry, and with a spirit of doubtfulness, undeterred in its research by authority however venerable, by custom however extended, or by time however long. It has been from too great reverence for the wisdom of antiquity that men in all ages have consigned their lives and properties to the limited learning and slight experience of generations which only lived for themselves and had no thought of binding posterity in the rules they thought suitable to their own times. Beccaria sounded the first note of that appeal from custom to reason in the dominion of law which has been, perhaps, the brightest feature in the history of modern times, and is still transforming the institutions of all countries.
If we consult the human heart we shall therein discover the fundamental principles of the real right of the sovereign to punish crimes.In France Beccaria’s book became widely popular, and many writers helped to propagate his ideas, such as Servan, Brissot, Lacretelle, and Pastoret. Lacretelle attributes the whole impulse of criminal law reform to Beccaria, while regretting that Montesquieu had not said enough to attract general attention to the subject. His book is said to have so changed the spirit of the old French criminal tribunals, that, ten years before the Revolution, they bore no resemblance to their former selves. All the younger magistrates gave their judgments more according to the principles of Beccaria than according to the text of the law. The result of the agitation appeared in the Royal Ordinances of 1780 and 1788, directed to the diminution of torture, the only reforms which preceded the Revolution. It is said that the last time anyone was tortured in France was in the year 1788, the last year of the ancien régime. At the very beginning of the Revolution more than a hundred different offences ceased to incur the penalty of death.But whatever tendency might have been arising in theory or in practice about this time to mitigate the severity of our laws was destined to receive a dead check from the publication in 1784 and 1785 respectively of two books which deserve historical recollection. The first was Madan’s ‘Thoughts on Executive Justice,’ in which the author, adopting Beccaria’s principle of the certainty of punishment as the best check on crime, advocated an unflinching carrying out of the laws as they stood. ‘It was,’ says Romilly, ‘a strong and vehement censure upon the judges and the ministers for their mode of administering the law, and for the frequency of the pardons which they granted. It was very much read, and certainly was followed by the sacrifice of many lives.’
Paley agreed with Beccaria that the certainty of punishment was of more consequence than its severity. For this reason he recommended ‘undeviating impartiality in carrying the laws into execution;’ he blamed the ‘weak timidity’ of juries, leading them to be over-scrupulous about the certainty of their evidence, and protested against the maxim that it was better for ten guilty men to escape than for one innocent man to perish. A man who fell by a mistaken sentence might, he argued, be considered as falling for his country, because he was the victim of a system of laws which maintained the safety of the community.If we would bring to the study of Beccaria’s treatise the same disposition of mind with which he wrote it, we must enter upon the subject with the freest possible spirit of inquiry, and with a spirit of doubtfulness, undeterred in its research by authority however venerable, by custom however extended, or by time however long. It has been from too great reverence for the wisdom of antiquity that men in all ages have consigned their lives and properties to the limited learning and slight experience of generations which only lived for themselves and had no thought of binding posterity in the rules they thought suitable to their own times. Beccaria sounded the first note of that appeal from custom to reason in the dominion of law which has been, perhaps, the brightest feature in the history of modern times, and is still transforming the institutions of all countries.详情
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