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.Finally, a man who, when examined, persists in an obstinate refusal to answer, deserves a punishment fixed by the laws, and one of the heaviest they can inflict, that men may not in this way escape the necessary example they owe to the public. But this punishment is not necessary when it is beyond all doubt that such a person has committed such a crime, questions being useless, in the same way that confession is, when other proofs sufficiently demonstrate guilt And this last case is the most usual, for experience proves that in the majority of trials the accused are wont to plead ‘Not guilty.’
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.
Another principle would serve admirably to draw still closer the important connection between a misdeed and its punishment, and that is, that the latter should as far as possible conform to the nature of the crime. This analogy facilitates marvellously the contrast that ought to exist between the impulse to the crime and the counter-influence of the punishment, the one, that is, diverting the mind and guiding it to an end quite different from that to which the seductive idea of transgressing the law endeavours to lead 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.Laws should only be considered as a means of conducting mankind to the greatest happiness.
But punishment bears much the same relation to crime in the country at large that it does in the metropolis. Let one year be taken as a fair sample of all. The total number of indictable offences of all kinds reported to the police in 1877-8 was 54,065. For these offences only 24,062 persons were apprehended. Of these latter only 16,820 were held to bail or committed for trial; and of these again 12,473 were convicted and punished. So that, though the proportion of convictions to the number of prisoners who come to trial is about 75 per cent., the proportion of convictions, that is, of punishments, to the number of crimes committed is so low as 23 per cent. Of the 54,065 crimes reported to the police in one year 41,592 were actually committed with impunity; and thus the proportion which successful crime of all sorts bears to unsuccessful is rather more than as four to one. So that there is evident truth in what a good authority has said: ‘Few offences comparatively are followed by detection and punishment, and with a moderate degree of cunning an offender may generally go on for a long time with but feeble checks, if not complete impunity.’
Beccaria entertains a similar despair of truth. The history of mankind represents a vast sea of errors, in which at rare intervals a few truths only float uppermost; and the durability of great truths is as that of a flash of lightning when compared with the long and dark night which envelops humanity. For this reason he is ready to be the servant of truth, not her martyr; and he recommends in the search for truth, as in the other affairs of life, a little of that ‘philosophical indolence’ which cares not too much about results, and which a writer like Montaigne is best fitted to inspire.The more speedily and the more nearly in connection with the crime committed punishment shall follow, the more just and useful it will be. I say more just, because a criminal is thereby spared those useless and fierce torments of suspense which are all the greater in a person of vigorous imagination and fully conscious of his own weakness; more just also, because the privation of liberty, in itself a punishment, can only precede the sentence by the shortest possible interval compatible with the requirements of necessity. Imprisonment, therefore, is simply the safe custody of a citizen pending the verdict of his guilt; and this custody, being essentially disagreeable, ought to be as brief and easy as possible. The shortness of the time should be measured both by the necessary length of the preparations for the trial and by the seniority of claim to a judgment. The strictness of confinement should be no more than is necessary either for the prevention of escape or for guarding against the concealment of the proof of crimes. The trial itself should be finished in the shortest time possible. What contrast more cruel than that between a judge’s ease and a defendant’s anguish? between the comforts and pleasures of an unfeeling magistrate on the one hand, and the tears and wretchedness of a prisoner on the other? In general, the weight of a punishment and the consequence of a crime should be as efficacious as possible for the restraint of other men and as little hard as possible for the individual who is punished; for one cannot call that a proper form of society, where it is not an infallible principle, that its members intended, in constituting it, to subject themselves to as few evils as possible.
Finally, a man who, when examined, persists in an obstinate refusal to answer, deserves a punishment fixed by the laws, and one of the heaviest they can inflict, that men may not in this way escape the necessary example they owe to the public. But this punishment is not necessary when it is beyond all doubt that such a person has committed such a crime, questions being useless, in the same way that confession is, when other proofs sufficiently demonstrate guilt And this last case is the most usual, for experience proves that in the majority of trials the accused are wont to plead ‘Not guilty.’
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?Judgment must be nothing but the precise text of the law, and the office of the judge is only to pronounce whether the action is contrary or conformable to it.详情
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