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But there was one great fallacy, pervading our whole criminal law, which Blackstone left undetected and untouched. This was, that the severity of punishment must be augmented in proportion to the increase of temptation, and that the measure of the guilt of a crime lay in the facility with which it might be committed. ‘Among crimes of an equal malignity,’ says Blackstone, ‘those [deserve most punishment, as most injurious] which a man has the most frequent and easy opportunities of committing, which cannot so easily be guarded against as others, and which, therefore, the offender has the strongest inducement to commit.’ And on this principle he finds it reasonable, that, while the theft of a pocket-handkerchief should be a capital crime, the theft of a load of hay should only involve transportation.CHAPTER XXXIX. OF FAMILY SPIRIT.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 success which attended Romilly’s Privately Stealing Bill and the failure which attended almost all his other efforts was probably due to the fact that larceny from the person without violence was, as has been said, the one single kind of offence which had Paley’s sanction for ceasing to be capital. But the[61] very success of his first bill was the chief cause of the failure of his subsequent ones. For, capital punishment having been removed for mere pilfering, prosecutions became more frequent, and the opponents of reform were thus able to declare that an increase of theft had been the direct consequence of the abolition of the capital penalty. It was in vain to point out, that the apparent increase of theft was due to the greater readiness of individuals to prosecute and of juries to convict, when a verdict of guilt no longer involved death as the consequence.Nor was it only in Europe that Beccaria’s influence thus prevailed, for as soon as the American Colonies had shaken off their English connection they began to reform their penal laws. When the Revolution began there were in Pennsylvania nearly twenty crimes punishable by death, and within eighteen years of its close the penal code was thoroughly transformed, it being ordained in 1794 that no crime should any longer be capital but murder in the first degree. It is true that this was but a return to the principles adopted by Penn on the settlement of the colony, but Penn’s penal code was annulled by Queen Anne, and the English Government insisted on a strict adherence to the charter from Charles II., which enjoined the retention of the Statute and the Common Law of England. When, therefore, the new Constitution was formed in 1776, the arguments of Beccaria gave fresh life to the memories of Penn.[25]

The reason for translating afresh Beccaria’s ‘Dei Delitti e delle Pene’ (‘Crimes and Punishments’) is, that it is a classical work of its kind, and that the interest which belongs to it is still far from being merely historical.But why does this crime never entail disgrace upon its author, seeing that it is a theft against the prince, and consequently against the nation? I answer, that offences which men do not consider can be committed against themselves do not interest them enough to produce public indignation against their perpetrator. Smuggling is an offence of this character. Men in general, on whom remote consequences make very feeble impressions, do not perceive the harm that smuggling can do them, nay, often they enjoy a present advantage from it. They only perceive the injury done to the sovereign; they are not interested, therefore, in withdrawing their favour from a smuggler as much as they are in doing so from a man who commits a theft in private life, who forges a signature, or brings upon them other evils. The principle is self-evident, that every sensitive being only interests himself in the evils which he knows. This crime arises from the law itself; since the benefit it promises increases with the increase of the import duty, and therefore the temptation and the facility of committing it increases with the circumference of territory to be guarded and the small size of the prohibited wares. The penalty of losing both the prohibited goods, and whatever effects are found with them, is most just; but its efficacy will be greater in proportion as the import duty is lower, because men only incur risks relative to the advantage derivable from the prosperous issue of their undertaking.

This infamous crucible of truth is a still-existing monument of that primitive and savage legal system, which called trials by fire and boiling water, or the accidental decisions of combat, judgments of God, as if the rings of the eternal chain in the control of the First Cause must at every moment be disarranged and put out for the petty institutions of mankind. The only difference between torture and the trial by fire and water is, that the result of the former seems to depend on the will of the accused, and that of the other two on a fact which is purely physical and extrinsic to the sufferer; but the difference is only apparent, not real. The avowal of truth under tortures and agonies is as little free as was in those times the prevention without fraud of the usual effects of fire and boiling water. Every act of our will is ever proportioned to the force of the sensible impression which causes it, and the sensibility of every man is limited. Hence the impression produced by pain may be so intense as to occupy a man’s entire sensibility and leave him no other liberty than the choice of the shortest way of escape, for the present moment, from his penalty. Under such circumstances the answer of the accused is as[151] inevitable as the impressions produced by fire and water; and the innocent man who is sensitive will declare himself guilty, when by so doing he hopes to bring his agonies to an end. All the difference between guilt and innocence is lost by virtue of the very means which they profess to employ for its discovery.

Not only is it the general interest that crimes should not be committed, but that they should be rare in proportion to the evils they cause to society. The more opposed therefore that crimes are to the public welfare, and the more numerous the incentives to them, the stronger should be the repellent obstacles. This principle accordingly establishes the necessity of a certain proportion between crimes and punishments.

If I am confronted with the example of almost all ages and almost all nations who have inflicted the punishment of death upon some crimes, I will reply, that the example avails nothing before truth, against which there is no prescription of time; and that the history of mankind conveys to us the idea of an immense sea of errors, among which a few truths, confusedly and at long intervals, float on the surface.[179] Human sacrifices were once common to almost all nations, yet who for that reason will dare defend them? That some few states, and for a short time only, should have abstained from inflicting death, rather favours my argument than otherwise, because such a fact is in keeping with the lot of all great truths, whose duration is but as of a lightning flash in comparison with the long and darksome night that envelops mankind. That happy time has not yet arrived when truth, as error has hitherto done, shall belong to the majority of men; and from this universal law of the reign of error those truths alone have hitherto been exempt, which supreme wisdom has seen fit to distinguish from others, by making them the subject of a special revelation.False ideas of utility entertained by legislators are one source of errors and injustice. It is a false idea of utility which thinks more of the inconvenience of individuals than of the general inconvenience; which tyrannises over men’s feelings, instead of arousing them into action; which says to Reason, ‘Be thou subject.’ It is a false idea of utility which sacrifices a thousand real advantages for one imaginary or trifling drawback; which would deprive men of the use of fire because it burns or of water because it drowns; and whose only remedy for evils is the entire destruction of their causes. Of such a kind are laws prohibiting the wearing of arms, for they only disarm those who are not inclined nor resolved to commit crimes, whilst those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, the most important in the law-code, are little likely to be induced to respect those lesser and purely arbitrary laws, which are easier to contravene with impunity; and the strict observance of which would imply the destruction of all personal liberty, (that liberty dearest to the enlightened legislator and to men generally,) subjecting the innocent to vexations[234] which only the guilty deserve. These laws, whilst they make still worse the position of the assailed, improve that of their assailants; they increase rather than diminish the number of homicides, owing to the greater confidence with which an unarmed man may be attacked than an armed one. They are not so much preventive of crimes as fearful of them, due as they are to the excitement roused by particular facts, not to any reasoned consideration of the advantages or disadvantages of a general decree. Again, it is a false idea of utility, which would seek to impart to a multitude of intelligent beings the same symmetry and order that brute and inanimate matter admits of; which neglects present motives, the only constantly powerful influences with the generality of men, to give force to remote and future ones, the impression of which is very brief and feeble, unless a force of imagination beyond what is usual makes up, by its magnifying power, for the object’s remoteness. Lastly, it is a false idea of utility, which, sacrificing the thing to the name, distinguishes the public good from that of every individual member of the public. There is this difference between the state of society and the state of nature, that in the latter a savage only commits injuries against others with a view to benefit himself, whilst in the former state men are sometimes moved by bad laws to injure others without any corresponding benefit to themselves. The tyrant casts[235] fear and dread into the minds of his slaves, but they return by repercussion with all the greater force to torment his own breast. The more confined fear is in its range, so much the less dangerous is it to him who makes it the instrument of his happiness; but the more public it is and the larger the number of people it agitates, so much the more likely is it that there will be some rash, some desperate, or some clever and bold man who will try to make use of others for his own purpose, by raising in them hopes, that are all the more pleasant and seductive as the risk incurred in them is spread over a greater number, and as the value attached by the wretched to their existence diminishes in proportion to their misery. This is the reason why offences ever give rise to fresh ones: that hatred is a feeling much more durable than love, inasmuch as it derives its force from the very cause that weakens the latter, namely, from the continuance of the acts that produce it.

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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.Is it possible, then, so beforehand to apportion punishments to crimes that when a crime is committed it shall be but necessary to refer to a code and at once detect its appropriate punishment? Or must the law be general in its language, and leave a wide margin to the discretion of the judge? Beccaria would have the judicial function confined solely to the ascertainment of the fact of a crime, its punishment preordained by the law. On the other hand it is said, that it is impossible to anticipate every case that may arise; that no two cases are ever alike; that it is better to leave the nice adjustment of penalties to the wisdom and impartiality of a judge, and only limit his discretion by rules of a most expansive description.

Thus, the two writers to whom Beccaria owed most were Montesquieu and Helvetius. The ‘Lettres Persanes’ of the former, which satirised so many things then in custom, contained but little about penal laws; but the idea is there started for the first time that crimes depend but little on the mildness or severity of the punishments attached to them. ‘The imagination,’ says the writer, ‘bends of itself to the customs of the country; and eight days of prison or a slight fine have as much terror for a European brought up in a country of mild manners as the loss of an arm would have for an Asiatic.’[4] The ‘Esprit des Lois,’ by the same author, probably contributed more to the formation of Beccaria’s thoughts than the ‘Lettres Persanes,’ for it is impossible to read the twelfth book of that work without being struck by the resemblance of ideas. The ‘De L’Esprit’ of Helvetius was condemned by the Sorbonne as ‘a combination of all the various kinds of poison scattered through modern books.’ Yet it was one of the most influential books of the time. We find Hume recommending it to Adam Smith for its agreeable composition father than for its philosophy; and a writer who had much in common with Beccaria drew[8] from it the same inspiration that he did. That writer was Bentham, who tells us that when he was about twenty, and on a visit to his father and stepmother in the country, he would often walk behind them reading a book, and that his favourite author was Helvetius.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[162] 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.

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