Such considerations as these will, perhaps, lead some day to the abolition of capital punishment. The final test of all punishment is its efficiency, not its humanity. There is often more inhumanity in a long sentence of penal servitude than in a capital sentence, for the majority of murderers deserve as little mercy as they get. The many offences which have ceased to be capital in English law yielded less to a sense of the inhumanity of the punishment as related to the crime than to the experience that such a punishment led to almost total impunity. The bankers, for instance, who petitioned Parliament to abolish capital punishment for forgery, did so, as they said, because they found by experience that the infliction of death, or the possibility of its infliction, prevented the prosecution, the conviction, and the punishment of the criminal; therefore they begged for ‘that protection for their property which they would derive from a more lenient law.’
Such are some of the problems connected with penology, which best illustrate the imperfection of its hitherto attained results. Only one thing as yet seems to stand out from the mist, which is, that closely associated as crime and punishment are both in thought and speech, they are but little associated in reality. The amount of crime in a country appears to be a given quantity, dependent on quite other causes than the penal laws directed to its repression. The efficiency of the latter seems proportioned to their mildness, not to their severity; such severity being always spoiled by an inevitable moderation in practice. The conclusion, therefore, would seem to be, that a short simple code, with every punishment attached to every offence, with every motive for aggravation of punishment stated, and on so moderate a scale that no discretion for its mitigation should be necessary, would be the means best calculated to give to penal laws their utmost value as preventives of crime, though experience proves that as such preventives their place is a purely secondary one in a really good system of legislation.1. When the proofs of a fact are dependent one on another—that is to say, when each single proof rests on the weight of some other—then the more numerous the proofs are, the smaller is the probability of the fact in question, because the chances of error in the preliminary proofs would increase the probability of error in the succeeding ones.
This useless prodigality of punishments, by which men have never been made any better, has driven me to examine whether the punishment of death be really useful and just in a well organised government. What kind of right can that be which men claim for the slaughter of their fellow-beings? Certainly not that right which is the source of sovereignty and of laws. For these are nothing but the sum-total of the smallest portions of individual liberty, and represent the general will, that is, the aggregate of individual wills. But who ever wished to leave to other men the option of killing him? How in the least possible sacrifice of each man’s liberty can there be a sacrifice of the greatest of all goods, namely, of life? And if there could be that sacrifice, how would such a principle accord with the other, that a man is not the master of his own life? Yet he must have been so, could he have given to himself or to society as a body this right of killing him.Lastly, among the crimes of the third kind are especially those which disturb the public peace and civic tranquillity; such as noises and riots in the public streets, which were made for the convenience of men and traffic, or fanatical sermons that excite the easily roused passions of the curious multitude. For their passions gather force from the number of hearers, and more from a certain obscure and mysterious enthusiasm, than from clear and quiet reasoning, which never has any influence over a large mass of men.
There is an apparent discrepancy in Beccaria’s first condemning death as too severe a punishment and then recommending lifelong servitude as one of more deterrent power; but Beccaria would have said that the greater certainty of the latter more than compensated for the greater severity of the other. As regards the relative power of the two punishments, it probably varies in different individuals, some men having a greater dread of the one, and some of the other. The popular theory certainly goes too far, when it assumes that all men have a greater dread of the gallows than of anything else. When George III. once granted a pardon to the female convicts in Newgate on condition of their transportation to New South Wales, though seventeen of them accepted the offer, there were yet six who preferred death to a removal from their native country. It is also stated by Howard that in Denmark the punishment in cases of infanticide, namely, imprisonment for life, with labour and an annual whipping on the place of the crime, was ‘dreaded more than death,’ which it superseded as a punishment.It was this system that Beccaria’s little work destroyed, and had that been its only result, it would still deserve to live in men’s memories for its historical interest alone. For upon the legislation of that time, and especially upon that of Italy, this pamphlet on criminal law broke like a ray of sunlight on a dungeon floor, making even blacker that which was black before by the very brilliancy which it shed upon it. To Beccaria primarily, though not of course solely, belongs the glory of having expelled the use of torture from every legal tribunal throughout Christendom.
Count Pietro Verri was the son of Gabriel, who was distinguished alike for his legal knowledge and high position in Milan. At the house of Pietro, Beccaria and the other friends used to meet for the discussion and study of political and social questions. Alessandro, the younger brother of Pietro, held the office of ‘Protector of Prisoners,’ an office which consisted in visiting the prisons, listening to the grievances of the inmates, and discovering, if possible, reasons for their defence or for mercy. The distressing sights he was witness of in this capacity are said to have had the most marked effect upon him; and there is no doubt that this fact caused the attention of the friends to be so much directed to the state of the penal laws. It is believed to have been at the instigation of the two brothers that Beccaria undertook the work which was destined to make his name so famous.
Torture is a certain method for the acquittal of robust villains and for the condemnation of innocent but feeble men. See the fatal drawbacks of this pretended test of truth—a test, indeed, that is worthy of cannibals; a test which the Romans, barbarous as they too were in many respects, reserved for slaves alone, the victims of their fierce and too highly lauded virtue. Of two men, equally innocent or equally guilty, the robust and courageous will be acquitted, the weak and the timid will be condemned, by virtue of the following exact train of reasoning on the part of the judge: ‘I as judge had to find you guilty of such and such a crime; you, A B, have by your physical strength been able to resist pain, and therefore I acquit you; you, C D, in your weakness have yielded to it; therefore I condemn you. I feel that a confession extorted amid torments can have no force, but I will torture you afresh unless you corroborate what you have now confessed.Where there is no capital punishment, as in Michigan, a man’s innocence may be discovered subsequently to conviction, and justice done to him for the error of the law. Such a case actually happened not long ago in Michigan, where a prisoner’s innocence was clearly proved after ten years’ imprisonment. Where capital punishment exists, there is no such hope; nor is there any remedy if, as in the case of Lewis, who was hung in 1831, another man thirty-three years afterwards confesses himself the murderer. It is impossible to preclude all chances of such errors of justice. Illustrative of this is the story of the church organist near Kieff, who murdered a farmer with a pistol he stole from a priest. After his crime he placed the pistol in the sacristy, and then, when he had prevented the priest from giving evidence against him by the act of confession, went and denounced the priest as the culprit. The priest, in spite of his protestations of innocence, was sentenced to hard labour for life; and when, twenty years afterwards, the organist confessed his guilt on his deathbed, and the priest’s liberation was applied for, it was found that he had died only a few months before.
Would you prevent crimes, then see that enlightenment accompanies liberty. The evils that flow from knowledge are in inverse ratio to its diffusion; the benefits directly proportioned to it. A bold impostor, who is never a commonplace man, is adored by an ignorant people, despised by an enlightened one. Knowledge, by facilitating comparisons between objects and multiplying men’s points of view, brings many different notions into contrast, causing them to modify one another, all the more easily as the same views and the same difficulties are observed in others. In the face of a widely diffused national enlightenment the calumnies of ignorance are silent, and authority, disarmed of pretexts for its manifestation, trembles; whilst the rigorous force of the laws remains unshaken, no one of education having any dislike to the clear and useful public compacts which secure the common safety, when he compares the trifling and useless liberty sacrificed by himself with the sum-total of all the liberties sacrificed by others, who without the laws might have been hostile to himself. Whoever has a sensitive soul, when he contemplates a code of well-made laws, and finds that he has only lost the pernicious liberty of injuring others, will feel himself constrained to bless the throne and the monarch that sits upon it.
The object of the preliminary chapters is to place the historical importance of the original in its just light, and to increase the interest of the subjects it discusses.
For the same reason it is of little avail to call in question, as Beccaria does, the right of society to inflict death as a punishment. There may be a distinction between the right of society and its might, but it is one of little comfort to the man who incurs its resentment. A man in a dungeon does better to amuse himself with spiders and cobwebs than with reflections on the encroachment of the law upon his liberty, or with theories about the rights of government. Whenever society has ceased to exercise any of its powers against individuals, it has not been from the acceptance of any new doctrine as to its rights, but from more enlightened views as to its real interests, and a cultivated dislike of cruelty and oppression.If it be said that a second conviction makes it necessary for society to protect itself by stronger measures against a member who thus defies its power, it may be asked whether this is not an application of exactly the same reasoning to the crimes of individuals, which as applied to the crimes of all men generally led our ancestors so far astray in the distribution of their punishments. Nothing could have been more plausible than their reasoning: ‘The punishment in vogue does not diminish the crime, therefore increase the punishment.’ But nothing could have been less satisfactory than the result, for with the increase of punishment that of crime went hand in hand. The same reasoning is equally plausible in the case of individuals, with the same perplexing question resulting in the end: ‘How comes it that, in spite of the threatened greater punishment, the majority of criminals are yet old offenders?’详情
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