It is better to prevent crimes than to punish them. This is the chief aim of every good system of legislation, which is the art of leading men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible misery, according to calculation of all the goods and evils of life. But the means hitherto employed for this end are for the most part false and contrary to the end proposed. It is impossible to reduce the turbulent activity of men to a geometrical harmony without any irregularity or confusion. As the constant and most simple laws of nature do not prevent aberrations in the movements of the planets, so, in the infinite and contradictory attractions of pleasure and pain, disturbances and disorder cannot be prevented by human laws. Yet this is the chimera that narrow-minded men pursue, when they have power in their hands. To prohibit a number of indifferent acts is not to prevent the crimes that may arise from them, but it is to create new ones from them; it is to give capricious definitions of virtue and vice which are proclaimed as eternal and immutable in their nature. To what should we be reduced if everything had to be forbidden us which might tempt us to a crime? It would be necessary to deprive a man of the use of his senses. For one motive that drives men to commit a real crime there are a thousand that drive them to the commission of those indifferent acts which are called crimes by bad laws; and if the likelihood of crimes is proportioned to the number of motives to commit them, an increase of the field of crimes is an increase of the likelihood of their commission. The majority of laws are nothing but privileges, or a tribute paid by all to the convenience of some few.Who can protect himself from calumny, when it is armed by the strongest shield of tyranny, secrecy? What sort of government can that ever be where in every subject a ruler suspects an enemy, and is obliged for the sake of the general tranquillity to rob each individual of its possession?
In the first place, our public works prisons, however excellent for their material results, are so many schools of crime, where for the one honest trade a man learns by compulsion he acquires a knowledge of three or four that are dishonest. ‘I have become acquainted,’ says a released convict, ‘with more of what is bad and evil, together with the schemes and dodges of professional thieves and swindlers, during the four years I served the Queen for nothing, than I should have done in fifty years outside the prison walls.’ ‘The association rooms at Dartmoor are as bad as it is possible for anything to be … they are really class-rooms in the college of vice, where all are alike students and professors. The present system in most instances merely completes the man’s vicious and criminal education, instead of in the slightest degree reforming him.’ It has been attempted in various ways to obviate this difficulty, by diminishing opportunities of companionship; but the real demoralisation of prison life is probably due less to the actual contact of bad men with one another than to the deadened sense of criminality which they derive from the feeling of numbers, just as from the same cause the danger of drowning is forgotten on the ice. Prisoners in gangs lose all shame of crime, just as men in armies forget their native horror of murder.
Or to take a stronger case. A deserter from the ranks escapes to his home, breaks into it at night, robs an infirm father of all the savings he has provided for his old age, and in a struggle for their possession so injures him that he dies. Must the law disclaim all indignation, all resentment, in the punishment it inflicts, and say to such a ruffian that it only deals hard with him in order to warn others by his example, and with the pious hope of making a good man of him in the future? If resentment is ever just, is it wrong to give it public expression? If it is natural and right in private life, why should it be a matter of shame in public life? If there is such a thing as just anger for a single man, does it become unjust when distributed among a million?
It was by the advice of Scarlett, Lord Abinger, that he ventured to aim at the repeal of all statutes punishing mere theft with death; but, deeming it hopeless to urge their abolition all at once, he resolved to begin with that famous statute of Elizabeth which made it a capital crime to steal a handkerchief or anything else from the person of another which was of the value of a shilling. His bill to effect this passed both Houses the same year it was introduced (1808), in spite of the strong opposition of the great legal dignitaries in either House. The statute was based, said Judge Burton, on the experience of two and a half centuries. The alternative punishment of transportation for seven years, said the Attorney-General, would be too short; it should be for more years than seven, if not for life. If any change of punishment were necessary, said Lord Ellenborough, it should be transportation for life.There is a remarkable contradiction between the civil laws, which set so jealous and supreme a guard upon individual life and property, and the laws of so-called honour, which set opinion above everything. This word honour is one of those that have served as the basis for long and brilliant argumentations, without any fixed or permanent idea being attached to it. How miserable is the condition of human minds, more distinctly cognisant of the remotest and least important ideas about the movements of the heavenly bodies, than of those near and important moral notions, which are ever fluctuating and confused, according as the winds of passion impel them and a well-guided ignorance receives and transmits them! But the seeming paradox will vanish, if one considers, that, as objects become confused when too near the eyes, so the too great propinquity of moral ideas easily causes the numerous simple ideas which compose them to become blended together, to the confusion of those clear lines of demarcation demanded by the geometrical spirit, which would fain measure exactly the phenomena of human sensibility. And the wonder will vanish altogether from the impartial student of human affairs, who will suspect that so great a moral machinery and so many restraints are perchance not needed, in order to render men happy and secure.
CHAPTER XXV. THE DIVISION OF PUNISHMENTS.
There seem to be three principal reasons why, under our present system, crime still keeps its general level, irrespective of all changes in our degrees of punishment.The opinion that each citizen should have liberty to do whatsoever is not contrary to the laws, without fear of any other inconvenience than such as may arise from the action itself—this is the political dogma that should be believed by the people and promulgated by the chief magistrates, a dogma as sacred as that of the incorrupt guardianship of the laws, without which there can be no legitimate society; a just compensation to mankind for their sacrifice of that entire liberty of action which belongs to every sensitive being, and is only limited by the extent of its force. This it is that forms liberal and vigorous souls, and enlightened minds; that makes men virtuous with that virtue which can resist fear, and not with that flexible kind of prudence which is only worthy of a man who can put up with a precarious and uncertain existence.What should men think when they see wise magistrates and grave priests of justice with calm indifference causing a criminal to be dragged by their slow procedure to death; or when they see a judge, whilst a miserable wretch in the convulsions of his last agonies is awaiting the fatal blow, pass away coldly and unfeelingly, perhaps even with a secret satisfaction in his authority, to enjoy the comforts and pleasures of life? ‘Ah’ they will say, ‘these laws are but the pretexts of force, and the studied cruel formalities of justice are but a conventional language, used for the purpose of immolating us with greater safety, like victims destined in sacrifice to the insatiable idol of tyranny. That assassination which they preach to us as so terrible a misdeed we see nevertheless employed by them without either scruple or passion. Let us profit by the example. A violent death seemed to us a terrible thing in the descriptions of it that were made to us, but we see it is a matter of a moment. How much less terrible will it be for a man who, not expecting it, is spared all that there is of painful in it.’
Even if we assume that death is absolutely the severest penalty devisable by the law, and that as a punishment for murder it is not too severe, it remains certain, that, relatively to the circumstances of a trial for murder, to the reluctance of judges or juries to pass an irretrievable sentence, to their fear of error, to their conscientious regard for human life, it is really a much less terrible danger for a malefactor to face than a penalty which would justify fewer hopes of impunity.It was translated into English long ago; but the change in the order of the several chapters and paragraphs, which the work underwent before it was clothed in its final dress, is so great, that the new translation and the old one really constitute quite different books.
If we consult the human heart we shall therein discover the fundamental principles of the real right of the sovereign to punish crimes.
There was a time when nearly all penalties were pecuniary. Men’s crimes were the prince’s patrimony; attempts against the public safety were an object of gain, and he whose function it was to defend it found his interest in seeing it assailed. The object of punishment was then a suit between the treasury, which exacted the penalty, and the criminal: it was a civil business, a private rather than a public dispute, which conferred upon the treasury other rights than those conferred upon it by the calls of the public defence, whilst it inflicted upon the offender other grievances than those he had incurred by the necessity of example. The judge was, therefore, an advocate for the treasury rather than an impartial investigator of the truth, an agent for the Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than the protector and minister of the laws. But as in this system to confess a fault was the same thing as to confess oneself a debtor to the treasury, that being the object of the criminal procedure in those days, so the confession of a crime, and a confession so managed as to favour and not to hurt fiscal interests, became and still remains (effects always outlasting their causes so long) the centre point of all criminal procedure. Without such confession a criminal convicted by indubitable proofs will incur a penalty less than the one legally attached to his crime; and without it he will escape torture for other crimes of the same sort which he may have committed. With it, on the other hand, the judge becomes master of a criminal’s person, to lacerate him by method and formality, in order to get from him as from so much stock all the profit he can. Given the fact of the crime as proved, confession affords a convincing proof; and, to make this proof still less open to doubt, it is forcibly exacted by the agonies and despair of physical pain; whilst at the same time a confession that is extra-judicial, that is tendered calmly and indifferently, and without the overpowering fears of a trial by torture, is held insufficient for a verdict of guilt. Inquiries and proofs, which throw light upon the fact, but which weaken the claims of the treasury, are excluded; nor is it out of consideration for his wretchedness and weakness that a criminal is sometimes spared from torture, but out of regard for the claims which this entity, now mythical and inconceivable, might lose. The judge becomes the enemy of the accused, who stands in chains before him, the prey of misery, of torments, and the most terrible future; he does not seek to find the truth of a fact, but to find the crime in the prisoner, trying to entrap him, and thinking it to the loss of his own credit if he fail to do so, and to the detriment of that infallibility which men pretend to possess about everything. The evidence that justifies a man’s imprisonment rests with the judge; in order that a man may prove himself innocent, he must first be declared guilty: that is called an offensive prosecution; and such are criminal proceedings in nearly every part of enlightened Europe, in the eighteenth century. The real prosecution, the informative one—that is, the indifferent inquiry into a fact, such as reason enjoins, such as military codes employ, and such as is used even by Asiatic despotism in trivial and unimportant cases—is of very scant use in the tribunals of Europe. What a complex maze of strange absurdities, doubtless incredible to a more fortunate posterity! Only the philosophers of that time will read in the nature of man the possible actuality of such a system as now exists.
Even inanimate objects or animals it has been thought through many ages reasonable to punish. In Athens an axe or stone that killed anyone by accident was cast beyond the border; and the English law was only repealed in the present reign which made a cartwheel, a tree, or a beast, that killed a man, forfeit to the State for the benefit of the poor. The Jewish law condemned an ox that gored anyone to death to be stoned, just as it condemned the human murderer. And in the middle ages pigs, horses, or oxen were not only tried judicially like men, with counsel on either side and witnesses, but they were hung on gallows like men, for the better deterrence of their kind in future.Lord Ellenborough was so hard upon ‘speculative humanity,’ as opposed to real practical common sense, that the speculative school are never likely to forget him. But they owe too much to him not to forgive him; since he is the standing proof, that in matters of the general policy of the law professional opinion is a less trustworthy guide than popular sentiment, and that in questions of law reform it is best to neglect the fossil-wisdom of forgotten judges, and to seek the opinion of Jones round the corner as readily as that of Jones upon the Bench.详情
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