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Had I to address nations still destitute of the light of religion, I would say that there is yet another considerable difference between adultery and other crimes. For it springs from the abuse of a constant and universal human impulse, an impulse anterior to, nay, the cause of the institution of society; whereas other crimes, destructive of society, derive their origin rather from momentary passions than from a natural impulse. To anyone cognisant of history and his kind, such an impulse will seem to be equivalent in the same climate to a constant quantity; and if this be so, those laws and customs which seek to diminish the sum-total will be useless or dangerous, because their effect will be to burthen one half of humanity with its own needs and those of others; but those laws, on the contrary, will be the wisest, which following, so to speak, the gentle inclination of the plain, divide the total amount, causing it to ramify into so many equal and small portions, that aridity or overflowing are equally prevented everywhere. Conjugal fidelity is always proportioned to the number and to the freedom of marriages. Where marriages are governed by hereditary prejudices, or[229] bound or loosened by parental power, there the chains are broken by secret intrigue, in despite of ordinary morality, which, whilst conniving at the causes of the offence, makes it its duty to declaim against the results. But there is no need of such reflections for the man who, living in the light of true religion, has higher motives to correct the force of natural effects. Such a crime is of so instantaneous and secret commission, so concealed by the very veil the laws have drawn round it (a veil necessary, indeed, but fragile, and one that enhances, instead of diminishing, the value of the desired object), the occasions for it are so easy, and the consequences so doubtful, that the legislator has it more in his power to prevent than to punish it. As a general rule, in every crime which by its nature must most frequently go unpunished, the penalty attached to it becomes an incentive. It is a quality of our imagination, that difficulties, if they are not insurmountable nor too difficult, relatively to the mental energy of the particular person, excite the imagination more vividly, and place the object desired in larger perspective; for they serve as it were as so many barriers to prevent an erratic and flighty fancy from quitting hold of its object; and, while they compel the imagination to consider the latter in all its bearings, it attaches itself more closely to the pleasant[230] side, to which our mind most naturally inclines, than to the painful side, which it places at a distance.Whatever improvement our penal laws have undergone in the last hundred years is due primarily to Beccaria, and to an extent that has not always been recognised. Lord Mansfield is said never to have mentioned his name without a sign of respect. Romilly referred to him in the very first speech he delivered in the House of Commons on the subject of law reform. And there is no English writer of that day who, in treating of the criminal law, does not refer to Beccaria.

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.[153]

When the community is one of individuals, the subordination that prevails in the family prevails by agreement, not by compulsion; and the sons, as soon as their age withdraws them from their state of natural dependence, arising from their feebleness and their need of education and protection, become free members of the domestic commonwealth, subjecting themselves to its head, in order to share in its advantages, as free men do by society at large. In the other condition the sons—that is, the largest and most useful part of a nation—are placed altogether at the mercy of their fathers; but in this one there is no enjoined connection between them, beyond that sacred and inviolable one of the natural ministration of necessary aid, and that of gratitude for benefits received, which is less often destroyed by the native wickedness of the human heart than by a law-ordained and ill-conceived state of subjection.The first consequence of these principles is, that the laws alone can decree punishments for crimes, and this authority can only rest with the legislator, who represents collective society as united by a social contract. No magistrate (who is part of society) can justly inflict punishments upon another member of the same society. But since a punishment that exceeds the legally fixed limit is the lawful punishment plus another one, a magistrate can, under no pretext of zeal or the public good, add to the penalty already decreed against a delinquent citizen.It is the specific crime, not the fact that it is a second or third felony, which is injurious. Neither a community nor an individual suffer more from the commission of a crime by a man who commits it for the second time than from its commission by a man who has never committed it before. If two brothers are each robbed of a pound apiece on two several occasions, the one who is robbed each time by the same criminal suffers no more than the one who is robbed each time by different criminals. Still less is the public more injured in one case than in the other. Therefore the former brother is entitled for his second loss to no more restitution than the other, nor has any more claim on society for the infliction of a severer punishment on his behalf than that inflicted for the second loss of his brother.

In those days to steal five shillings’ worth of goods from a shop was a capital offence, and Paley had explained the philosophy of the punishment. It would be tedious to follow the course of Romilly’s bill against this law, called the Shoplifting Act,[62] through the details of its history. Suffice it to say that it passed the Commons in 1810, 1811, 1813, 1816, but was regularly thrown out by the Lords, and only definitely became law many years later. But though the debates on the subject no longer possess the vivid interest that once belonged to them, and are best left to the oblivion that enshrouds them, it is instructive to take just one sample of the eloquence and arguments, that once led Lords and Bishops captive and expressed the highest legal wisdom obtainable in England.It would also seem to demand no great insight to perceive that a voluntary intention must be a universal attribute of a criminal action. No one would think of punishing a man who in his sleep killed another, although, if the injury to society be the measure of punishment, his crime is equivalent to intentional homicide. Yet at Athens an involuntary murderer was banished until he could, give satisfaction to the relatives of the deceased; and in China, though the penal code generally separates intentional from accidental crimes, anyone who kills a near relation by accident or commits certain kinds[72] of arson by accident undergoes different degrees of banishment and a fixed number of bamboo strokes.[40]

Moreover, if, as was said, our feelings are limited in quantity, the greater respect men may have for things outside the laws, the less will remain to them for the laws themselves. From this principle the wise administrator of the public happiness may draw some useful consequences, the exposition of which would lead me too far from my subject, which is to demonstrate the uselessness of making a prison of the State. A law with such an object is useless, because, unless inaccessible rocks or an unnavigable sea separate a country from all others, how will it be possible to close all the points of its circumference and keep guard over the guardians themselves? A man who transports everything he has with him, when he has done so cannot be punished. Such a crime once committed can no longer be punished, and to punish it beforehand would be to punish men’s wills, not their actions, to exercise command over their intention, the freest part of human nature, and altogether independent of the control of human laws. The punishment of an absent man in the property he leaves behind him would ruin all international commerce,[225] to say nothing of the facility of collusion, which would be unavoidable, except by a tyrannical control of contracts. And his punishment on his return, as a criminal, would prevent the reparation of the evil done to society, by making all removals perpetual. The very prohibition to leave a country augments people’s desire to do so, and is a warning to foreigners not to enter it.Lord Ellenborough, on the last day but one of May 1810, appealed to their lordships to pause, before they passed the Shoplifting Bill and gave their assent to the repeal of a law which had so long been held necessary for the security of the public. No one, he insisted, was more disposed than himself to the exercise of clemency, but there was not the slightest ground for the insinuations of cruelty that had been cast on the administration of the law. If shoplifting did not require the penalty of death, the same rule would have to apply to horse- and sheep-stealing; and, in spite of all that was said in favour of this speculative humanity, they must all agree, that prevention of crime should be the chief object of the law, and that terror alone could prevent the crime in question. Those who were thus speculating in modern legislation urged that punishment should[63] be certain and proportionate; but he could satisfy the House that any attempt to apply a punishment in exact conformity to the offence would be perfectly ludicrous. He had consulted with the other judges, and they were unanimously of opinion that it would not be expedient to remit this part of the severity of the criminal law.[38] He therefore entreated them to pause.

But of far greater historical interest than such criticism is that of Ramsay, the Scotch poet and painter, to whom a copy of Beccaria’s treatise had been shown by Diderot, and who wrote a letter about it to the latter, which, though it contains some very just criticisms on Beccaria, yet reads for the most part very curiously by the light of subsequent history, and illustrates graphically the despair of all reform then felt by most men of reflection.[8]Although these instructions were not so much laws as suggestions of laws, it is obvious what their effect must have been when published and diffused throughout Russia. That they were translated into Latin, German, French, and Italian proves the interest that was taken in Europe by this first attempt to apply the maxims of philosophy to practical government.CHAPTER VII. PROOFS AND FORMS OF JUDGMENT.

The mind of man offers more resistance to violence and to extreme but brief pains than it does to time and to incessant weariness; for whilst it can, so to speak, gather itself together for a moment to repel the former, its vigorous elasticity is insufficient to resist the long and repeated action of the latter. In the[174] case of capital punishment, each example presented of it is all that a single crime affords; in penal servitude for life, a single crime serves to present numerous and lasting warnings. And if it be important that the power of the laws should often be witnessed, there ought to be no long intervals between the examples of the death penalty; but this would presuppose the frequency of crimes, so that, to render the punishment effective, it must not make on men all the impression that it ought to make, in other words, it must be useful and not useful at the same time. And should it be objected that perpetual servitude is as painful as death, and therefore equally cruel, I will reply, that, taking into consideration all the unhappy moments of servitude, it will perhaps be even more painful than death; but whilst these moments are spread over the whole of a lifetime, death exercises all its force in a single moment. There is also this advantage in penal servitude, that it has more terrors for him who sees it than for him who suffers it, for the former thinks of the whole sum-total of unhappy moments, whilst the latter, by the unhappiness of the present moment, has his thoughts diverted from that which is to come. All evils are magnified in imagination, and every sufferer finds resources and consolations unknown to and unbelieved in by spectators, who substitute their own sensibility for the hardened soul of a criminal.If, moreover, the prevention of crime is the chief object of punishment, why wait till the crime is committed? Why not punish before, as a certain Turk in Barbary is said to have done, who, whenever he bought a fresh Christian slave, had him forthwith suspended by his heels and bastinadoed, that the severe sense of his punishment might prevent him from committing in future the faults that should[82] merit it?[43] Why should we ever let a man out of prison who has once entered one? Is he not then a hundred times more likely to violate the law than he was before; and is he ever more dangerous to society than when he has once suffered for the public example, and been released from the discipline that was intended to reform him? It is still true, as Goldsmith said long ago, that we send a man to prison for one crime and let him loose again ready to commit a thousand. And so it is, that of the 74,000 souls who make up our criminal classes, whilst about 34,000 of them fill our prisons and reformatories, there is still an army of 40,000 at large in our midst, whom we class as known thieves, receivers of stolen goods, and suspected persons.[44]


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If the interpretation of laws is an evil, it is clear that their obscurity, which necessarily involves interpretation, must be an evil also, and an evil which will be at its worst where the laws are written in any other than the vernacular language of a country. For in that case the people, being unable to judge of themselves how it may fare with their liberty or their limbs, are made dependent on a small class of men; and a book, which should be sacred and open to all, becomes, by virtue of its language, a private and, so to speak, a family manual.

For if punishment is weak to prevent crime, it is strong to produce it, and it is scarcely open to doubt that its productive force is far greater than its preventive. Our terms of imprisonment compel more persons to enter a career of crime than they prevent from pursuing one, that being often the only resource left for those who depend on a criminal’s labour. Whether in prison or the workhouse, such dependents become a charge to society; nor does it seem reasonable, that if one man under sore temptation steals a loaf, a hundred other men who do no such thing must contribute to keep, not only the prisoner himself, but his family too, in their daily bread for so long a time as it pleases the law to detain him from earning his and their necessary subsistence.




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