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Thus it has come about that, after steady opposition and fierce conflict, English law finds itself at the very point which Johnson and Goldsmith had attained a hundred years before; so true is it, as Beccaria has said, that the enlightenment of a nation is always a century in advance of its practice. The victory has conclusively been with the ultra-philosophers, as they were once called, with the speculative humanitarians, for whom good Lord Ellenborough had so honest a contempt. Paley’s philosophy has long since been forgotten, and if it affords any lesson at all, it lies chiefly in a comparison between his gloomy predictions and the actual results of the changes he deprecated. The practical and professional school of law has yielded on all the most important points to the dissolving influence of Beccaria’s treatise; and the growing demand for increasing the security of human life by the institution[68] of a penalty, more effective because more certain, than that at present in force, points to the still further triumph of Beccaria’s principles, likely before long to mark the progress of his influence in England.The ‘Dei Delitti e delle Pene’ was published for the first time in 1764. It quickly ran through several editions, and was first translated into French in 1766 by the Abbé Morellet, since which time it has been translated into most of the languages of Europe, not excluding Greek and Russian.

For since the observance of some regular proportion between crime and punishment, whatever that proportion may be, constitutes the first principle of an[87] equitable code; and since the most important thing in public morality is a fixed penal estimate for every class of crime; it is above all things desirable that the law should always adhere to such proportion and estimate, by concerning itself solely with the crime and not with the criminal. The injury to the public is precisely the same whether a criminal has broken the law for the first time or for the thousandth and first; and to punish a man more severely for his second offence than for his first, because he has been punished before, is to cast aside all regard for that due proportion between crime and punishment which is after all the chief ingredient of retributive justice, and to inflict a penalty often altogether incommensurate with the injury inflicted on the public.

That these causes do to a great extent defeat the preventive effect of our penal laws, is proved by the tale of our criminal statistics, which reveal the fact that most of our crime is committed by those who[100] have once been punished, and that of general crime about 77 per cent. is committed with impunity. But if so large a proportion of crimes pass unpunished altogether, it is evident that society depends much less for its general security upon its punishments than is commonly supposed. Might it not, therefore, still further relax such punishments, which are really a severe tax on the great majority of honest people for the repression of the very small proportion who constitute the dishonest part of the community?[58]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.

Romilly also injured his cause by a pamphlet on the criminal law, in which he criticised severely the doctrines of Paley. So strongly was this resented, that in 1810 his bill to abolish capital punishment for stealing forty shillings from a dwelling-house did not even pass the Commons, being generally opposed, as it was by Windham, because the maintenance of Paley’s reputation was regarded as a great object of national concern.[37] That is to say, men voted not so much against the bill as against the author of a heresy against Paley.

A child’s simple philosophy of punishment therefore is after all the correct one, when it tells you without hesitation that the reason a man is punished for a bad action is simply ‘because he deserves it.’ The notion of desert in punishment is based entirely on feelings of the justice of resentment. So that the[83] primary aim of legal punishment is precisely the same as may be shown historically to have been its origin, namely, the regulation by society of the wrongs of individuals. In all early laws and societies distinct traces may be seen of the transition of the vendetta, or right of private revenge, from the control of the person or family injured by a crime to that of the community at large. The latter at first decided only the question of guilt, whilst leaving its punishment to the pleasure of the individuals directly concerned by it. Even to this day in Turkey sentences of death for murder run as follows: So-and-so is condemned to death at the demand of the victim’s heirs; and such sentences are sometimes directed to be carried out in their presence.[45] By degrees the community obtained control of the punishment as well, and thus private might became public right, and the resentment of individual injuries the Retributive Justice of the State.The object of examining an accused man is the ascertainment of truth. But if this truth is difficult to discover from a man’s air, demeanour, or countenance, even when he is quiet, much more difficult will it be to discover from a man upon whose face all the signs, whereby most men, sometimes in spite of themselves, express the truth, are distorted by pain. Every violent action confuses and causes to disappear those trifling differences between objects, by which one may sometimes distinguish the true from the false.

It is incomparably better to prevent crimes than to punish them.So signal a success in France was a sufficient guarantee of success elsewhere. A knowledge of the book must have speedily crossed the Channel, for Blackstone quoted it the very year after its publication. It was first translated into English in 1768, together with Voltaire’s commentary; but just as Morellet’s translation professed to have been published at Philadelphia, so the English translator kept his name a secret. The Economical Society of Berne, which was accustomed to bestow a gold medal on the writer of the best treatise on any given subject, violated its own rules in favour of the anonymous writer of the ‘Delitti,’ inviting him to disclose his name, and to accept the gold medal ‘as a sign of esteem due to a citizen who had dared to raise his voice in favour of humanity against the most deeply engrained prejudices.’

But, to turn from this unpleasant episode of Beccaria’s life, Catharine II., soon after his return to Milan, invited him to St. Petersburg, to assist in the preparation of her intended code of laws. It would seem from one of Pietro Verri’s letters that Beccaria was at first inclined to accept the proposal,[15] but it is improbable that any such offer would really have tempted him to exchange Italian suns for Russian snows, even if Kaunitz and Firmian had not resolved to remove the temptation, by making his talents of service at home. This they did by making him Professor of Political Economy in the Palatine School of Milan, in November 1768; and his published lectures on this subject form the largest work he ever wrote.

In the second place, a large proportion of the habitual criminal class is formed of weak-minded or imbecile persons, notorious for the repeated commission of petty thefts, crimes of violence and passion, and confessed to be ‘not amenable to the ordinary influences of self-interest or fear of punishment.’[57] It is now proposed to separate this class of prisoners from others; but is punishment operative on them at all? Is not their proper place an asylum?

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CHAPTER XV. THE MILDNESS OF PUNISHMENTS.It is not easy in the days of a milder administration of penal laws than a century ago the most sanguine could have dreamed of to do full justice to those who laboured, as Beccaria and his friends did, at the peril of their lives and liberties, for those very immunities which we now enjoy. We cannot conceive that it should ever have been necessary to argue against torture, or that it should have been a bold thing to do so; still less can we conceive that it should ever have had its defenders, or that men should have been contented with the sophism, that it was indeed an evil, but an evil which was necessary and inevitable.

Howard’s book on the Lazarettos of Europe appeared four years after Paley’s work. Although it did not deal directly with crimes, it indirectly treated of their connection with punishment. Howard was able to show that whilst in Middlesex alone 467 persons had been executed in nine years, only six had been executed in Amsterdam; that for a hundred years the average number of executions had been one a year at Utrecht and that for twenty-four years there had not even been one there. The inference therefore was that the diminution of punishment had a direct[58] effect in diminishing crime. Howard also advocated the restriction of capital punishment to cases of murder, arson, and burglary; highwaymen, footpads, and habitual thieves should, he thought, end their days in a penitentiary rather than on the gallows. Even this was a bold proposal, in a state of society yet in bondage to Paley.Sir James Mackintosh, who succeeded Romilly as law reformer, in 1820 introduced with success six penal reform bills into the House of Commons; but the Lords assented to none of them that were of any practical importance to the country. They agreed, indeed, that it should no longer be a capital offence for an Egyptian to reside one year in the country, or for a man to be found disguised in the Mint, or to injure Westminster Bridge; but they did not agree to remove the capital penalty for such offences as wounding cattle, destroying trees, breaking down the banks of rivers, or sending threatening letters. It was feared that if the punishment were mitigated, the whole of Lincolnshire might be submerged, whole forests cut down, and whole herds destroyed. As to the Shoplifting Bill, they would not let death be abolished for stealing in shops altogether, but only where the value of the theft was under 10l. That seemed the limit of safe concession.



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