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Such was legal opinion generally as expressed by its ablest representatives with respect to the due punishment for pocket-picking not a hundred years ago. It is easy now to smile at such errors, and, at the barren waste of wisdom spent in their defence, but what weight after that can be attached, on subjects of the general policy of the law, to the opinion of its chief professors? Can it be too much regretted that Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough should have sacrificed to his own authority, whilst alive, the authority of all judges ever destined to succeed him?

One thing that might be done, which would also serve at the same time to keep a prisoners family from want, the main source of crime, would be the formation of a Prisoners Fund, for his and their benefit. For this there is a precedent in a quite recent Act. For the Act, which abolished the forfeiture of a felons property, enabled the Crown to appoint an administrator of it, for the benefit of the persons injured by the crime and the felons family, the property itself and its income reverting ultimately to the convict or to his representatives. There could, however, be no objection in justice to the forfeiture of a proportionate part of every felons property, such forfeiture to be dedicated to the formation of a fund, out of which assistance should be given, both to the families of prisoners during their custody and to the prisoners themselves on their discharge.[62] Such a fund might be still further increased by the substitution of a lien on a mans wages or income for many minor offences now punished, but not prevented, by imprisonment.

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? English philosophy and legislation, therefore, owe enough to Beccaria for his treatise never to be forgotten among us. Standing, as it does, in reference to law as Bacons Novum Organon to science, or Descartes Principia to philosophy, and representing a return to first principles and rejection of mere precedent in the matter of penal laws, it will never fail to gratify those who, with little admiration for law in the concrete, can yet find pleasure in studying it in the abstract. Most men will turn readily from a system built up, as our own is, of unintelligible distinctions, and based on authority rather than on experience, to a system where no distinctions exist save those which are derived from the nature of things and are founded on the real differences that distinguish the moral actions of mankind. It would, therefore, be a mistake to ascribe to one, who only discusses social conventions and their consequences, principles contrary either to natural law or to revelation, for the reason that he does not discuss them. It would be a mistake, when he speaks of a state of war as anterior to a state of society, to understand it in the sense of Hobbes, as meaning that no obligation nor duty is prior to the existence of society, instead of understanding it as a fact due to the corruption of human nature and the want of any expressed sanction. It would be a mistake to impute it as a fault to a writer who is considering the results of the social compact[115] that he does not admit them as pre-existent to the formation of the compact itself.

This honour, then, is one of those complex ideas[210] which are an aggregate not only of simple ideas but of ideas no less complex than themselves, and which in their various presentments to the mind now admit and now omit some of their different component elements, only retaining some few common ideas, just as in algebra several complex quantities admit of a common divisor. To find this common divisor in the different ideas that men form of honour, we must cast a rapid glance over the first formation of communities.

A contradiction between the laws and the natural feelings of mankind arises from the oaths which are required of an accused, to the effect that he will be a truthful man when it is his greatest interest to be false; as if a man could really swear to contribute to his own destruction, or as if religion would not be silent with most men when their interest spoke on the other side. The experience of all ages has shown that men have abused religion more than any other of the precious gifts of heaven; and for what reason should criminals respect it, when men esteemed as the wisest have often violated it? Too weak, because too far removed from the senses, are[147] for the mass of people the motives which religion opposes to the tumult of fear and the love of life. The affairs of heaven are conducted by laws absolutely different from those which govern human affairs; so why compromise those by these? Why place men in the terrible dilemma of either sinning against God or concurring in their own ruin? The law, in fact, which enforces such an oath commands a man either to be a bad Christian or to be a martyr. The oath becomes gradually a mere formality, thus destroying the force of religious feelings, which for the majority of men are the only pledge of their honesty. How useless oaths are has been shown by experience, for every judge will bear me out when I say that no oath has ever yet made any criminal speak the truth; and the same thing is shown by reason, which declares all laws to be useless, and consequently injurious, which are opposed to the natural sentiments of man. Such laws incur the same fate as dams placed directly in the main stream of a river: either they are immediately thrown down and overwhelmed, or a whirlpool formed by themselves corrodes and undermines them imperceptibly.

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]

They who have thought that the criminals intention was the true measure of crimes were in the wrong. For the intention depends on the actual impression of things upon a man, and on his precedent mental disposition, things which vary in all men and in each man, according to the very rapid succession of his ideas, his passions, and his circumstances. It would, therefore, be necessary to form not only a particular code for each citizen, but a fresh law for every crime. Sometimes with the best intentions men do the greatest evil to society; and sometimes with the very worst they do it the greatest good.

In order that a punishment may be just, it must contain only such degrees of intensity as suffice to deter men from crimes. But as there is no one who on reflection would choose the total and perpetual loss of his liberty, however great the advantages offered him by a crime, the intensity of the punishment of servitude for life, substituted for capital punishment, has that in it which is sufficient to daunt the most determined courage. I will add that it is even more deterrent than death. Very many men face death calmly and firmly, some from fanaticism, some from vanity, which almost always attends a man to the tomb; others from a last desperate attempt either no longer to live or to escape from their misery; but neither fanaticism nor vanity have any place among fetters and chains, under the stick, under the yoke, in a cage of iron; the wretch thus punished is so far from terminating his miseries that with his punishment he only begins them.

It is a great point in every good system of laws to determine exactly the credibility of witnesses and the proofs of guilt Every reasonable manthat is, every man with a certain connection between his ideas and with feelings like those of other menis capable of bearing witness. The true measure of his credibility is only the interest he has in speaking or in not speaking the truth; so that nothing can be more frivolous than to reject the evidence of women on the pretext of their feebleness, nothing more childish than to apply the results of real death to civil death as regards the testimony of the condemned, nothing more unmeaning than to insist on the mark of infamy in the infamous when they have no interest in lying.

It is sometimes the custom to release a man from the punishment of a slight crime when the injured person pardons him: an act, indeed, which is in accordance with mercy and humanity but contrary to public policy; as if a private citizen could by his remission do away with the necessity of the example in the same way that he can excuse the reparation due for the offence. The right of punishing does not[190] rest with an individual, but with the community as a whole, or the sovereign. An individual can only renounce his particular portion of that right, not annul that of all the rest.