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.


Almost any number of the Times will illustrate the same thing. Take the account of the Middlesex Sessions of February 24, 1880. There we find the case of a man and woman sentenced to seven and five years penal servitude respectively. What enormities had they committed? The man had stolen three-halfpence from somebody; and the woman, who was a laundress, had stolen two skirts, of the value of six shillings, from a vendor of sheeps trotters. The man had incurred previously seven years penal servitude for a robbery with violence, and the woman had three times in her life been sentenced to imprisonment. But is it just that, because a man has been severely punished once, no rule nor measure shall be observed with him if he incur punishment again? And might not a vendor of sheeps trotters have been satisfied, without a laundress becoming a burden to the State?

CHAPTER XXXVII. OF A PARTICULAR KIND OF CRIME. In methods of trial the use of torture is contrary to sound reason. Humanity cries out against the practice and insists on its abolition.

That the scruple to convict diminishes the certainty of punishment, and therefore raises hopes of impunity, is illustrated by the case of two American brothers who, desirous to perpetrate a murder, waited till their victim had left their State, in which capital punishment had been abolished, and had betaken himself to a State which still retained it, before they ventured to execute their criminal intention. That such reluctance to convict is often most injurious to[42] the public is proved by the case of a woman at Chelmsford who some years ago was acquitted, in spite of strong evidence, on a charge of poisoning, and who, before her guilt was finally proved, lived to poison several other persons who would otherwise have escaped her arts.[27]

To return to the innocent bankrupt. Granting that his obligation should not be extinguishable by anything short of total payment; granting that he should not be suffered to withdraw from it without the[218] consent of the parties interested, nor to transfer under the dominion of other laws his industry, which should perforce be employed, under penalties, to enable him to satisfy his creditors in proportion to his profits; what fair pretext, I ask, can there be, such as the security of commerce or the sacred right of property, to justify the deprivation of his liberty? Such a deprivation is only of use, when it is sought to discover the secrets of a supposed innocent bankrupt by the evils of servitude, a most unusual circumstance where a rigorous inquiry is instituted. I believe it to be a maxim in legislation, that the amount of political inconveniences varies directly in proportion to the injury they do the public, and inversely in proportion to the difficulty of their proof.

But undoubtedly punishment, although in its origin and present intention vindictive, must exercise a certain preventive force against crime, and this preventive force can scarcely be estimated, for that which is prevented is, of course, not seen. But the efficiency of punishment as a deterrent is proportioned to its certainty, and there is a large element of uncertainty that can never be eliminated. For every malefactor there are two hopes: first, that he may escape detection or apprehension; secondly, that he may escape conviction. That his hopes of impunity are not without reason greater than his fears of punishment the following facts attest.

I know that those general principles which tend to enlighten and improve the human race are not absolutely useless that the enlightenment of nations is not without some effect on their rulers provided that the prerogative of the latter, their power, their security, their authority, their safety, is not touched thereby. I know well that this general enlightenment, so much boasted of, is a beautiful and glorious chimera, with which philosophers love to amuse themselves, but which would soon disappear if they would open history, and see therefrom to what causes improved institutions are due. The nations of antiquity have passed, and those of the present will pass, before philosophy and its influence have reformed a single government.

But there is a still further uncertainty of punishment, for it is as well known in the criminal world as elsewhere that the sentence pronounced in court is not the real sentence, and that neither penal servitude for[96] five years nor penal servitude for life mean necessarily anything of the sort. The humanity of modern legislation insists on a remission of punishment, dependent on a convicts life in the public works prisons, in order that the element of hope may brighten his lot and perchance reform his character. This remission was at first dependent simply on his conduct, which was perhaps too generously called good where it was hard for it to be bad; now it depends on his industry and amount of work done. Yet the element of hope might be otherwise assured than by lessening the certainty of punishment, say, by associating industry or good conduct with such little privileges of diet, letter-writing, or receiving of visits, as still shed some rays of pleasure over the monotony of felon-life. It should not be forgotten, that the Commission of 1863, which so strongly advocated the remissibility of parts of penal sentences, did so in despite of one of its principal members, against no less an authority than the Lord Chief Justice, then Sir Alexander Cockburn.[55] The very fact of the remissibility of a sentence is an admission of its excessive severity; for to say that a sentence is never carried out is to say that it need never have been inflicted.

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.

Persons guilty of lesser crimes are usually either punished in the obscurity of a prison, or transported, as an example to nations who have given no offence, to a distant and therefore almost useless servitude. Since the gravest crimes are not those which men are tempted to commit on the spur of the moment, the public punishment of a great misdeed will be regarded by most men as strange and of impossible occurrence; but the public punishment of lighter crimes, to which mens thoughts more readily incline, will make an impression, which, at the same time that it diverts the mind from them, will restrain it still more from crimes of greater gravity. Punishments should not only be proportioned to one another and to crimes in point of force, but also in the mode of their infliction.

There are some crimes which are at the same time of common occurrence and of difficult proof. In them the difficulty of proof is equivalent to a probability of innocence; and the harm of their impunity being so much the less to be considered as their frequency depends on principles other than the risk of punishment, the time for inquiry and the period of prescription ought both to be proportionately less. Yet[161] cases of adultery and pederasty, both of difficult proof, are precisely those in which, according to received principles, tyrannical presumptions of quasi-proofs and half-proofs are allowed to prevail (as if a man could be half-innocent or half-guilty, in other words, half-punishable or half-acquittable); in which torture exercises its cruel sway over the person of the accused, over the witnesses, and even over the whole family of an unfortunate wretch, according to the coldly wicked teaching of some doctors of law, who set themselves up as the rule and standard for judges to follow.