It is well known that Lord Tenterden refused ever to sit again in the House of Lords if the Reform Bill became law, and that he predicted that that measure would amount to the political extinction of the Upper House. As regards the history of our criminal law Lord Tenterden was right, for the period of long pauses had passed away, and rapid changes were made with but short intervals of breathing-time. From the year the Reform Bill passed the school of Beccaria and Bentham achieved rapid successes in England. In 1832 it ceased to be capital to steal a horse or a sheep, in 1833 to break into a house, in 1834 to return prematurely from transportation, in 1835 to commit sacrilege or to steal a letter. But even till 1837 there were still 37 capital offences on the statute-book; and now there are only two, murder and treason. Hanging in chains was abolished in 1834; the pillory was wholly abolished in 1837; and the same year Ewart, after many years’ struggle, obtained for prisoners on trial for felony the right (still merely a nominal one) of being defended by counsel.
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.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?
CHAPTER XXIX. DUELS.The chief honour of the earliest attempt at law reform belongs to Sir William Meredith, who in 1770 moved for a committee of inquiry into the state of the criminal laws. This committee proposed in its report of the following year the repeal of a few Acts which made certain offences capital; and accordingly the Commons in 1772 agreed, that it should no longer be punishable as high treason to make an attempt on the life of a Privy Councillor, that desertion of officers or soldiers should no longer be capital, nor the belonging to people who called themselves Egyptians. Some other proposals were negatived, such as a repeal of the hard law of James I. against infanticide; but the House of Lords refused their assent even to the slight changes passed by the Commons. ‘It was an innovation, they said, and subversion of the law.’ It is no reproach to Meredith, Burke, and Fox that they ceased to waste their strength against Conservatism such as this. All hope of reform was out of the question; and the most dreadful atrocities were suffered or defended. In 1777 a girl of 14 lay in Newgate under sentence to be burnt alive for false coinage, because some whitewashed farthings, that were to pass for sixpences, were found on her person; and a reprieve only came just as the cart was ready to take her to the stake. Not till 1790 was the law abolished by which women were liable to be burnt publicly for high or petit treason.By the present English law a person convicted of more offences than one may be sentenced for each offence separately, the punishment of each one in succession taking effect on the expiration of the other. By this law (which the Criminal Code Commissioners propose to alter) imprisonment may be spread over the whole of a lifetime. On this point the Chinese law again offers a model, for it enacts that when two or more offences are proved against a man, they shall all be estimated together, and the punishment of all the lesser offences be included in that of the principal charge, not in addition to it So also if the offences are charged at different times, and the punishment of one has been already discharged, there is no further punishment for the other subsequent charges, unless they be charges of greater criminality, in which case only the difference between the punishments can be legally incurred. But this of course presupposes a definite scale of crimes and punishments.
Among other abuses of grammar, which have no slight influence on human affairs, that one is notable which makes the evidence of a condemned criminal null and void. ‘He is dead civilly’ say gravely the peripatetic lawyers, ‘and a dead man is incapable of any action.’ In support of this silly metaphor many victims have been sacrificed, and it has very often been disputed with all seriousness whether the truth should not yield to judicial formulas. Provided that the testimony of a condemned criminal does not go to the extent of stopping the course of justice, why should not a fitting period be allowed, even after condemnation, both to the extreme wretchedness of the criminal and to the interests of truth, so that, by his adducing fresh matter to alter the complexion of the fact, he may justify himself or others in a new trial? Forms and ceremonies are necessary in the administration of justice, because they leave nothing to the free will of the administrator; because they give the people an idea of a justice which is not tumultuary and self-interested, but steadfast and regular; and because men, the slaves of habit and imitation, are more influenced by their feelings than by arguments. But such forms can never without fatal danger be so firmly fixed by the laws as to be injurious to truth, which from being either too simple or two complex needs some external pomp to conciliate the ignorant populace.The question, therefore, arises, Does crime depend to any appreciable extent on imprisonment at all, or on the length or shortness of sentences?
If I am confronted with the example of almost all ages and almost all nations who have inflicted the punishment of death upon some crimes, I will reply, that the example avails nothing before truth, against which there is no prescription of time; and that the history of mankind conveys to us the idea of an immense sea of errors, among which a few truths, confusedly and at long intervals, float on the surface. Human sacrifices were once common to almost all nations, yet who for that reason will dare defend them? That some few states, and for a short time only, should have abstained from inflicting death, rather favours my argument than otherwise, because such a fact is in keeping with the lot of all great truths, whose duration is but as of a lightning flash in comparison with the long and darksome night that envelops mankind. That happy time has not yet arrived when truth, as error has hitherto done, shall belong to the majority of men; and from this universal law of the reign of error those truths alone have hitherto been exempt, which supreme wisdom has seen fit to distinguish from others, by making them the subject of a special revelation.
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.CHAPTER XXXVI. CRIMES OF DIFFICULT PROOF.Injuries that are personal and affect a man’s honour—that is, the fair share of favour that he has a right to expect from others—should be punished with disgrace.
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 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 side, to which our mind most naturally inclines, than to the painful side, which it places at a distance.It is impossible to prevent all the disorders that may arise in the universal conflict of human passions. Their increase depends on that of population and on the crossings of private interests, which cannot be directed with geometrical exactness to the public welfare. In political arithmetic the calculation of probabilities must be substituted for mathematical exactness. Glance at the history of the world, and you will see disorders increase with the increase of the bounds of empire; thus national feeling being to the same extent diminished, the general inducement to crime increases with the greater interest of each individual in such disorders, and on this account the necessity for aggravating penalties ever continues to increase.
Given the necessity of the aggregation of mankind, and given the covenants which necessarily result from the very opposition of private interests, a scale of offences may be traced, beginning with those which tend directly to the destruction of society, and ending with acts of the smallest possible injustice committed against individual members of it. Between these extremes are comprised all the actions opposed to the public welfare which are called crimes, and which by imperceptible degrees decrease in enormity from the highest to the lowest. If the infinite and obscure combinations of human actions admitted of mathematical treatment, there ought to be a corresponding scale of punishments, varying from the severest to the slightest penalty. If there were an exact and universal scale of crimes and punishments, we should have an approximate and general test by which to gauge the degrees of tyranny and liberty in different governments, the relative state of the humanity or wickedness of different nations. But the wise legislator will rest satisfied with marking out the principal divisions in such a scale, so as not to invert their order, nor to affix to crimes of the first degree punishments due to those of the last.Are the same penalties equally useful in all times?详情
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