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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.[34][53] 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.[35]

But there was another side to the brightness of this success. In literature as in war no position of honour can be won or held without danger, and of this Beccaria seems to have been conscious when he[15] pleaded against the charge of obscurity, that in writing he had had before his eyes the fear of ecclesiastical persecution. His love for truth, he confessed, stopped short at the risk of martyrdom. He had, indeed, three very clear warnings to justify his fears. Muratori, the historian, had suffered much from accusations of heresy and atheism, and had owed his immunity from worse consequences chiefly to the liberal protection of Pope Benedict XIV. The Marquis Scipio Maffei had also incurred similar charges for his historical handling of the subject of Free-will. But there was even a stronger warning than these, and one not likely to be lost on a man with youth and life before him; that was the fate of the unfortunate Giannone, who, only sixteen years before Beccaria wrote, had ended with his life in the citadel of Turin an imprisonment that had lasted twenty years, for certain observations on the Church of Rome which he had been rash enough to insert in his History of Naples.

Finally, a man who, when examined, persists in an obstinate refusal to answer, deserves a punishment[146] fixed by the laws, and one of the heaviest they can inflict, that men may not in this way escape the necessary example they owe to the public. But this punishment is not necessary when it is beyond all doubt that such a person has committed such a crime, questions being useless, in the same way that confession is, when other proofs sufficiently demonstrate guilt And this last case is the most usual, for experience proves that in the majority of trials the accused are wont to plead Not guilty.

Our laws prohibit suggestive (leading) questions in a lawsuit: those, that is (according to the doctors of law), which, instead of applying, as they should do,[145] to the genus in the circumstances of a crime, refer to the species; those, in other words, which from their immediate connection with a crime suggest to the accused a direct answer. Questions, according to the criminal lawyers, ought, so to speak, to envelop the main fact spirally and never to attack it in a direct line. The reasons for this method are, either that an answer may not be suggested to the accused which may place him face to face with the charge against him, or perhaps because it seems unnatural for him directly to criminate himself. But, whichever of these reasons it may be, the contradiction is remarkable between the existence of such a custom and the legal authorisation of torture; for what interrogatory can be more suggestive than pain? The former reason applies to the question of torture, because pain will suggest to a strong man obstinate silence, in order that he may exchange the greater penalty for the lesser, whilst it will suggest to a weak man confession, in order that he may escape from present torment, which has more influence over him than pain which is to come. The other reason evidently applies too, for if a special question leads a man to confess against natural right, the agonies of torture will more easily do the same. But men are more governed by the difference of names than by that of things.What influence have they on customs?

The same may be said, though for a different reason, where there are several accomplices of a crime, not all of them its immediate perpetrators. When several men join together in an undertaking, the greater its[163] risk is, the more will they seek to make it equal for all of them; the more difficult it will be, therefore, to find one of them who will be willing to put the deed into execution, if he thereby incurs a greater risk than that incurred by his accomplices. The only exception would be where the perpetrator received a fixed reward, for then, the perpetrator having a compensation for his greater risk, the punishment should be equalised between him and his accomplices. Such reflections may appear too metaphysical to whosoever does not consider that it is of the utmost advantage for the laws to afford as few grounds of agreement as possible between companions in crime.

But at least, it will be thought, we have by this time arrived at some principles about punishment which correspond with the eternal truths of equity. Is not Equality, for instance, one of the primary essentials of punishment? Does it not stand as a penal axiom with almost the sanction of a moral law that all men should suffer equally for equal crimes? Yet, if by equality be meant the same punishment, the same kind of labour, the same term of servitude, the same pecuniary fineand this is the only thing it can meanwhat more obvious than that the same punishment for rich and poor, for young and old, for strong and weak, for men and women, for educated and uneducated, will bring to the constitution of a penal code the utmost inequality the imagination can conceive? Beccaria insists that the law can do no more than assign the same extrinsic punishment to the same crime; that is, the same punishment, regardless of all other external considerations; and he calls for the infliction of the same punishment on the nobleman as on the commoner. Let it be so; but the same punishment is no longer an equal one; and hence from this very demand for equality springs the demand for its very opposite, for what Bentham calls the equability of punishment; that is, consideration[77] for the different circumstances of individual criminals. So that the same nominal punishment not being the same real one, equality of punishment appears to be a chimera, and the law, which punishes, say, a distinguished officer less severely than it punishes a costermonger for the same crime, errs perhaps really less from actual equality than if it condemned both to precisely the same punishment.[34]CHAPTER XXXVII. OF A PARTICULAR KIND OF CRIME.


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CHAPTER XXXIII. OF THE PUBLIC TRANQUILLITY.These customs had doubtless their defenders, and left the world not without a struggle. It must have cost some one, whosoever first questioned the wisdom of hanging animals or murdering a criminals relations, as much ridicule as it cost Beccaria to question the efficacy of torture or the right of capital punishment. But the boldness of thought in that unknown reformer was probably lost sight of in the arrogance of his[73] profanity, and he doubtless paid with his own neck for his folly in defending the pigs.

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[67] 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)[39] of being defended by counsel.CHAPTER XXXIII. OF THE PUBLIC TRANQUILLITY.So great, however, did the changes appear to be, that Sir James Mackintosh declared, towards the close of his life, that it was as if he had lived in two different countries, such was the contrast between the past and the present. Yet Sir James died in the very year that the first Reform Bill passed, and it was not till after that event that any really great progress was made towards ameliorating the penal laws.



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