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Nor was it only in Europe that Beccarias influence thus prevailed, for as soon as the American Colonies had shaken off their English connection they began to reform their penal laws. When the Revolution began there were in Pennsylvania nearly twenty crimes punishable by death, and within eighteen years of its close the penal code was thoroughly transformed, it being ordained in 1794 that no crime should any longer be capital but murder in the first degree. It is true that this was but a return to the principles adopted by Penn on the settlement of the colony, but Penns penal code was annulled by Queen Anne, and the English Government insisted on a strict adherence to the charter from Charles II., which enjoined the retention of the Statute and the Common Law of England. When, therefore, the new Constitution was formed in 1776, the arguments of Beccaria gave fresh life to the memories of Penn.[25]

Or to take a stronger case. A deserter from the ranks escapes to his home, breaks into it at night, robs an infirm father of all the savings he has provided for his old age, and in a struggle for their possession so injures him that he dies. Must the law disclaim all indignation, all resentment, in the punishment it inflicts, and say to such a ruffian that it only deals hard with him in order to warn others by his example, and with the pious hope of making a good man of him in the future? If resentment is ever just, is it wrong to give it public expression? If it is natural and right in private life, why should it be a matter of shame in public life? If there is such a thing as just anger for a single man, does it become unjust when distributed among a million?

It may be said that all such absurdities are past; that the Jews, the Athenians, the Chinese, the Europeans of the middle ages can scarcely be cited as reasonable beings; that they had no rational theory of punishment, and that their errors have been long since discarded. But at least their example suggests that even in our own system there may be inconsistencies and blemishes which custom and authority hide from our eyes. In the ordinary state of society the death of a citizen is neither useful nor necessary. The object, therefore, of this chapter is chiefly[70] negative, being none other than to raise such mistrust of mere custom, and so strong a sense of doubt, by the contradictions apparent in existing laws and theories, that the difficulties of their solution may tempt to some investigation of the principles on which they rest.

Yet, supposing it were proved to-morrow that punishment fails entirely of the ends imputed to it; that, for example, the greater number of crimes are[80] committed by criminals who have been punished already; that for one chance of a mans reformation during his punishment there are a hundred in favour of his deterioration; and that the deterrent influence of his punishment is altogether removed by his own descriptions of it; shall we suppose for a moment that society would cease to punish, on the ground that punishment attained none of its professed ends? Would it say to the horse-stealer, Keep your horse, for nothing we can do to you can make you any better, nor deter others from trying to get horses in the same way?

But the laws should fix a certain space of time both for the defence of the accused and for the discovery[158] of proofs against him. It would place the judge in the position of a legislator were it his duty to fix the time necessary for the latter. In the same way those atrocious crimes, whose memory tarries long in mens minds, deserve, when once proved, no prescription in favour of a criminal who has fled from his country; but lesser and obscure crimes should be allowed a certain prescription, which may remove a mans uncertainty concerning his fate, because the obscurity in which for a long time his crimes have been involved deducts from the bad example of his impunity, and the possibility of reform meantime remains to him. It is enough to indicate these principles, because I cannot fix a precise limit of time, except for a given system of laws and in given social circumstances. I will only add that, the advantage of moderate penalties in a nation being proved, the laws which shorten or lengthen, according to the gravity of crimes, the term of prescription or of proofs, thus making of prison itself or of voluntary exile a part of the punishment, will supply an easy classification of a few mild punishments for a very large number of crimes. But although the laws of every country thus recognise in different degrees the retributive nature of punishment, by their constant attention to its apportionment to crime, there is another corollary of the desirability of a just proportion between the two, which has never been, nor is ever likely to be, accepted: namely, that from the point of view of the public interest, which in theory is the only legal view, it is no mitigation of a crime that it is a first offence, nor any aggravation of one that it is the second.

The first trace of Beccarias influence in England appeared in the first edition of Blackstones Commentaries, of which the book on the Criminal Laws[48] was published the very next year after the appearance of the Italian treatise. That Blackstone was well acquainted with it is proved by his frequent reference to it in treating of crimes. From Beccaria he argues that the certainty of punishments is more effectual than their severity, and finds it absurd to apply the same punishment to crimes of different malignity. Blackstone was also the first professional lawyer to find fault with the frequency of capital punishment in England, and to point out as a melancholy truth the presence of 160 actions in the statute book which were felonies without benefit of clergy.

But punishment bears much the same relation to crime in the country at large that it does in the metropolis. Let one year be taken as a fair sample of all. The total number of indictable offences of all kinds reported to the police in 1877-8 was 54,065. For these offences only 24,062 persons were apprehended. Of these latter only 16,820 were held to bail or committed for trial; and of these again 12,473 were convicted and punished.[52] So that, though the proportion of convictions to the number of prisoners who come to trial is about 75 per cent., the proportion of convictions, that is, of punishments, to the number of crimes committed is so low as 23 per cent. Of the 54,065 crimes reported to the police in one year 41,592 were actually committed with impunity; and[95] thus the proportion which successful crime of all sorts bears to unsuccessful is rather more than as four to one.[53] So that there is evident truth in what a good authority has said: Few offences comparatively are followed by detection and punishment, and with a moderate degree of cunning an offender may generally go on for a long time with but feeble checks, if not complete impunity.[54]

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.

The publication of the Delitti e delle Pene interrupted its authors dreams of philosophical calm, by fulfilling his hopes of literary fame. The French encyclop?dists were the first to recognise its merits, and DAlembert, the mathematician, at once predicted for the writer the reward of an immortal[13] reputation. Morellets translation, in which the arrangement, though not the matter of the text, was entirely altered, ran through seven editions in six months, and Beccaria, as has been seen, was only too delighted with the honour thus conferred on him to complain in any way of the liberties taken by the translator with the original.

All punishment is unjust that is unnecessary to the maintenance of public safety.

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 Abb Morellet, since which time it has been translated into most of the languages of Europe, not excluding Greek and Russian.

Penalties of infamy ought neither to be too common, nor to fall upon too many persons at a time; not too common, because the real and too frequent effects of matters of opinion weaken the force of opinion itself; not too general, because the disgrace of many persons resolves itself into the disgrace of none of them.

But, to turn from this unpleasant episode of Beccarias 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 Verris 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.

Offences, therefore, against personal security and liberty are among the greatest of crimes. Under this head fall not only the assassinations and thefts of the common people, but those also committed by the nobles and magistrates, whose influence, acting with greater force and to a greater distance, destroys in those subject to them all ideas of justice and duty, and gives strength to those ideas of the right of the strongest, which are equally perilous ultimately to him who exercises no less than to him who endures it.