[热话]聪明反被聪明误

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.

There seem to be three principal reasons why, under our present system, crime still keeps its general level, irrespective of all changes in our degrees of punishment.

Pederasty, so severely punished by the laws, and so readily subjected to the tortures that triumph over innocence, is founded less on the necessities of man, when living in a state of isolation and freedom, than on his passions when living in a state of society and slavery. It derives its force not so much from satiety of pleasure as from the system of education now in vogue, which, beginning by making men useless to themselves in order to make them useful to others, causes, by its too strict seclusion, a waste of all vigorous development, and accelerates the approach of old age. That the punishments of long custody by which we[103] now defend our lives and properties are out of all proportion to the real needs of social existence is indicated by such a fact as that no increase of crime used to attend the periodical release of prisoners which was for long, if it is not still, customary in Russia at the beginning of each reign. Neither in India, when on the Queens assumption of the title of Empress, a pardon was granted to about one-tenth of the prison population, did any increase of crime ensue, as, according to all criminal reasoning, it should have done, if the safety of society depends on the custody of the criminal class.[60] In Sweden a low rate of crime seems to be a direct consequence of a low scale of punishment. Of those condemned to travaux forcs, which may vary from a period of two months to a period for life, 64 per cent. are condemned for one year, and only 3 per cent. are condemned for seven years;[61] whilst sentences to the latter period in England form between 50 and 60 per cent. of the sentences to penal servitude. Capital punishment makes an impression in prospect which, with all its force, does not fully meet that ready spirit of forgetfulness, so natural to man even in his most important concerns, and so liable to be accelerated by his passions. As a general rule, men are startled by the sight of violent sufferings, but not for long, and therefore such impressions are wont so to transform them as to make of ordinary men either Persians or Spartans; but in a free and settled government impressions should rather be frequent than strong.

A farm labourer, with a wife and four children, and earning eleven shillings a week, was imprisoned in the county gaol for two months for the theft of a pound of butter. Soon after his release sickness entered his home, and to supply his childrens wants[89] he again yielded to temptation and stole twelve ducks eggs. For this he was sentenced to seven years penal servitude; or rather not for this theft, but because he had already incurred a severe punishment for a theft of some butter. The sentence was most perfectly lawful, but was it not perfectly unjust?

What is the political object of punishments? The intimidation of other men. But what shall we say of the secret and private tortures which the tyranny of custom exercises alike upon the guilty and the innocent? It is important, indeed, that no open crime shall pass unpunished; but the public exposure of a criminal whose crime was hidden in darkness is utterly useless. An evil that has been done and cannot be undone can only be punished by civil society in so far as it may affect others with the hope of impunity. If it be true that there are a greater number of men who either from fear or virtue respect the laws than of those who transgress them, the risk of torturing an innocent man should be estimated according to the probability that any man will have been more likely, other things being equal, to have respected than to have despised the laws.

For if punishment is weak to prevent crime, it is strong to produce it, and it is scarcely open to doubt that its productive force is far greater than its preventive. Our terms of imprisonment compel more persons to enter a career of crime than they prevent from pursuing one, that being often the only resource left for those who depend on a criminals labour. Whether in prison or the workhouse, such dependents become a charge to society; nor does it seem reasonable, that if one man under sore temptation steals a loaf, a hundred other men who do no such thing must contribute to keep, not only the prisoner himself, but his family too, in their daily bread for so long a time as it pleases the law to detain him from earning his and their necessary subsistence.

A strong feeling against the pillory was aroused by the sentence passed against Lord Cochrane in 1814, by which, for supposed complicity in a plot to raise the price of the Funds, he was condemned to a years imprisonment, to a fine of 1000l., and to stand in the pillory. A bill for the abolition of the pillory accordingly passed the Commons the very next year, but Lord Ellenborough succeeded again in bringing the Upper House to a pause: the pillory forsooth was as old as 1269; it was spoken of by the old historians; it was not confined to this country, for Du Cange spoke of it on the Continent. For these reasons the pillory remained a legal punishment down to the first year of the present reign.

This truth is, in fact, felt, though in a confused way, by the very persons who place themselves farthest from it. For a confession made under torture is of no avail unless it be confirmed by an oath made after it; and yet, should the criminal not confirm his confession, he is tortured afresh. Some doctors of law and some nations only allow this infamous begging of the question to be employed three times; whilst other nations and other doctors leave it to the discretion of the judge.