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It is, then, proved that the law which imprisons[227] subjects in their own country is useless and unjust. The punishment, therefore, of suicide is equally so; and consequently, although it is a fault punishable by God, for He alone can punish after death, it is not a crime in the eyes of men, for the punishment they inflict, instead of falling on the criminal himself, falls on his family. If anyone objects, that such a punishment can nevertheless draw a man back from his determination to kill himself, I reply, that he who calmly renounces the advantages of life, who hates his existence here below to such an extent as to prefer to it an eternity of misery, is not likely to be moved by the less efficacious and more remote consideration of his children or his relations.

Two other fatal consequences flow from the cruelty of punishments, and are contrary to their very purpose, the prevention of crimes. The first is, that it is not so easy to preserve the essential proportion between crime and punishment, because, however much a studied cruelty may diversify its forms, none of them can go beyond the extreme limit of endurance which is a condition of the human organisation and sensibility. When once this extreme limit is attained, it would be impossible to invent such a corresponding increase of punishment for still more injurious and atrocious crimes as would be necessary to prevent them. The other consequence is, that impunity itself arises from the severity of punishments. Men are restrained within limits both in good and evil; and a sight too atrocious for humanity can only be a passing rage, not a constant system, such as the laws ought to be; if the latter are really cruel, either they are changed, or themselves give rise to a fatal impunity. Whosoever will read with a philosophical eye the codes and annals of different nations will find almost always that the names of virtue and vice, of good citizen and criminal, are changed in the course of ages, not in accordance with the changes that occur in the circumstances of a country, and consequently in conformity with the general interest, but in accordance with the passions and errors that have swayed different legislators in succession. He will observe full often, that the passions of one age form the basis of the morality of later ones; that strong passions, the offspring of fanaticism and enthusiasm, weakened and, so to speak, gnawed away by time (which reduces to a level all physical and moral phenomena) become little by little the prudence of the age, and a useful[204] instrument in the hand of the strong man and the clever. In this way the vaguest notions of honour and virtue have been produced; for they change with the changes of time, which causes names to survive things; as also with the changes of rivers and mountains, which form frequently the boundaries of moral no less than of physical geography. The close connection, therefore, of crime and punishment is of the utmost importance, if it be desirable that in rough and common minds there should, together with the seductive idea of an advantageous crime, immediately start up the associated idea of its punishment. Long delay has no other effect than the perpetual separation of these two ideas; and whatever the impression produced by the punishment of a crime, it produces it less as a punishment than as a sight, and only produces it when the horror of the particular crime, which would serve to strengthen the feeling of the punishment, has been weakened in the minds of the spectators.

If pleasure and pain are the motors of sensitive beings, if the invisible lawgiver of humanity has decreed rewards and punishments as one of the motives to impel men to even their noblest endeavours, the inexact distribution of these motives will give rise to that contradiction, as little noticed as it is of common occurrence, namely, that the laws punish crimes which are entirely of their own creation. If an equal penalty is attached to two crimes of unequal injury to society, the greater crime of the two, if it promise a greater advantage than the other, will have no stronger motive in restraint of its perpetration.[197] Whoever, for example, sees the same punishment of death decreed for the man who kills a pheasant and the man who slays his fellow or falsifies an important document, will draw no distinction between such crimes; and thus moral sentiments, the product only of many ages and of much bloodshed, the slowest and most difficult attainment of the human mind, dependent, it has been thought, on the aid of the most sublime motives and on a parade of the gravest formalities, will be destroyed and lost.

If it be said that a second conviction makes it necessary for society to protect itself by stronger measures against a member who thus defies its power, it may be asked whether this is not an application of exactly the same reasoning to the crimes of individuals, which as applied to the crimes of all men generally led our ancestors so far astray in the distribution of their punishments. Nothing could have been more plausible than their reasoning: The punishment in vogue does not diminish the crime, therefore increase the punishment. But nothing could have[92] been less satisfactory than the result, for with the increase of punishment that of crime went hand in hand. The same reasoning is equally plausible in the case of individuals, with the same perplexing question resulting in the end: How comes it that, in spite of the threatened greater punishment, the majority of criminals are yet old offenders?

The object of the preliminary chapters is to place the historical importance of the original in its just light, and to increase the interest of the subjects it discusses.

But should a man who is banished and excluded for ever from the society of which he was a member be also deprived of his property? Such a question may be regarded from different points of view. The loss of property is a greater punishment than banishment; there ought, therefore, to be some cases in which, according to his crime, a man should lose the whole, or part, or none of his property. The confiscation of the whole will occur, when the legal sentence of banishment is of a kind to annihilate all the ties that exist between society and its offending member; for in such a case the citizen dies, and only the man remains; and with regard to the political body civil death should produce the same effect as natural death. It would seem then that the confiscated property should pass to a mans lawful heirs rather than[182] to the head of the State, since death and banishment in its extreme form are the same with regard to the body politic. But it is not by this subtlety that I dare to disapprove of confiscations of property. If some have maintained that confiscations have acted as checks on acts of revenge and on the great power of individuals, it is from neglecting to consider that, however much good punishments may effect, they are not for that reason always just, because to be just they must be necessary; and an expedient injustice can be tolerated by no legislator, who wishes to close all doors against watchful tyranny, ever ready to hold out flattering hopes, by temporary advantages and by the prosperity of a few persons of celebrity, in disregard of future ruin and of the tears of numberless persons of obscurity. Confiscations place a price on the heads of the feeble, cause the innocent to suffer the punishment of the guilty, and make the commission of crimes a desperate necessity even for the innocent. What sadder sight can there be than that of a family dragged down to infamy and misery by the crimes of its head, unable to prevent them by the submission imposed on it by the laws, even supposing such prevention to have been within its power!

There are a few obvious remedies by which the inducements to crime might be easily diminished. In 1808 Sir Samuel Romilly brought in a bill, to provide persons tried and acquitted of felony with compensation, at the discretion of the judge, for the loss they incurred by their detention and trial. This was objected to, on the ground that the payment of such compensation out of the county rates would discourage prosecutions; and the only justice done to men falsely accused from that day to this is the authorisation given to goal-governors in 1878 to provide prisoners, who have been brought from another county for trial at the assizes and have been acquitted, with means of returning to their own homes. Something more than this is required to save a man so situated from falling into real crime.

Paley agreed with Beccaria that the certainty of punishment was of more consequence than its severity. For this reason he recommended undeviating impartiality in carrying the laws into execution; he blamed the weak timidity of juries, leading them to be over-scrupulous about the certainty of their evidence, and protested against the maxim that it was better for ten guilty men to escape than for one innocent man to perish. A man who fell by a mistaken sentence might, he argued, be considered as falling for his country, because he was the victim of a system of laws which maintained the safety of the community.

Nor are such scruples to convict unreasonable, when we consider the number who on apparently conclusive evidence have been falsely and irrevocably condemned to death. Playgoers who have seen The Lyons Mail will remember how barely Lesurques, the Parisian gentleman, escaped punishment for the guilt of Dubosc, the robber and murderer. But the moral of the story is lost in the play, for Lesurques actually was executed for the crime of Dubosc, by reason of the strong resemblance he bore to him, the latter only receiving the due reward for his crimes after the innocent man had died as a common murderer on the scaffold. Then there are cases in which, as in the famous case of Calas, some one having committed suicide, some one else is executed as the murderer. That dead men tell no tales is as true of men hung as of men murdered, and the innocence of an executed man may be proved long afterwards or not at all.

Such considerations as these will, perhaps, lead some day to the abolition of capital punishment. The final test of all punishment is its efficiency, not its humanity. There is often more inhumanity in a long sentence of penal servitude than in a capital sentence, for the majority of murderers deserve as little mercy as they get. The many offences which have ceased to be capital in English law yielded less to a sense of the inhumanity of the punishment as related to the crime than to the experience that such a punishment led to almost total impunity. The bankers, for instance, who petitioned Parliament to abolish capital punishment for forgery, did so, as they said, because they found by experience that the infliction of death, or the possibility of its infliction, prevented the prosecution, the conviction, and the punishment of the criminal; therefore they begged for that protection for their property which they would derive from a more lenient law.

CHAPTER XIII. PROSECUTIONS AND PRESCRIPTIONS.