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It is incomparably better to prevent crimes than to punish them. Such are some of the problems connected with penology, which best illustrate the imperfection of its hitherto attained results. Only one thing as yet seems to stand out from the mist, which is, that closely associated as crime and punishment are both in thought and speech, they are but little associated in reality. The amount of crime in a country appears to be a given quantity, dependent on quite other causes than the penal laws directed to its repression. The efficiency of the latter seems proportioned[107] to their mildness, not to their severity; such severity being always spoiled by an inevitable moderation in practice. The conclusion, therefore, would seem to be, that a short simple code, with every punishment attached to every offence, with every motive for aggravation of punishment stated, and on so moderate a scale that no discretion for its mitigation should be necessary, would be the means best calculated to give to penal laws their utmost value as preventives of crime, though experience proves that as such preventives their place is a purely secondary one in a really good system of legislation.

Laws are the conditions under which men, leading independent and isolated lives, joined together in society, when tired of living in a perpetual state of war, and of enjoying a liberty which the uncertainty of its tenure rendered useless. Of this liberty they voluntarily sacrificed a part, in order to enjoy the remainder in security and quiet. The sum-total of all these portions of liberty, sacrificed for the good of each individually, constitutes the sovereignty of a nation, and the sovereign is the lawful trustee and administrator of these portions. But, besides forming this trust-fund, or deposit, it was necessary to protect it from the encroachments of individuals, whose aim it ever is not only to recover from the fund their own deposit, but to avail themselves of that contributed by others. Sensible motives, were therefore wanted to divert the despotic will of the individual from re-plunging into their primitive chaos the laws of society.[123] Such motives were found in punishments, established against transgressors of the laws; and I call them sensible motives, because experience has shown that the majority of men adopt no fixed rules of conduct, nor avoid that universal principle of dissolution, observable alike in the moral as in the physical world, save by reason of motives which directly strike the senses and constantly present themselves to the mind, counterbalancing the strong impressions of private passions, opposed as they are to the general welfare; not eloquence, nor declamations, nor the most sublime truths have ever sufficed to curb the passions for any length of time, when excited by the lively force of present objects.

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. Any action that is not included between the two above-indicated extremes can only be called a crime or punished as such by those who find their interest in so calling it. The uncertainty of these limits has produced in different nations a system of ethics contrary to the system of laws, has produced many actual systems of laws at total variance with one another, and a quantity of laws which expose even the wisest man to the severest penalties. Consequently the words virtue and vice have become of vague and variable meaning, and from the uncertainty thus surrounding individual existence, listlessness and a fatal apathy have spread over political communities.

It was this system that Beccarias little work[3] destroyed, and had that been its only result, it would still deserve to live in mens memories for its historical interest alone. For upon the legislation of that time, and especially upon that of Italy, this pamphlet on criminal law broke like a ray of sunlight on a dungeon floor, making even blacker that which was black before by the very brilliancy which it shed upon it. To Beccaria primarily, though not of course solely, belongs the glory of having expelled the use of torture from every legal tribunal throughout Christendom. No man has gratuitously parted with a portion of his own liberty with a view to the public good; that is a chimera which only exists in romances. Each one of us would wish, if it were possible, that the[122] covenants which bind others should not bind himself. There is no man but makes himself the central object of all the combinations of the globe.

Lastly, among the crimes of the third kind are especially those which disturb the public peace and civic tranquillity; such as noises and riots in the public streets, which were made for the convenience of men and traffic, or fanatical sermons that excite the easily roused passions of the curious multitude. For their passions gather force from the number of hearers, and more from a certain obscure and mysterious enthusiasm, than from clear and quiet reasoning, which never has any influence over a large mass of men. A man cannot be called guilty before sentence has been passed on him by a judge, nor can society deprive him of its protection till it has been decided that he has broken the condition on which it was granted. What, then, is that right but one of mere might by which a judge is empowered to inflict a punishment on a citizen whilst his guilt or innocence are still undetermined? The following dilemma is no new one: either the crime is certain or uncertain; if certain, no other punishment is suitable for it than that affixed to it by law; and torture is useless, for the same reason that the criminals confession is useless. If it is uncertain, it is wrong to torture an[149] innocent person, such as the law adjudges him to be, whose crimes are not yet proved. The treatise Dei Delitti, instead of throwing any light on the subject of crimes, or on the manner in which they should be punished, tends to establish a system of the most dangerous and novel ideas, which, if adopted, would go so far as to overturn laws received hitherto by the greater part of all civilised nations.

Another way to prevent crimes is to reward virtue. On this head I notice a general silence in the laws of all nations to this day. If prizes offered by academies to the discoverers of useful truths have caused the multiplication of knowledge and of good books, why should not virtuous actions also be multiplied, by prizes distributed from the munificence of the sovereign? The money of honour ever remains unexhausted and fruitful in the hands of the legislator who wisely distributes it.

These are some of the difficulties of the subject, which teach us the necessity of constant open-mindedness with regard to all ideas or practices connected with criminal law. But, would we further examine our established notions, we should consider a statement from Hobbes which goes to the very root of the theory of punishment.

The good faith of contracts and the security of commerce compel the legislator to assure to creditors the persons of insolvent debtors. But I think it important to distinguish the fraudulent from the innocent bankrupt, the former of whom should receive the same punishment as that assigned to false coiners, since it is no greater crime to falsify a piece of coined money, the pledge of mens mutual[217] obligations, than to falsify those obligations themselves. But the innocent bankrupthe who, after a searching inquiry, has proved before his judges that the wickedness or misfortune of some one else, or the inevitable vicissitudes of human prudence, have despoiled him of his substancefor what barbarous reason ought such an one to be thrown into prison, and deprived of the only poor benefit that remains to him, a barren liberty, in order to suffer the agonies of the really guilty, and, in despair at his ruined honesty, to repent perhaps of that innocence, by which he lived peacefully under the protection of those laws that it was not in his power not to offend against? Laws, too, dictated by the powerful by reason of their rapacity, and endured by the feeble by reason of that hope, which generally glimmers in the human heart, and leads us to believe that unfavourable contingencies are reserved for others, favourable ones for ourselves! Men left to their natural feelings love cruel laws, however much, as subject to them themselves, it might be for their individual interest that they should be mitigated; because their fear of being injured by others is greater than their desire to inflict injuries themselves.

Ramsay argues that the penal laws of a particular country can only be considered with reference to the needs of a particular country, and not in the abstract; that the government of a country will always enforce laws with a view to its own security; and that nothing less than a general revolution will ever make the holders of political power listen for a moment to the claims of philosophers.