It is unhappily no mere theory, that the majority of crimes are committed precisely by those who risk most in committing them; by those, that is, who commit them with the aggravated penalty full in view. By the existing law (of which both the Criminal Code- and the Penal Servitude-Commissioners have proposed the mitigation) anyone convicted of felony after a previous conviction for felony is liable to penal servitude for life, or to imprisonment with hard labour for four years, with one or more whippings. The minimum punishment for a second conviction of felony is seven years. Yet, with the knowledge of such increased punishments before their eyes, with the full consciousness of their liabilities as old offenders, official statistics show that of both the male and female convicts in the English convict prisons considerably more than half have incurred previous convictions.[50] Of the male convicts in 1878, 79 per cent.,[93] and of the female 89 per cent., were cases of reciduous crime. May it not, then, be argued from such a failure of the system to an error in the principle on which it rests? For is it not evident that the aggravated penalty does as little to deter as the original punishment does to reform?

One consequence of these last reflections is, that without writing no society will ever assume a fixed form of government, wherein the power shall belong to[131] the social whole, and not to its parts, and wherein the laws, only alterable by the general will, shall not suffer corruption in their passage through the crowd of private interests. Experience and reason have taught us, that the probability and certainty of human traditions diminish in proportion to their distance from their source. So that if there be no standing memorial of the social contract, how will laws ever resist the inevitable force of time and passion?

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. One thing that might be done, which would also serve at the same time to keep a prisoners family from want, the main source of crime, would be the formation of a Prisoners Fund, for his and their benefit. For this there is a precedent in a quite recent Act. For the Act, which abolished the forfeiture of a felons property, enabled the Crown to appoint an administrator of it, for the benefit of the persons injured by the crime and the felons family, the property itself and its income reverting ultimately to the convict or to his representatives. There could, however, be no objection in justice to the forfeiture of a proportionate part of every felons property, such forfeiture to be dedicated to the formation of a fund, out of which assistance should be given, both to the families of prisoners during their custody and to the prisoners themselves on their discharge.[62] Such a fund might be still further increased by the substitution of a lien on a mans wages or income for many minor offences now punished, but not prevented, by imprisonment.

CHAPTER XXIII. PROPORTION BETWEEN CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS. The first consequence of these principles is, that the laws alone can decree punishments for crimes, and this authority can only rest with the legislator, who represents collective society as united by a social contract. No magistrate (who is part of society) can justly inflict punishments upon another member of the same society. But since a punishment that exceeds the legally fixed limit is the lawful punishment plus another one, a magistrate can, under no pretext of zeal or the public good, add to the penalty already decreed against a delinquent citizen.

The second consequence is, that the sovereign, who represents society itself, can only form general laws, obligatory on all; he cannot judge whether[125] any one in particular has broken the social compact, for in that case the nation would be divided into two parties, one represented by the sovereign, asserting the violation of such contract; the other by the accused, denying the same. Hence the necessity of a third person to judge of the fact; in other words, of a magistrate, whose decisions shall simply consist of affirmations or denials of particular facts, and shall also be subject to no appeal. That these causes do to a great extent defeat the preventive effect of our penal laws, is proved by the tale of our criminal statistics, which reveal the fact that most of our crime is committed by those who[100] have once been punished, and that of general crime about 77 per cent. is committed with impunity. But if so large a proportion of crimes pass unpunished altogether, it is evident that society depends much less for its general security upon its punishments than is commonly supposed. Might it not, therefore, still further relax such punishments, which are really a severe tax on the great majority of honest people for the repression of the very small proportion who constitute the dishonest part of the community?[58] But if penal laws thus express the wide variability of human morality, they also contribute to make actions moral or immoral according to the penalties by which they enforce or prevent them. For not[74] only does whatever is immoral tend to become penal, but anything can be made immoral by being first made penal; and hence indifferent actions often remain immoral long after they have ceased to be actually punishable. Thus the Jews made Sabbath-breaking equally immoral with homicide or adultery, by affixing to each of them the same capital penalty; and the former offence, though it no longer forms part of any criminal code, has still as much moral force against it as many an offence directly punishable by the law.

Again, Proportion between crime and punishment seems to be another natural demand of equity. Yet it is evident that it is only approximately possible, and will vary in every age and country according to the prevalent notions of morality. Is imprisonment for a year, or imprisonment for life, or for how long, a fair and proportionate punishment for perjury? Who shall decide? Shall we submit it to the opinion of the judges? But has not Romilly left on record the story of the two men tried by two different judges for stealing some chickens, who were sentenced respectively one to imprisonment for two months, and the other to transportation? Shall we then give up all attempt at proportion and apply the same deterrent as equally efficacious against slight or grave offences? Draco, when asked why he made death the punishment for most offences that were possible, is said to have replied, Small ones deserve it, and I can find no greater for the gravest. The same reasoning was for a long time that of our own law; and in Japan,[78] where every wrong act was one of disobedience to the Emperor, and accordingly of equal value, the same penalty of death for gambling, theft, or murder, obviated all difficulties with regard to a proportion which is easier to imagine than it is to define.

It may be asked, How far was Beccaria the first to protest against the cruelty and absurdity of torture? To this it must be replied that although actually he was not the first, he was the first to do so with effect. The difference between previous writers on the subject and Beccaria is the difference between a man whose ideas are in advance of those of his age and a man who raises the ideas of his age to a level with his[31] own. So early as the sixteenth century Montaigne, in his Essay on Conscience, had said plainly enough that the putting a man to the rack was rather a trial of patience than of truth; that pain was as likely to extort a false confession as a true one; and that a judge, by having a man racked that he might not die innocent, caused him to die both innocent and racked. Also Grevius Clivensis wrote a work whilst in prison in Amsterdam, in which he sought to prove that torture was iniquitous, fallacious, and unchristian.[17] This was published in 1624; and nearly a century later a Jesuit, Spee, wrote against the use of torture, as also against the cruel practices in force against witches.[18] And in later days Montesquieu, twenty years before Beccaria, had gone so far as to say that, since a civilised nation like England had abandoned torture without evil consequences, it was therefore unnecessary; but he followed the subject to no definite conclusion.