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It is better to prevent crimes than to punish them. This is the chief aim of every good system of legislation, which is the art of leading men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible misery,[243] according to calculation of all the goods and evils of life. But the means hitherto employed for this end are for the most part false and contrary to the end proposed. It is impossible to reduce the turbulent activity of men to a geometrical harmony without any irregularity or confusion. As the constant and most simple laws of nature do not prevent aberrations in the movements of the planets, so, in the infinite and contradictory attractions of pleasure and pain, disturbances and disorder cannot be prevented by human laws. Yet this is the chimera that narrow-minded men pursue, when they have power in their hands. To prohibit a number of indifferent acts is not to prevent the crimes that may arise from them, but it is to create new ones from them; it is to give capricious definitions of virtue and vice which are proclaimed as eternal and immutable in their nature. To what should we be reduced if everything had to be forbidden us which might tempt us to a crime? It would be necessary to deprive a man of the use of his senses. For one motive that drives men to commit a real crime there are a thousand that drive them to the commission of those indifferent acts which are called crimes by bad laws; and if the likelihood of crimes is proportioned to the number of motives to commit them, an increase of the field of crimes is an increase of the likelihood of their commission. The majority of laws are nothing but[244] privileges, or a tribute paid by all to the convenience of some few.Finally, a man who, when examined, persists in an obstinate refusal to answer, deserves a punishment[146] fixed by the laws, and one of the heaviest they can inflict, that men may not in this way escape the necessary example they owe to the public. But this punishment is not necessary when it is beyond all doubt that such a person has committed such a crime, questions being useless, in the same way that confession is, when other proofs sufficiently demonstrate guilt And this last case is the most usual, for experience proves that in the majority of trials the accused are wont to plead ‘Not guilty.’

There are, however, certain limitations even to the supposed universality of the custom. For the Roman jurists did not consider a re-conviction as a circumstance in itself which justified aggravation of punishment; and all that can be gathered from some fragments in the Pandects and Code is, that some particular cases of repeated crimes were punished more severely than a first offence. But they were crimes of the same kind; and a man whose first crime[91] was a theft and whose second was an assault would not have incurred an aggravated penalty. It is the same to-day in the Austrian, Tuscan, and a few other codes: a second crime is only punished more severely as a second crime when it is of the same kind as the first, so that it would not suffice to prove simply a previous conviction for felony irrespective of the particular sort. There is also another limitation that has sometimes been recognised, for in the Roman law the rule of an increased penalty fell to the ground, if three years elapsed without offence between the punishment for one crime and the commission of a second.[49]

Some courts promise impunity to an accomplice in a serious crime who will expose his companions, an expedient that has its drawbacks as well as its advantages. Among the former must be counted the national authorisation of treachery, a practice which even criminals detest; for crimes of courage are less pernicious to a people than crimes of cowardice, courage being no ordinary quality, and needing only a beneficent directing force to make it conduce to the public welfare, whilst cowardice is more common and contagious, and always more self-concentrated than the other. Besides, a tribunal which calls for the aid of the law-breaker proclaims its own uncertainty and the weakness of the laws themselves. On the other hand, the advantages of the practice are, the prevention[164] of crimes and the intimidation of the people, owing to the fact that the results are visible whilst the authors remain hidden; moreover, it helps to show that a man who breaks his faith to the laws, that is, to the public, is likely also to break it in private life. I think that a general law promising impunity to an accomplice who exposes a crime would be preferable to a special declaration in a particular case, because in this way the mutual fear which each accomplice would have of his own risk would tend to prevent their association; the tribunal would not make criminals audacious by showing that their aid was called for in a particular case. Such a law, however, should accompany impunity with the banishment of the informer.… But to no purpose do I torment myself to dissipate the remorse I feel in authorising the inviolable laws, the monument of public confidence, the basis of human morality, to resort to treachery and dissimulation. What an example to the nation it would be, were the promised impunity not observed, and were the man who had responded to the invitation of the laws dragged by learned quibbles to punishment, in spite of the public troth pledged to him! Such examples are not rare in different countries; neither, therefore, is the number small, of those who consider a nation in no other light than in that of a complicated machine, whose springs the cleverest and the strongest move at their will. Cold and insensible to all that forms the delight of[165] tender and sensitive minds, they arouse, with imperturbable sagacity, either the softest feelings or the strongest passions, as soon as they see them of service to the object they have in view, handling men’s minds just as musicians do their instruments.

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 following especially is from Beccaria:—

But perhaps the best illustrations of the tendency of actions to retain the infamy, attached to them by a past condition of fanatical punishments, are the cases of suicide and child-killing. Could a Greek of the classical period, or a cultivated historian like Plutarch reappear on earth, nothing would strike him more vividly than the modern conception or recent treatment of these crimes. According to Plutarch, Lycurgus, the great Spartan lawgiver, met his death by voluntary starvation, from the persuasion that even the deaths of lawgivers should be of use to mankind, and serve them with an example of virtue and greatness; and Seneca held that it was the part of a wise man not to live as long as he could but as long as he ought. With what astonishment, then, would not Plutarch or Seneca read of recent European punishments for suicide—of Lady Hales[75] losing the estate she was jointly possessed of with her husband, the Judge, because he drowned himself; of the stake and the cross-roads; of the English law which still regards suicide as murder, and condemns one of two men who in a mutual attempt at self-destruction survives the other to the punishment of the ordinary murderer! Is it possible, he would ask, that an action which was once regarded as among the noblest a man could perform, has really come to be looked upon with any other feeling than one of pity or a sad respect?CHAPTER XII. TORTURE.

In the second place, a large proportion of the habitual criminal class is formed of weak-minded or imbecile persons, notorious for the repeated commission of petty thefts, crimes of violence and passion, and confessed to be ‘not amenable to the ordinary influences of self-interest or fear of punishment.’[57] It is now proposed to separate this class of prisoners from others; but is punishment operative on them at all? Is not their proper place an asylum?But that the humanity of the speculative school of law was not without some influence on public opinion, as well as to a certain extent a reflection of it, is proved by a few abortive attempts in Parliament to mitigate the severity of our penal code in the latter half of the last century. Even so early as 1752[52] the Commons agreed to commute the punishment of felony in certain cases to hard labour in the docks; but the Lords refused their consent, as from that time onward for more than eighty years they regularly continued to refuse it to all mitigation of the laws affecting crime. It must ever remain a matter of regret, that the r?le of the House of Lords in the matter of criminal law reform should have continued from 1752 to 1832 to be one of systematic and obstinate opposition to change, and an opposition which had no justification in the general level of national enlightenment.Although these instructions were not so much laws as suggestions of laws, it is obvious what their effect must have been when published and diffused throughout Russia. That they were translated into Latin, German, French, and Italian proves the interest that was taken in Europe by this first attempt to apply the maxims of philosophy to practical government.

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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 men’s mutual[217] obligations, than to falsify those obligations themselves. But the innocent bankrupt—he 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 substance—for 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.

It is impossible to prevent all the disorders that may arise in the universal conflict of human passions. Their increase depends on that of population and on the crossings of private interests, which cannot be directed with geometrical exactness to the public welfare. In political arithmetic the calculation of probabilities must be substituted for mathematical exactness. Glance at the history of the world, and you will see disorders increase with the increase of the bounds of empire; thus national feeling being to the same extent diminished, the general inducement to crime increases with the greater interest of each individual in such disorders, and on this account the necessity for aggravating penalties ever continues to increase.And an advocate to the Parliament of Paris thus expressed himself, in refutation of Beccaria:—

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