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CHAPTER XXVII. CRIMES AGAINST PERSONAL SECURITY—ACTS OF VIOLENCE—PUNISHMENTS OF NOBLES.

Count Pietro Verri was the son of Gabriel, who was distinguished alike for his legal knowledge and high position in Milan. At the house of Pietro, Beccaria and the other friends used to meet for the discussion and study of political and social questions. Alessandro, the younger brother of Pietro, held the office of ‘Protector of Prisoners,’ an office which consisted in visiting the prisons, listening to the grievances of the inmates, and discovering, if possible, reasons for their defence or for mercy. The distressing sights he[10] was witness of in this capacity are said to have had the most marked effect upon him; and there is no doubt that this fact caused the attention of the friends to be so much directed to the state of the penal laws. It is believed to have been at the instigation of the two brothers that Beccaria undertook the work which was destined to make his name so famous.What are the pretexts by which secret accusations and punishments are justified? Are they the public welfare, the security and maintenance of the form of government? But how strange a constitution is that, where he who has force on his side, and opinion, which is even stronger than force, is afraid of every citizen! Is then the indemnity of the accuser the excuse? In that case the laws do not sufficiently defend him; and shall there be subjects stronger than their sovereign? Or is it to save the informer from infamy? What! secret calumny be fair and lawful, and an open one deserving of punishment! Is it, then, the nature of the crime? If indifferent actions, or even useful actions, are called crimes, then of course accusations and trials can never be secret enough. But how can there be crimes, that is, public injuries, unless the publicity of this example, by a public trial, be at the same time[144] the interest of all men? I respect every government, and speak of none in particular. Circumstances are sometimes such that to remove an evil may seem utter ruin when it is inherent in a national system. But had I to dictate new laws in any forgotten corner of the universe, my hand would tremble and all posterity would rise before my eyes before I would authorise such a custom as that of secret accusations.

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.The influence of the predominant French philosophy appears throughout Beccaria’s treatise. Human justice is based on the idea of public utility, and the object of legislation is to conduct men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible misery. The vein of dissatisfaction with life and of disbelief in human virtue is a marked feature of Beccaria’s philosophy. To him life is a desert, in which a few physical pleasures lie scattered here and there;[5] his own country is only a place of exile, save for the presence of a few friends engaged like himself in a war with ignorance. Human ideas of morality and virtue have only been produced in the course of many centuries and after much bloodshed, but slow and difficult as their growth has been, they are ever ready to disappear at the slightest breeze that blows against them.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.

The necessity of remedying the disorders caused by the physical despotism of each man singly produced the first laws and the first magistrates; this was the end and object of the institution of societies, and this end has always been maintained, either in reality or appearance, at the head of all codes, even of those that operated otherwise. But the closer contact of men with one another and the progress of their knowledge brought about an endless series of mutual actions and needs, which ever lay beyond the foresight of the laws and below the actual power of individuals. From this epoch began the despotism of opinion, which afforded the only means for obtaining from others those benefits and averting those evils, for which the laws failed to provide. It is this opinion that is the trouble equally of the wise man and the fool; that has raised the semblance of virtue to higher credit than virtue itself; that even makes the rascal turn missionary, because he finds his own[211] interest therein. Hence the favour of men became not only useful but necessary, if a man would not fall below the general level. Hence, not only does the ambitious man seek after such favour as useful to himself, and the vain man go begging for it as a proof of his merit, but the man of honour also may be seen to require it as a necessity. This honour is a condition that very many men attach to their own existence. Born after the formation of society, it could not be placed in the general deposit; it is rather a momentary return to the state of nature, a momentary withdrawal of one’s self from the dominion of those laws which, under the circumstances, fail to afford the sufficient defence required of them.

Who, then, will be the rightful interpreter of the laws? Will it be the sovereign, the trustee of the actual wills of all, or the judge, whose sole function[127] it is to examine whether such and such a man has committed an illegal act or not?It is sometimes the custom to release a man from the punishment of a slight crime when the injured person pardons him: an act, indeed, which is in accordance with mercy and humanity but contrary to public policy; as if a private citizen could by his remission do away with the necessity of the example in the same way that he can excuse the reparation due for the offence. The right of punishing does not[190] rest with an individual, but with the community as a whole, or the sovereign. An individual can only renounce his particular portion of that right, not annul that of all the rest.

Less dangerous personally than the theological criticism, but more pernicious to reform, was the hostile criticism that at once appeared from the thick phalanx of professional lawyers, the sound-thinking ‘practical men.’ From whom only two short extracts need be rescued from oblivion, as illustrations of the objections once raised against ideas which have since become the common groundwork of all subsequent legislation, in America as well as in Europe. The first extract is from a work on criminal justice by a lawyer of Provence, who in 1770 wrote as follows:—Men for the most part leave the regulation of their chief concerns to the prudence of the moment, or to the discretion of those whose interest it is to oppose the wisest laws; such laws, namely, as naturally help to diffuse the benefits of life, and check that tendency they have to accumulate in the hands of a few, which ranges on one side the extreme of power and happiness, and on the other all that is weak and wretched. It is only, therefore, after having passed through a thousand errors in matters that most nearly touch their lives and liberties, only after weariness of evils that have been suffered to reach a climax, that men are induced to seek a remedy for the abuses which oppress them, and to recognise the clearest truths, which, precisely on account of their simplicity, escape the notice of ordinary minds, unaccustomed as they are to analyse things, and apt to receive their impressions anyhow, from tradition rather than from inquiry.

But undoubtedly punishment, although in its origin and present intention vindictive, must exercise a certain preventive force against crime, and this preventive force can scarcely be estimated, for that which is prevented is, of course, not seen. But the efficiency of punishment as a deterrent is proportioned to its certainty, and there is a large element of uncertainty that can never be eliminated. For every malefactor there are two hopes: first, that he may escape detection or apprehension; secondly, that he may escape conviction. That his hopes of impunity are not without reason greater than his fears of punishment the following facts attest.The most successful adoption of Beccaria’s principles of punishment occurred in Tuscany, under the Grand Duke Leopold. When he ascended the ducal throne, the Tuscans were the most abandoned people of all Italy. Robberies and murders were none the less frequent for all the gallows, wheels, and tortures which were employed to repress them. But Leopold in 1786 resolved to try Beccaria’s plan, for which purpose he published a code, proportioning punishments to crimes, abolishing mutilation and torture, reducing the number of acts of treason, lessening confiscations, destroying the right of asylum, and above all abolishing capital punishment even for murder. The result was, says a contemporary, that Tuscany, from having been the land of the greatest crimes and villanies, became ‘the best ordered State of Europe.’[22] During twenty years only five murders were committed in Tuscany, whilst at Rome, where death continued to be inflicted with great pomp, as[36] many as sixty were committed within the space of three months.[23]

The recognition of this regulation of resentment as the main object of punishment affords the best test for measuring its just amount. For that amount will be found to be just which is necessary; that is to say, which just suffices for the object it aims at—the satisfaction of general or private resentment. It must be so much, and no more, as will prevent individuals from preferring to take the law into their own hands[84] and seeking to redress their own injuries. This degree can only be gathered from experience, nor is it any real objection to it, that it must obviously be somewhat arbitrary and variable. Both Wladimir I., the first Christian Czar of Russia, and Wladimir II. tried the experiment of abolishing capital punishment for murder; but the increase of murders by the vendetta compelled them to fall back upon the old modes of punishment.[46] Some centuries later the Empress Elizabeth successfully tried the same experiment, without the revival of the vendetta, the state of society having so far altered that the relations of a murdered man no longer insisted on the death of his murderer. But had Elizabeth abolished all legal punishment for murder—had she, that is, allowed no public vendetta of any kind—undoubtedly the vendetta would have become private again.In the ordinary state of society the death of a citizen is neither useful nor necessary.The greatest effect that any punishment has upon the human mind is not to be measured by its intensity but by its duration, for our sensibility is more easily and permanently affected by very slight but repeated impressions than by a strong but brief shock. Habit holds universal sway over every sentient being, and as we speak and walk and satisfy our needs by its aid, so moral ideas only stamp themselves on our mind by long and repeated impressions. It is not the terrible yet brief sight of a criminal’s death, but the long and painful example of a man deprived of[172] his liberty, who, having become as it were a beast of burthen, repays with his toil the society he has offended, which is the strongest restraint from crimes. Far more potent than the fear of death, which men ever have before their eyes in the remote distance, is the thought, so efficacious from its constant recurrence: ‘I myself shall be reduced to as long and miserable a condition if I commit similar misdeeds.

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