Penal laws are the expression of the moral sentiments of mankind, and either are as variable as the other. In Holland it was once a capital offence to kill a stork, and in England to cut down a mans cherry-tree. For a Roman lady to drink wine was as heinous a sin as adultery, for either of which she incurred the extreme sentence of the law. In Athens idleness was for a long time punishable; though to a Spartan an Athenian fined for idleness seemed to be punished for keeping up his dignity. In Mexico drunkenness was a graver crime than slander; for whilst the slanderer lost his ears or lips, the drunken man or woman was clubbed or stoned to death.

What is the political object of punishments? The intimidation of other men. But what shall we say of the secret and private tortures which the tyranny of custom exercises alike upon the guilty and the innocent? It is important, indeed, that no open crime shall pass unpunished; but the public exposure of a criminal whose crime was hidden in darkness is utterly useless. An evil that has been done and cannot be undone can only be punished by civil society in so far as it may affect others with the hope of impunity. If it be true that there are a greater number of men who either from fear or virtue respect the laws than of those who transgress them, the risk of torturing an innocent man should be estimated according to the probability that any man will have been more likely, other things being equal, to have respected than to have despised the laws. Torture, again, is employed to discover if a criminal is guilty of other crimes besides those with which he is charged. It is as if this argument were employed: Because you are guilty of one crime you may be guilty of a hundred others. This doubt weighs upon me: I wish to ascertain about it by my test of truth: the laws torture you because you are guilty, because you may be guilty, because I mean you to be guilty.

For instance, the injury to the public is no greater the hundredth time a man steals a rabbit than it is the first. The public may be interested in the prevention of poaching, but it is not interested in the person of the poacher, nor in the number of times he may have broken the law. The law claims to be impersonalto treat offences as they affect the State, not as they affect individuals; to act mechanically, coldly, and dispassionately. It has, therefore, simply to deal with the amount of injury done by each specific offence, and to affix to it its specific penalty, regardless of all matters of moral antecedents. The repetition of an offence may make its immorality the greater, but its[88] criminality remains the same, and this only is within the province of the law.

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.

The opponents of capital punishment may fairly, therefore, draw an argument in their favour from the fact that so many parts of the world have found it not incompatible with the general security of life to erase the death penalty from their list of deterrent agencies. It is better to rely on so plain a fact than on statistics which, like two-edged weapons, often cut both ways. The frequency of executions in one country and their total absence in another may severally coexist with great numerical equality in the number of murders committed in each. It is always better, therefore, to look for some other cause for a given number of murders than the kind of punishment directed to their repression. They may[45] depend on a thousand other things, which it is difficult to ascertain or eliminate. Thus both in Bavaria, where capital punishment has been retained, and in Switzerland, where it had been abolished in 1874, murders have increased greatly in recent years; and this fact has, with great probability, been attributed to the influence of bad habits contracted during the Franco-German war.

In the third place, there is the discharge from prison; and truly, if the prevention of crime be a main object of society, it is just when a man is released from prison that, from a social point of view, there would seem most reason to send him there. For even if, whilst in prison, he has learned no dishonest means of livelihood, how shall he, when out of it, set about obtaining an honest one? If temptation was too strong for him when all doors were open to him, is it likely to be less strong when most are closed? Will it not be something like a miracle, if, with two pounds paid to him on his discharge and his railway fare paid home, he eat for any considerable time the bread of honesty, and sleep the sleep of the just?

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.

Analogy between crime and punishment is another idea which, except in the case of death for death, has been relegated from the practice of most criminal laws. Yet the principle has in its favour the authority of Moses, the authority of the whole world and of all time, that punishment should, if possible, resemble the crime it punishes in kind; so that a man who blinds another should be blinded himself, he who disfigures another be disfigured himself. Thus in the old-world mythology, Theseus and Hercules inflict on the evil powers they conquer the same cruelties their victims were famous for; Termenus having his skull broken because with his own skull he broke the heads of others; and Busiris, who sacrificed others, being himself sacrificed in his turn. Both Montesquieu and Beccaria also advocate analogy in punishment, and so does Bentham to some degree; there being, indeed, few greater contrasts between the theories of the great English jurist and modern English practice than that the former should not have deprecated some suffering by burning as a penalty analogous to the crime of arson, and that he should have advised the transfixing of a forgers hand or of a calumniators tongue[79] by an iron instrument before the public gaze as good and efficient punishments for forgery and slander.

The most successful adoption of Beccarias 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 Beccarias 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]