In the first place, our public works prisons, however excellent for their material results, are so many schools of crime, where for the one honest trade a man learns by compulsion he acquires a knowledge of three or four that are dishonest. I have become acquainted, says a released convict, with more of what is bad and evil, together with the schemes and dodges of professional thieves and swindlers, during the four years I served the Queen for nothing, than I should have done in fifty years outside the prison walls. The association rooms at Dartmoor are as bad as it is possible for anything to be they are really class-rooms in the college of vice, where all are alike students and professors. The present system in most instances merely completes the mans vicious and criminal education, instead of in the slightest degree reforming him.[56] It has been attempted in various ways to obviate this difficulty, by diminishing opportunities of companionship; but the real demoralisation of prison life is probably due less to the actual contact of bad men with one another than to the deadened sense of criminality which they derive from the feeling of numbers, just as from the same cause the danger of drowning is forgotten on the ice. Prisoners in gangs lose all shame of crime, just as men in armies forget their native horror of murder. It was at one time said that the work really was Pietro Verris and not Beccarias, for it was published anonymously, and away from Milan. The domestic circumstances of Pietro lent some countenance to this story, as did also the fact that he charged himself with the trouble of making a correct copy of the manuscript, so that a copy of the treatise does actually exist in Pietros handwriting. The story, however, has long since been disproved; yet to show the great interest which Pietro took in the work, and the[11] ready assistance he gave to his friend, a letter to him from Beccaria, with respect to the second edition, deserves mention, in which Beccaria begs him not only to revise the spelling correctly, but generally to erase, add, and correct, as he pleases. It would appear that he was already tired of literary success, for he tells his friend, that but for the motive of preserving his esteem and of affording fresh aliment to their friendship, he should from indolence prefer obscurity to glory itself. Against this general uncertainty of punishment, which no severity in the law can affect or make up for, the only certainty of punishment dependent on the law is in the event of conviction. But even this certainty is of a very qualified nature, for it depends on sentiments of due proportion between a crime and its penalty, which in no two men are the same. Every increase of severity in punishment diminishes its certainty, since it holds out to a criminal fresh hopes of impunity from the clemency of his judges, prosecutors, or jury.

But although the laws of every country thus recognise in different degrees the retributive nature of punishment, by their constant attention to its apportionment to crime, there is another corollary of the desirability of a just proportion between the two, which has never been, nor is ever likely to be, accepted: namely, that from the point of view of the public interest, which in theory is the only legal view, it is no mitigation of a crime that it is a first offence, nor any aggravation of one that it is the second. 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.

But, to turn from this unpleasant episode of Beccarias life, Catharine II., soon after his return to Milan, invited him to St. Petersburg, to assist in the preparation of her intended code of laws. It would seem from one of Pietro Verris letters that Beccaria was at first inclined to accept the proposal,[15] but it is improbable that any such offer would really have tempted him to exchange Italian suns for Russian snows, even if Kaunitz and Firmian had not resolved to remove the temptation, by making his talents of service at home. This they did by making him Professor of Political Economy in the Palatine School of Milan, in November 1768; and his published lectures on this subject form the largest work he ever wrote. 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.

Moreover, if, as was said, our feelings are limited in quantity, the greater respect men may have for things outside the laws, the less will remain to them for the laws themselves. From this principle the wise administrator of the public happiness may draw some useful consequences, the exposition of which would lead me too far from my subject, which is to demonstrate the uselessness of making a prison of the State. A law with such an object is useless, because, unless inaccessible rocks or an unnavigable sea separate a country from all others, how will it be possible to close all the points of its circumference and keep guard over the guardians themselves? A man who transports everything he has with him, when he has done so cannot be punished. Such a crime once committed can no longer be punished, and to punish it beforehand would be to punish mens wills, not their actions, to exercise command over their intention, the freest part of human nature, and altogether independent of the control of human laws. The punishment of an absent man in the property he leaves behind him would ruin all international commerce,[225] to say nothing of the facility of collusion, which would be unavoidable, except by a tyrannical control of contracts. And his punishment on his return, as a criminal, would prevent the reparation of the evil done to society, by making all removals perpetual. The very prohibition to leave a country augments peoples desire to do so, and is a warning to foreigners not to enter it.

Another ridiculous reason for torture is the purgation from infamy; that is to say, a man judged infamous by the laws must confirm his testimony by the dislocation of his bones. This abuse ought not to be tolerated in the eighteenth century. It is believed that pain, which is a physical sensation, purges from infamy, which is merely a moral condition. Is pain, then, a crucible, and infamy a mixed impure substance? But infamy is a sentiment, subject neither to laws nor to reason, but to common opinion. Torture itself causes real infamy to the victim of it. So the result is, that by this method infamy will be taken away by the very fact of its infliction!

Another way of preventing crimes is to interest the magistrates who carry out the laws in seeking rather to preserve than to corrupt them. The greater the number of men who compose the magistracy, the less danger will there be of their exercising any undue power over the laws; for venality is more difficult among men who are under the close observation of one another, and their inducement to increase their individual authority diminishes in proportion to the smallness of the share of it that can fall to each of them, especially when they compare it with the risk of the attempt. If the sovereign accustoms his subjects, by formalities and pomp, by severe edicts, and by refusal to hear the grievances, whether just or unjust, of the man who thinks himself oppressed, to fear rather the magistrates than the[250] laws, it will be more to the profit of the magistrates than to the gain of private and public security.

In these Notes and Observations Beccaria and his work were assailed with that vigour and lucidity for which the Dominican school of writing has always been so conspicuous. The author was described as a man of narrow mind, a madman, a stupid impostor, full of poisonous bitterness and calumnious mordacity. He was accused of writing with sacrilegious imposture against the Inquisition, of believing that religion was incompatible with the good government of a state; nay, he was condemned by all the reasonable world as the enemy of Christianity, a bad philosopher, and a bad man. His book was stigmatised as sprung from the deepest abyss of darkness, horrible, monstrous, full of poison, containing miserable arguments, insolent blasphemies, and so forth.

From the simple consideration of the truths hitherto demonstrated it is evident that the object of punishment is neither to torment and inflict a sensitive creature nor to undo a crime already committed. Can he, whose function it is, so far from acting from passion, to tranquillise the private passions of his fellows, harbour in the body politic such useless cruelty, the instrument either of furious fanatics or of weak tyrants? Shall perchance the shrieks of an unhappy wretch call back from never-receding time actions already executed? The object, therefore, of punishment is simply to prevent the criminal from injuring anew his fellow-citizens, and to deter others from committing similar injuries; and those punishments and that method of inflicting them should be preferred which, duly proportioned to the offence, will produce a more efficacious and lasting impression on the[166] minds of men and inflict the least torture on the body of a criminal.

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.