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?

What will be the penalty suitable for such and such crimes?

From all that has gone before a general theorem may be deduced, of great utility, though little comformable to custom, that common lawgiver of nations. The theorem is this: In order that every punishment may not be an act of violence, committed by one man or by many against a single individual, it ought to be above all things public, speedy, necessary, the least possible in the given circumstances, proportioned to its crime, dictated by the laws. That the scruple to convict diminishes the certainty of punishment, and therefore raises hopes of impunity, is illustrated by the case of two American brothers who, desirous to perpetrate a murder, waited till their victim had left their State, in which capital punishment had been abolished, and had betaken himself to a State which still retained it, before they ventured to execute their criminal intention. That such reluctance to convict is often most injurious to[42] the public is proved by the case of a woman at Chelmsford who some years ago was acquitted, in spite of strong evidence, on a charge of poisoning, and who, before her guilt was finally proved, lived to poison several other persons who would otherwise have escaped her arts.[27]

In those days to steal five shillings worth of goods from a shop was a capital offence, and Paley had explained the philosophy of the punishment. It would be tedious to follow the course of Romillys bill against this law, called the Shoplifting Act,[62] through the details of its history. Suffice it to say that it passed the Commons in 1810, 1811, 1813, 1816, but was regularly thrown out by the Lords, and only definitely became law many years later. But though the debates on the subject no longer possess the vivid interest that once belonged to them, and are best left to the oblivion that enshrouds them, it is instructive to take just one sample of the eloquence and arguments, that once led Lords and Bishops captive and expressed the highest legal wisdom obtainable in England.


There remain two questions for me to examine: the first, whether asylums of refuge are just, and whether international agreements of extradition are expedient or not. There should be no spot within the boundaries of any country independent of the laws. Every citizen should be followed by their power, as every substance is followed by its shadow. There is only a difference of degree between impunity and the right of asylum; and as the effective influence of punishment consists more in its inevitability than in its violence, asylums do more to invite to crimes than punishments do to deter from them. The multiplication of asylums is the formation of so many petty sovereignties; for where there are no laws to command, there it is easy for new laws, opposed to the general laws of a country, to be formed, and consequently for a spirit opposed to that of the whole collective social body to arise. All history shows that from asylums have issued great revolutions in States and in the opinions of mankind.

Sir James Mackintosh, who succeeded Romilly as law reformer, in 1820 introduced with success six penal reform bills into the House of Commons; but the Lords assented to none of them that were of any practical importance to the country. They agreed, indeed, that it should no longer be a capital offence for an Egyptian to reside one year in the country, or for a man to be found disguised in the Mint, or to injure Westminster Bridge; but they did not agree to remove the capital penalty for such offences as wounding cattle, destroying trees, breaking down the banks of rivers, or sending threatening letters. It was feared that if the punishment were mitigated, the whole of Lincolnshire might be submerged, whole forests cut down, and whole herds destroyed. As to the Shoplifting Bill, they would not let death be abolished for stealing in shops altogether, but only where the value of the theft was under 10l. That seemed the limit of safe concession.

The multiplication of the human race, slight in the abstract, but far in excess of the means afforded by nature, barren and deserted as it originally was, for the satisfaction of mens ever increasing wants, caused the first savages to associate together. The first unions necessarily led to others to oppose them, and so the state of war passed from individuals to nations.

It may be said that all such absurdities are past; that the Jews, the Athenians, the Chinese, the Europeans of the middle ages can scarcely be cited as reasonable beings; that they had no rational theory of punishment, and that their errors have been long since discarded. But at least their example suggests that even in our own system there may be inconsistencies and blemishes which custom and authority hide from our eyes.

Are torture and torments just, and do they attain the end which the law aims at?

There was not an anomaly in our old criminal practice which was not based on this theorya theory which had, indeed, its precedent in the old Hebrew law that punished more severely a theft from a field than a theft from a house; and the first writer who protested against it was Eden, afterwards Lord Auckland, who in 1771 published his Principles of Penal Law, one of the best books ever written on the subject. The influence of Beccaria is apparent in Edens work, not only by his direct reference to it, but by his spirit of declared opposition to the actual practice of the law. Two instances of its tendency will suffice. Imprisonment, inflicted by law as a punishment, is not according to the principles of wise legislation. It sinks useful subjects into burthens on the community, and has always a bad effect on their morals; nor can it communicate the benefit of example, being in its nature secluded from the eye of the people. And again: Whatever exceeds simple death is mere cruelty. Every step beyond is a trace of ancient barbarity, tending only to distract the attention of the spectators and to lessen the solemnity of the example. There is no such thing as vindictive justice; the idea is shocking.