CHAPTER XIV. CRIMINAL ATTEMPTS, ACCOMPLICES, IMPUNITY. Lastly, some have thought that the gravity of an acts sinfulness should be an element in the measure of crimes. But an impartial observer of the true relations between man and man, and between man[201] and God, will easily perceive the fallacy of this opinion. For the former relationship is one of equality; necessity alone, from the clash of passions and opposing interests, having given rise to the idea of the public utility, the basis of human justice. But the other relationship is one of dependence on a perfect Being and Creator, who has reserved to Himself alone the right of being at the same time legislator and judge, and can alone unite the two functions without bad effects. If He has decreed eternal punishments to those who disobey His omnipotence, what insect shall dare to take the place of Divine justice, or shall wish to avenge that Being, who is all-sufficient to Himself, who can receive from things no impression of pleasure nor of pain, and who alone of all beings acts without reaction? The degree of sinfulness in an action depends on the unsearchable wickedness of the heart, which cannot be known by finite beings without a revelation. How, then, found thereon a standard for the punishment of crimes? In such a case men might punish when God pardons, and pardon when God punishes. If men can act contrary to the Almighty by offending Him, they may also do so in the punishments they inflict.

But at least, it will be thought, we have by this time arrived at some principles about punishment which correspond with the eternal truths of equity. Is not Equality, for instance, one of the primary essentials of punishment? Does it not stand as a penal axiom with almost the sanction of a moral law that all men should suffer equally for equal crimes? Yet, if by equality be meant the same punishment, the same kind of labour, the same term of servitude, the same pecuniary fineand this is the only thing it can meanwhat more obvious than that the same punishment for rich and poor, for young and old, for strong and weak, for men and women, for educated and uneducated, will bring to the constitution of a penal code the utmost inequality the imagination can conceive? Beccaria insists that the law can do no more than assign the same extrinsic punishment to the same crime; that is, the same punishment, regardless of all other external considerations; and he calls for the infliction of the same punishment on the nobleman as on the commoner. Let it be so; but the same punishment is no longer an equal one; and hence from this very demand for equality springs the demand for its very opposite, for what Bentham calls the equability of punishment; that is, consideration[77] for the different circumstances of individual criminals. So that the same nominal punishment not being the same real one, equality of punishment appears to be a chimera, and the law, which punishes, say, a distinguished officer less severely than it punishes a costermonger for the same crime, errs perhaps really less from actual equality than if it condemned both to precisely the same punishment.

For the same reason it is of little avail to call in question, as Beccaria does, the right of society to inflict death as a punishment. There may be a distinction between the right of society and its might, but it is one of little comfort to the man who incurs its resentment. A man in a dungeon does better to amuse himself with spiders and cobwebs than with reflections on the encroachment of the law upon his liberty, or with theories about the rights of government. Whenever society has ceased to exercise any of its powers against individuals, it has not been from the acceptance of any new doctrine as to its rights, but from more enlightened views as to its real interests, and a cultivated dislike of cruelty and oppression.

In a period of ten years, from 1867 to 1876, the total number of principal indictable offences committed in the metropolis against propertyand these constitute the great majority of crimeswere 117,345. But the apprehensions for these offences were only 26,426, the convictions only 19,242. In other words,[94] the chances against apprehension for such crimes as burglary or larceny are four to one in favour of the criminal, whilst the chances against his conviction and punishment are fully as high as six to one. When we thus find that only 16 per cent. of such crimes receive any punishment, the remaining 84 per cent. escaping it altogether, and that only 22 per cent. are even followed by apprehension, we shall the more admire the general efficacy of our criminal machinery, in which prevention by punishment plays so small a part.[51] It has already been remarked by Montesquieu that public accusations are more suited to republics, where the public good ought to be the citizens first passion, than to monarchies, where such a sentiment is very feeble, owing to the nature of the government itself, and where the appointment of officers to accuse transgressors of the law in the name of the public is a most excellent institution. But every government, be it republican or monarchical, ought to inflict upon a false accuser the same punishment which, had the accusation been true, would have fallen upon the accused.

But there was one great fallacy, pervading our whole criminal law, which Blackstone left undetected and untouched. This was, that the severity of punishment must be augmented in proportion to the increase of temptation, and that the measure of the guilt of a crime lay in the facility with which it might be committed. Among crimes of an equal malignity, says Blackstone, those [deserve most punishment, as most injurious] which a man has the most frequent and easy opportunities of committing, which cannot so easily be guarded against as others, and which, therefore, the offender has the strongest inducement to commit. And on this principle he finds it reasonable, that, while the theft of a pocket-handkerchief should be a capital crime, the theft of a load of hay should only involve transportation.