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.

Lord Ellenborough, on the last day but one of May 1810, appealed to their lordships to pause, before they passed the Shoplifting Bill and gave their assent to the repeal of a law which had so long been held necessary for the security of the public. No one, he insisted, was more disposed than himself to the exercise of clemency, but there was not the slightest ground for the insinuations of cruelty that had been cast on the administration of the law. If shoplifting did not require the penalty of death, the same rule would have to apply to horse- and sheep-stealing; and, in spite of all that was said in favour of this speculative humanity, they must all agree, that prevention of crime should be the chief object of the law, and that terror alone could prevent the crime in question. Those who were thus speculating in modern legislation urged that punishment should[63] be certain and proportionate; but he could satisfy the House that any attempt to apply a punishment in exact conformity to the offence would be perfectly ludicrous. He had consulted with the other judges, and they were unanimously of opinion that it would not be expedient to remit this part of the severity of the criminal law.[38] He therefore entreated them to pause.

Such considerations as these will, perhaps, lead some day to the abolition of capital punishment. The final test of all punishment is its efficiency, not its humanity. There is often more inhumanity in a long sentence of penal servitude than in a capital sentence, for the majority of murderers deserve as little mercy as they get. The many offences which have ceased to be capital in English law yielded less to a sense of the inhumanity of the punishment as related to the crime than to the experience that such a punishment led to almost total impunity. The bankers, for instance, who petitioned Parliament to abolish capital punishment for forgery, did so, as they said, because they found by experience that the infliction of death, or the possibility of its infliction, prevented the prosecution, the conviction, and the punishment of the criminal; therefore they begged for that protection for their property which they would derive from a more lenient law.


Suicide is a crime to which a punishment properly so called seems inadmissible, since it can only fall upon the innocent or else upon a cold and insensible body. If the latter mode of punishing the crime makes no more impression on the living than would be made by inflicting violence on a statue, the other mode is unjust and tyrannical, inasmuch as political freedom necessarily presupposes the purely personal nature of[223] punishment. Men love life only too much, and everything that surrounds them confirms them in this love. The seductive image of pleasure, and hope, that sweetest illusion of mortals, for the sake of which they swallow large draughts of evil mixed with a few drops of contentment, are too attractive, for one ever to fear, that the necessary impunity of such a crime should exercise any general influence. He who fears pain, obeys the laws; but death puts an end in the body to all the sources of pain. What, then, will be the motive which shall restrain the desperate hand of the suicide? Are torture and torments just, and do they attain the end which the law aims at?

Even when Paris was reached, and Beccaria and Alessandro were warmly welcomed by DAlembert, Morellet, Diderot, and Baron Holbach, the homesickness remained. You would not believe, says Beccaria to his wife, the welcomes, the politeness, the demonstrations of friendship and esteem, which they have shown to me and my companion. Diderot, Baron Holbach, and DAlembert especially enchant us. The latter is a superior man, and most simple at the same time. Diderot displays enthusiasm and good humour in all he does. In short, nothing is wanting to me but yourself. All do their best to please me, and those who do so are the greatest men in Europe. All of them deign to listen to me, and no one shows the slightest air of superiority. Yet[24] Morellet tells us that even on arrival Beccaria was so absorbed in melancholy, that it was difficult to get four consecutive words from his mouth.