Beccaria on Crimes and Punishments

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Beccaria and the Age of Enlightenment

During the 18th century, a movement of intellectual change swept throughout Europe and eventually the rest of the known world. People of modern thought believed that human reason could be used to combat ignorance, superstition, and tyranny and to build a better world. These enlightened thinkers combined logic with something they called “reason” which consisted of common sense, observation, and their own unacknowledged prejudices in favor of skepticism and freedom ( The Enlightenment, Paul Brians, 5/18/2000). One of these intellectuals, Cesare Beccaria, had a lasting impact on the Enlightenment views of the justice system in Europe. In his treatise Crimes and Punishments, he argued for a clear interpretation of the laws for all citizens and a more concrete system in which the laws were based. He saw a need for mass reforms in what was considered a crime and in the way the punishments were handed out for those crimes. Beccaria also showed that through knowledge and education, crimes could be prevented, therefore decreasing the need for punishments overall. These proposals for reform were based on the ideals of the Enlightenment; that all individuals possess freewill, have equal ability to be enlightened, and the human motive of rational self-interest. While Beccaria believed in the need for a criminal justice system and the right of the government to have laws and punishments, he did not view the current system to be a successful one. He felt that the government and its laws at the time were just a “few remnants of the laws of an ancient predatory people, compiled for a monarch who ruled twelve centuries ago in Constantinople, mixed subsequently with Longobardic tribal customs, and bound together in chaotic volumes of obscure and unauthorized interpreters” (Beccaria, pg. 3). He also felt that criminal laws should be based on rational thought and not passions. He stated that many of the current laws were just “a mere tool of the passions of some, or have arisen from an accidental and temporary need” (Beccaria, pg. 8). He believed that an educated and enlightened man should create the laws for the entire society that would lead to the “greatest happiness shared by the greatest number” (Beccaria, pg. 5). Beccaria also saw the importance of change in the language in which all laws were written at that time. Laws in most of Europe were written in Latin, which by that time was already a dead language, making it even more difficult for poorer citizens to understand. He stated that this custom took away the public access and turned it into a private affair that only the wealthy could use to their benefit. Beccaria argued that for the peasantry, “this placed them at the mercy of a handful of men, for they cannot judge for themselves the prospect of their own liberty or that of others.” (Beccaria, pg. 13). Beccaria viewed the government as a social contract between the state and its people. This way of thinking gave him the ability to shift the power of the state away from the traditional authorities of government and church, to the people’s representatives and the one creating laws based on reason. He argued that the law of the state should bind all members of society equally and that punishments ought to be the same for the highest class as well as the lowest class. In this way, the laws would define crime as a breach of the social contract and not of morality. Beccaria thought that the characteristics that defined certain crimes were based too much on morality and religious sin, leaving too much room for differences in interpretation. In crimes of violence, Beccaria felt all too often the aristocrats of society were able to buy their way out of punishment. He stated “neither the great nor the rich should be able to atone for an attempt against the weak and the poor by means of a cash payment. Otherwise riches, which, under the supervision of the law, are the reward of industry, become the...
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