Beccaria and Modern Justice

Cesare Beccaria offers a surprisingly contemporary revelation on crime and punishment. The United States shares but also deviates from Beccaria’s vision of just and lawful punishment. The US for example has adopted the maxim “innocent until proven guilty” and also “beyond all doubt” much as Beccaria would prefer but hypocritically also glorifies use of the death penalty as a supposedly lawful procedure. Furthermore, the US makes little effort to rehabilitate their prisoners, having not only the largest population of prisoners in the world. The immediate response to an offense is not dealing with the root of the problem but rather subjecting the offender to a lengthy sentence where the would-be criminals only become further estranged from society and adopt skills from other inmates while serving. According to 680 out of 100,000 inhabitants are in jail. In 2000 the Guinness Book of World Records estimated that the United States has over 2 million prisoners currently in the correctional system – topping all other countries for number of prisoners.

This being said, there is no crime prevention as Beccaria would ask for. The war on drugs was a political platform, an empty gesture, having little effect on society as a whole. Looking around today, more young people are using are becoming addicted to drugs then ever before. According to the United States Bureau of Justice the number of drug related arrests yearly has risen from 900,000 in 1990 to about 1,800,000 today. The United States tactic is to neutralize potential criminals by throwing them in a cell, not reforming them. The brutality and criminal scene within the typical American correctional facility does indeed harden men – if they weren’t truly criminals entering, they will have that capacity for crime once they emerge. This probably wouldn’t be the case if the sentences in the US were not notoriously huge (at least compared to our European neighbors). It is not rational to throw someone in a cell for seven years for having marijuana on them.

Although the type of torture and processing Beccaria warned against is still occurring in more primitive courts around the world – especially in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, this is not to say that may place our own law system on a pedestal. How can we condemn murder but also murder ourselves? How can we condemn an oppressive regime but also allow our troops to torture at will, with no realistic infractions (Abu Gharib prison for example)? If a man is unable to be recuperated, he should be permanently isolated, but there is no need to murder him, that is simply wasteful. If a man can be recuperated, all the efforts of the state should go toward fixing that man, not throwing him in a cell and forgetting about him, this is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing. A man who murders someone out of blind passion and not mental psychosis should be fixed, not murdered himself or locked away forever. As Beccaria says, this is an unacceptable ethical example to our law abiding citizens. We do not want our citizens living out of fear, always mindful to cower before the iron grasp of the executive. The free world should never glorify executions. There is simply no rational reason to execute someone. At worst, we should force conscript them into the army or use them as labor, but why execute? No valid reason. Vengeance perhaps, but that is irrational. No need to cater to the ego, on any matter.

The importance of Beccaria’s commentary is not in his condemnation of any particular means of justice but rather in his assertion that we must prevent crimes before they happen rather than approach crimes with a reactionary, sudden and severe reprisal. In this regard, Beccaria’s commentary is not in the slightest unrealistic or far removed from possibility. Perhaps in a blood hungry society still clinging to Puritanical reasoning this is a less than attractive item, but sometimes logical and compassionate legislation must be bridged across the blind eyes of the mob.