The demand is constantly made that such crimes as kidnapping, train robbing, rape and robbery should be punished with death, or at least with imprisonment for life. Irrespective of its effect on the criminal, what is the effect on the victim of the criminal? A man is held up on a lonely highway; the robber does not intend to kill. His face is exposed. If the penalty for robbery is life imprisonment, he kills to avoid detection. If it is death, he kills even before he robs. The same thing operates in rape, in burglary, and in other crimes. In all property crimes not only is no killing intended or wanted, but precautions are taken to guard against killing. All laws to make drastic penalties should really be entitled: “An Act to Promote Murder.”
Making penalties too drastic destroys the effect meant to be produced. Public clamor does not last forever. Men grow tired of keeping their tongues wagging on the same subject all the time. A state of frenzy is abnormal and when it subsides the temperature not only goes back to normal, but as far below as it has been above. When the fury has spent itself jurors regain some of their human feeling and refuse to convict. History has proved this over and over again, and still politicians always seek to ride into power on the crest of the wave; when the wave moves back, they can easily go back with it. Even if the severe punishments should be continued without abatement, these soon lose their power to terrify. Communities grow accustomed to hangings; they get used to life sentences and long imprisonments and the severity no longer serves to awe. The cruelty serves only as a mark of the civilization of the day. Some day, perhaps, a wiser and more humane world will marvel at our cruelty and ignorance, as we now marvel at the barbarity of the past.
THE EFFECT OF PUNISHMENT ON OTHERS
The ordinary man who hears of a crime hates the criminal and wants him to suffer. He does not picture the malefactor as a man who, for some all-sufficient reason, has committed a dreadful act. Still less does he ask: “Has he a father or mother, a wife or children, brothers or sisters, and how are these affected by his deed?” No one can intelligently deal with the criminal without considering these. Practically no inmate of a prison stands alone. He is a member of a family or small social group, and inevitably the interests of these others are more or less closely bound up with his. If punishment is justified for its influence on society, these must be taken into account with the other members of the social organization.