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Moral and Religious Influences - Religion And Crime

punishment shame ethics criminal

Those who settled North America from Europe were predominantly from the Christian faith, which greatly influenced the development of criminal justice systems in the United States. Basic Christian faith held that God created the world, established certain moral laws, and that breaking these laws could lead to suffering and punishment. U.S. criminal laws derived from those moral standards and set punishments for breaking them.

Morality establishes certain accepted standards called ethics. One standard is the integrity and fairness of the criminal justice system. Some of the ethics of early Americans were placed in the U.S. Constitution of 1789 in reference to liberty (freedom) and the pursuit of happiness. These ethics regulate such matters as how police use their legal power over citizens, particularly in regard to the use of force, deception, or invasion of privacy.

Many police departments have established codes of ethics to regulate police activity. Ethics standards also influence the punishment strategies of prisons, including the use of solitary confinement, strip searches, and allowing visitors like church officials and family members. In courtrooms, ethics concerns serve to buffer or guard against the desire for retaliation, lying on the witness stand, and for honest, unbiased interpretation of evidence.

Following decades of immigration, the United States has become much more religiously diverse. Each religion has its own traditions and offers many interpretations on crime and punishment. In addition, each member of a religion carries his or her own perspectives on crime and punishment.

Shame Penalties

Morality influences how much shame a person feels, or should feel, when committing a crime. In colonial America, punishment was handed out in public so the offender would experience shame and repent for his or her actions. These punishments involved whipping, branding, or being placed with the person's ankles and wrists in a wooden stock. Even hangings were conducted in public with the offender expected to offer an admission of guilt and ask forgiveness before being hung.

By the early nineteenth century punishment went behind the walls of the newly growing prison system. No longer was public humiliation and shame part of punishment. In the late twentieth century, however, as prisons filled and incarceration expenses rose steadily, society once more experimented with shame penalties. For example, convicted offenders of some nonviolent crimes, such as buying services from prostitutes, had to publicly apologize. Others had to wear T-shirts identifying their crime, such as shoplifting.

Shame penalties were applied to lesser white-collar criminals, first time offenders, and juvenile offenders, all guilty of nonviolent crimes. In some cases judges gave convicted offenders a choice between a shame penalty, a fine, or jail time. Critics began to question the legality of such practices, due to uncertainty about the psychological short- and long-term effects of public shaming.

Through the centuries religion has played an important role in criminal justice. In the fourteenth century, the Puritans of England introduced the concepts of bail, protection against self-incrimination, and jury trials. These ideas became central to English common law that the colonists brought to America. Religious organizations also sought to moderate punishment to fit the crime rather than setting harsh penalties on all crimes. They favored rehabilitation over retribution or vengeance. Some religious movements banned slavery, protected workers' rights, sought equality for women, and set standards for "indecent" behavior.

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