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Moral and Religious Influences

Religion And Crime, Shame Penalties, Religion In Prisons, Prison Chaplains, Practicing Religion In Prison

The influence of religion and morality on criminal justice has been of major importance throughout history. Morality is society's set of accepted rules and norms of behavior. Morality is commonly part of religious belief; a primary role of religion is to exert control over its followers by setting and promoting rules and customs for people to follow. In turn, these rules help establish criminal laws in a government's justice system.

The role of religion in defining crimes in America's colonial society of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was clear. Key crimes included blasphemy (showing a lack of reverence toward God), sexual deviance, and heresy (holding a belief that conflicts with church doctrine). Early punishments focused on shame and guilt as ways of bringing those who strayed back into the fold. This shame and guilt were supposed to make the offender apologize, ask forgiveness, and live a better life.

Earlier yet in the Old World execution was the favored means of punishing those who broke society's rules. The role of prison chaplains (reverends, priests, or rabbis) in the late During medieval times the Roman Catholic Church introduced incarceration, or confinement in a prison, as an alternative to death. The idea spread as Protestants in northern Europe established corrections facilities in the late sixteenth century. (© Corbis) fifteenth century was primarily to help those condemned to death repent their sins. During medieval times the Roman Catholic Church introduced incarceration as an alternative to death.

The idea spread as Protestants in northern Europe established corrections facilities in the late sixteenth century. The Catholics under Pope Clement XI built the Michel Prison in 1703 for youthful offenders, separating them from adults and providing work for rehabilitation. With the expansion of prisons in Britain in the early eighteenth century, Britain had assigned chaplains to all prisons by 1733.

For More Information


Acker, James R., Robert M. Bohm, and Charles S. Lanier, eds. America's Experiment with Capital Punishment: Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of the Ultimate Penal Sanction. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1998.

Baird, Robert M., and Stuart E. Rosenbaum. Punishment and the Death Penalty: The Current Debate. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995.

Bedau, Hugo A., ed. Death Penalty in America: Current Controversies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Dummer, Harry R. Religion in Corrections. Lanham, MD: American Correctional Associates, 2000.

Levy, Leonard W. Blasphemy: Verbal Offenses Against the Sacred from Moses to Salman Rushdie. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Nathanson, Stephen. An Eye for an Eye? The Immorality of Punishing by Death. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1987.

Shaw, Richard D. Chaplains to the Imprisoned: Sharing Life with the Incarcerated. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 1995.

Speller, Adrian. Breaking Out: A Christian Critique of Criminal Justice. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986.

Stark, Rodney, and Williams Sims Bainbridge. Religion, Deviance, and Social Control. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Stoyanov, Yuri. The Hidden Tradition: The Secret History of Medieval Christian Heresy. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1995.

Web Sites

"Death Penalty." American Civil Liberties Union. http://www.aclu.org/DeathPenalty/DeathPenaltyMain.cfm (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Death Penalty Information Center. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org (accessed on August 20, 2004).

International Prison Chaplains' Association. http://www.ipcaworldwide.org (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law