Do Moral Communities Play a Role in Criminal Sentencing? Evidence from Pennsylvania

The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 737-768, 2008

32 Pages Posted: 11 May 2010

See all articles by Jeffery Todd Ulmer

Jeffery Todd Ulmer

Penn State University

Christopher Bader

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Martha Gault

Baylor University

Date Written: December 1, 2008

Abstract

Religion and social control have been a sociological concern since Durkheim and Weber, and the relationship between religion and punishment has long been the subject of speculation. However, surprisingly little empirical research exists on the role of religion or religious context in criminal justice, and almost no research on the role of religious context on actual sentencing practices.We conceptualize the potential relationships between religious context and sentencing severity by drawing from the focal concerns and court community perspectives in the sentencing literature and from the moral communities theory developed by Rodney Stark. We suspect that Christian moral communities might shape notions of perceived blameworthiness for court community actors. Such moral communities might also affect notions of community protection - affecting perceptions of dangerousness, or perhaps rehabilitation, and might influence practical constraints/consequences (e.g., local political ramifications of harsh or lenient sentences). We examine these questions with a set of hierarchical models using sentencing data from Pennsylvania county courts and data on the religious composition of Pennsylvania counties from the Associated Religion Data Archives.We find that county Christian religious homogeneity increases the likelihood of incarceration. In addition, Christian homogeneity, as well as the prevalence of civically engaged denominations in a county condition the effects of important legally relevant determinants of incarceration.

Furthermore, we find evidence that Christian homogeneity activates the effect of local Republican electoral dominance on incarceration.We argue that Christian homogeneity affects sentencing practices primarily through local political processes that shape the election of judges and prosecutors.

Keywords: sentencing, religion, courts

Suggested Citation

Ulmer, Jeffery Todd and Bader, Christopher and Gault, Martha, Do Moral Communities Play a Role in Criminal Sentencing? Evidence from Pennsylvania (December 1, 2008). The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 737-768, 2008, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1604612

Jeffery Todd Ulmer (Contact Author)

Penn State University ( email )

Department of Sociology
211 Oswald Tower
University Park, PA 16802
United States

Christopher Bader

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

Martha Gault

Baylor University ( email )

Waco, TX 76798
United States

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