Do moral communities play a role in criminal sentencing? Evidence from Pennsylvania

Jeffery T. Ulmer, Christopher Bader, Martha Gault

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)737-768
Number of pages32
JournalSociological Quarterly
Issue number4
StatePublished - Sep 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Do moral communities play a role in criminal sentencing? Evidence from Pennsylvania'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this