American Sociological Association

Philadelphia Pioneered Worldwide Criminal Justice Systems

March 6, 2018

by Julie Wiest, West Chester University of Pennsylvania

Contemporary Philadelphia is known for many things: cheesesteaks, cream cheese, the Rocky movie franchise, that Always Sunny television show, and its many universities. In scholarly circles, it’s renowned as the cradle of American history. But the city—the site of the upcoming ASA 2018 annual meeting—is perhaps less known for its longstanding influence on criminal justice systems worldwide. 

Founded in 1787, the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons became the first prison reform association in the world. The late eighteenth century was an important turning point for American prisons, which were starting to be used for punishment after a history of mostly serving as temporary detention centers for those awaiting trial or sentencing. Until that time, punishments for convicted criminals mostly involved fines, physical pain, and public humiliation (e.g., whippings, the stocks or pillory, banishment, and capital punishment at the gallows). The reform group developed out of growing concerns over the model dominating U.S. prisons at the time. Known as the “New York system,” it was based on the traditional English workhouses and emphasized rehabilitation through hard labor. The Philadelphia reformers viewed the model as both inhumane and ineffective for rehabilitation. Thus, the group initiated an experiment the following year at the city’s Walnut Street Jail, establishing 16 solitary cells to test a theory that perpetual solitude would lead to deep personal reflection and genuine penance (hence, the term penitentiary). The idea was somewhat sociological, in that proponents of the “Pennsylvania system,” as it came to be known, believed criminal behavior was mostly a result of environmental factors. The notion that eliminating interaction among inmates would be the key to their reformation, however, seems to overlook the role of normative interaction in the resocialization process. 

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