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What is Penology?

By Kathy Heydasch
Updated May 16, 2024
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Penology is the study of the aspects of a society’s dealings with criminal behavior. This wide-ranging sociological science involves the analysis of the behavior associated with crime as well as society’s reactions to proposed and enacted punishments. Penology also studies the treatment of offenders within prison systems as well as types of probation. A penologist typically studies prisons and prison management.

There are two main aspects of penology, prisons and punishment. The study of penology and its relation to prisons can involve many topics, including prison reform, prisoner rights and prisoner abuse. The study of penology and punishment usually refers to the theories behind the motivation for crime. This includes analysis on crime deterrence, recidivism, and society’s opinion of how prisoners are treated and why.

Most people believe that it is important for some type of retribution or punishment for illegal acts to be present in order to maintain a civilization's sense of order. Penology studies where the line gets drawn in terms of how far a punishment goes. Not only does punishment need to be extensive enough to deter the committing of a crime, but it must fall short of cruel vengeance enacted by angry mobs.

The word penology has Latin roots, and the earliest recorded history of crime and punishment dates as far back as ancient Greece. Punishments have ranged from imprisonment to forced labor to death or dismemberment. Throughout world history, and even today, capital punishment and other harsh forms of retribution are debated topics. Some see severe penalties as a great deterrent for crime, and others can cite statistics which suggest otherwise. The United States remains one of the few modern countries in the world to utilize the death penalty, so it is a hotbed of controversy regarding human rights and capital punishment.

The treatment of prisoners is another area of controversy within the study of penology. Some feel that prisoners forfeit some or all of their human rights after they have been convicted of a crime. Still others feel that constitutionally-granted rights that apply to citizens of a particular country never get forfeited, even after a crime is committed.

In many parts of the world, penology has been based on historical texts, such as the Bible and the Qur’an. The extension of these scriptures has led to a theory of proportionality. This means that the punishment should fit the crime, so to speak. If a person is killed, some argue, then a life should be taken in return. Penology studies various definitions of proportionality.

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