Criminal Justice | Section 1.1: The Criminal Justice System

Criminal Justice: An Overview of the System by Adam J. McKee

Section 1.1: The Criminal Justice System

In reality, there is no one criminal justice system in the United States. There are many similar systems. Each state has its criminal justice system, and the Federal government has another still. This section considers how these various systems are composed by looking at the major components common to them all. Traditionally, the criminal justice system can be divided into three major components: Police, Courts, and Corrections.

It may seem that there is no real common thread to this system. In the United States, the thing that binds all of the components together and regulates them is the rule of law. Philosophically, the rule of law is the idea that every person is subject to the law, even those that make the law, interpret the law, and enforce the law. The most potent law in the United States is the Constitution of the United States. This body of laws provides all Americans with civil liberties that the government cannot violate. If a state law or a federal law violates any of these protections, then the law will be declared void. It is up to the appellate courts, most notably the Supreme Court, to interpret these laws and determine the exact nature and scope of specific civil liberties in the United States. Further, if an agent of the state or federal government violates a person’s rights, that person has remedies available. For example, citizens can sue government employees that violate their rights under Section 1983 of the United States Code. An important remedy in criminal justice is the exclusionary rule. The exclusionary rule was established by the Supreme Court to prevent police misconduct. The rule states that illegally obtained evidence (evidence obtained in violation of someone’s constitutional rights) cannot be admitted as evidence in court.


People tend to use the word police generically to indicate those individuals with law enforcement responsibility. The majority of these are municipal police officers, but there are many sheriffs’ deputies as well as state and federal agents that do not technically fit under the umbrella term “police.” It is important to realize that enforcing the law is only a small fraction of what the police do every day. They maintain order and provide many services to the communities they serve. The police also have the responsibility of investigating crimes, collecting evidence, and work with prosecutors to obtain convictions in court.

The police are often called the “gatekeepers of the criminal justice system.” This description is accurate because entry into the system requires formal action on the part of law enforcement. Police officers have incredible decision-making authority when dealing with citizens and suspects. An officer can choose to ignore an offense, issue a verbal warning, issue a written warning, issue a citation, or formally arrest the person. Of course, the seriousness of the crime plays a major role in how the police exercise discretion. An officer would not ignore or issue a citation to a person engaged in a serious felony crime.

The duties of police officers can be very general in the case of a patrol officer, or they can be very specialized, for example, in the case of a homicide detective. The level of specialization depends largely on the size of the agency where the officer works. Large, urban police departments tend to have more resources, more officers, and a higher degree of specialization. Despite this fact, the backbone of policing is the patrol division, and patrol is always a generalist function. The successful patrol officer is a jack-of-all-trades.


When law enforcement and prosecutors accuse a person of violating a criminal law, it is up to the courts to determine if the person did indeed violate the law. If so, it is up to the court to prescribe the appropriate punishment (within the scope of the sentencing laws in that court’s jurisdiction). Because the American legal system is adversarial in nature, there must always be two teams in any court case. In a criminal matter, a lawyer known as the prosecutor presents the government’s case. A major goal of the prosecutor is to see the defendant found guilty of the alleged crime. To use a sports analogy, the prosecutor is the offense. The defense attorney has the job of trying to show that the defendant is not guilty, or at least that defendants should not be accountable for their actions for some legal reason. To continue the sports analogy, the judge serves as a referee, making sure that both sides diligently follow the rules of the “game.” The jury is tasked with watching the game and deciding (at the end) who the winner is. In the Adult criminal justice system, all cases are adversarial in nature. This point will prove to be important repeatedly as the workings of the criminal justice system are examined.

In a jury trial, the jury serves as the finder of fact. The term finder of fact, in this case, means that the jury decides whether the defendant is innocent or guilty. In serious cases, the defendant has a right to trial by jury. It is allowable, however, that the defendant consent to a bench trial. A bench trial is a trial where the judge takes on the role of the jury as finder of fact.

The term courts, used as a general heading, covers a wide array of professionals. It includes defense attorneys (both public servants and private contractors), prosecuting attorneys, judges, and court staff.


Corrections is another umbrella term that is difficult to define because it encompasses so many diverse criminal justice activities. Corrections can include probationparole, jail, prison, and myriad community-based sanctions that are becoming more and more popular. Another problem with accurately defining corrections is a general disagreement about the philosophy of incarceration. Does society send people to prison as punishment, or for punishment? Do we expect prisons to punish or rehabilitate? Most people can agree on one thing: The public expects correctional institutions to ensure the public safety.

A discussion of corrections usually begins with jails. Jails are usually operated at the local level, most often under the leadership of a county sheriff. Jails hold several different classifications of prisoners. Jails are most commonly thought of as holding individuals that have been arrested and are awaiting a first appearance in court. Legally, these individuals are presumed innocent because they have not been proven guilty. Other jail inmates have been convicted of relatively minor offenses (misdemeanors) and (in most states) are serving sentences of less than one year. Other prisoners may have been convicted of serious offenses, and are housed in the local jail awaiting transfer to a state prison.

Persons convicted of serious crimes can be sentenced to a prison term. A prison is generally larger, more secure, and provides more services than a jail. The reason for these extra services is that prisons are designed for long sentences (relative to jail sentences). Prisons are most often run at the state level of government, but there are also many federal prisons.

Defining Justice

One of the overarching goals that brings the components of the criminal justice system together is that each is designed (in some way) to promote justice. Everyone has an idea of what justice is but pinning down a definition that will be widely agreed upon proves to be a challenge. There are several different ways of looking at the idea. One way to view justice is in terms of equality. In economic language, equality means that everyone gets the same amount, regardless of what they “put in.” Another perspective is to view justice in terms of equity. When viewed this way, it means that people get what they deserve. In terms of economic reward, those “just deserts” are based on how hard the person works. When it comes to harms done to society, many feel that “just deserts” means that criminal punishments should be in proportion to the harm done. This concept of just deserts in criminal justice has been referred to as retributive justice. The idea of wrongdoers being deserving of repayment in kind is known by the Latin phrase Lex Talionis, or the law of retribution. In its purest form, lex talionis is the Biblical doctrine of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” In today’s criminal justice system, the idea of retribution takes on the meaning of variable lengths of prison sentences.

Both of the above definitions focus on the outcome of an act to determine if it was just. Another way to look at the idea of justice is to examine the process. In other words, an act is just if it was done by means of a fair process. Justice viewed in terms of fair process is often referred to as procedural justice. This idea leaves room for debate as to what sort of processes are to be considered fair. Accessibility and predictability are common criteria. In the United States, the idea of procedural justice is closely tied to the idea of due process. In a philosophical sense, due process means that agents of the criminal justice system conduct criminal proceedings in a “fundamentally fair” way. In a practical sense, due process means that the state must respect all legal rights of accused persons. What criminal justice procedures are required under due process is a dynamic body of rules. These rules are most often judicial determinations of what exactly the Constitution means in practice. The idea of due process is represented throughout the Bill of Rights, as well as being specifically guaranteed by both the Fifth Amendment (applies to the federal government) and the Fourteenth Amendment (applies to state government). Throughout this text, these fundamental civil liberties will be discussed in the context of the different elements of the criminal justice system. Police, courts, and corrections must all observe the legal requirements of due process.

Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Note that the Fifth Amendment is constructed in the form of a very, very long sentence. Many different subjects are addressed in that sentence. This type of sentence construction is common in the Constitution. When lawyers and legal scholars want to point out a particular phrase within that long sentence, they refer to it as a clause. The text specifying that no person shall ” be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” is known as the due process clause. Some fundamental liberties are expressed in the constitution in this manner. Other rights, however, are not explicitly stated in the constitution. The due process clause is of critical importance to civil liberties because it stands in as a proxy for many other rights. The right to privacy, for example, is never specifically mentioned in the Constitution. Such a right exists, according to the Supreme Court, because it is a necessary element of fundamental fairness in the criminal justice system.

Key Terms

Adversarial (legal system), Bench Trial, Bill of Rights, Civil Liberties, Corrections, Courts, Crime, Criminal Justice System, Defendant, Defense Attorney, Discretion, Due Process, Due Process Clause, Equality (in Justice), Equity (in Justice), Exclusionary Rule, Fifth Amendment, Finder of Fact, Fourteenth Amendment, Incarceration, Individual Rights, Jail, Judge, Jury, Just Deserts, Justice, Lex Talionis, Parole, Police, Prison, Probation, Procedural Justice, Prosecutor, Retributive Justice, Rule of Law, Sheriff, Sheriff’s Deputies, Statute, Trial by Jury, United States Code 

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APA Citation 

McKee, A. J.  (2015).  Criminal Justice: An Overview of the System.  Booklocker.

9 thoughts on “Criminal Justice | Section 1.1: The Criminal Justice System”

  1. This article was very helpful in articulating my post for my class, thank you for helping me to organize my thoughts on this subject.

  2. I learned a lot of great information in this reading. It really helps me understand about the laws and rights.

  3. There was quite a bit of information that I did not know about. Such as section 1983, I didn’t know that you could sue Government employees.

  4. The article was very helpful to me by how it broke down the criminal justice system as not just being one system.

  5. Reading this article made me learn somethings I wasn’t really aware of such as real meanings of certain laws and also how we can all interpret laws differently but this helped me to understand the real meaning of the law and how its works.

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