The criminal justice system is a part of the government, which means that each of the three branches of government has a specific role to play. Each branch has different responsibilities but depends on one another to work correctly. It is essential to note that these branches exist at the federal, state, and local levels. Each level of government has control over some aspect of the criminal justice system.
The federal government is in charge of all criminal justice functions on a national level. Local governments are primarily responsible for law enforcement and operating jails, while state governments handle making criminal laws and running correctional facilities. It is possible to operate prisons, jails, and correctional programs at all levels of government. However, one level of government typically dominates each specific function within the criminal justice system.
The Role of the Legislature
The word legislature means groups of people who make laws, such as the Congress of the United States or the lawmaking bodies in all states. Legislatures have many essential functions in the criminal justice system. One of the most critical roles is determining what actions are considered crimes and what punishments should be given. This is done by creating statutes or official versions of laws organized by subject, known as codes.
When discussing the criminal code (also called the penal code), we refer to a collection of statutes defining crimes. In the United State’s dual federalist criminal justice system, state legislatures create most criminal laws. Dual federalism describes a system in which the powers and responsibilities of the government are divided between the national and state governments. Another significant function of the legislature is to provide financial support for criminal justice agencies and programs. Without funding, criminal justice activities would come to a halt.
The Role of the Judiciary
The judiciary plays a complex role in criminal justice due to the hierarchical structure of court systems, which can be divided into trial courts and appellate courts. Trial courts determine the guilt of individuals accused of crimes and impose sentences, but contrary to popular belief from Hollywood, most cases do not go to trial by jury. Instead, defendants usually plead guilty due to plea bargaining, a less glamorous but essential process that occurs mainly behind the scenes and outside public view.
Appellate courts serve a different purpose from trial courts because they do not conduct criminal trials. Instead, they review cases that are appealed to them after a trial court has made a decision. This process is known as judicial review. People who are unhappy with the outcome of their case can file an appeal to have an appellate court review the trial court’s decision. The appellate courts hear complaints from these people who were not satisfied with their treatment by the criminal justice system or the trial court.
One of the most significant powers of appellate courts is judicial review. Judicial review is the power to review laws made by the legislature and decide whether they align with constitutional standards. At the federal level, this means the standards outlined in the Constitution of the United States. The state appellate courts can decide whether state legislatures have acted within the limits of their constitution.
If the appellate court determines that a law is unconstitutional, it becomes void, and the law can no longer be enforced. In other words, the court has the power to strike down a law that does not comply with the Constitution. This power is essential in ensuring that laws passed by the government are in line with the principles and values enshrined in the Constitution.
If a person believes that a government employee has violated their rights, they can appeal to an appellate court to have their case reviewed. Appellate courts have the authority to review the actions of government employees, such as law enforcement and correctional officers. The appellate court will examine the case and determine whether the government employee acted within the bounds of the law and the Constitution.
The United States Supreme Court is the most important appellate court in the United States. The Supreme Court is the final authority on matters of federal law and can overturn decisions made by lower courts. The decisions made by the Supreme Court heavily influence the day-to-day activities of law enforcement officers. For example, the Supreme Court has issued rulings dictating how police must handle evidence, conduct searches, and treat suspects.
In the context of appellate courts, a decision refers to the ruling made by the court after reviewing a case on appeal. After reviewing the arguments and evidence presented by both parties, the appellate court issues a written opinion explaining its decision. Those written decisions become the law of the land, and is binding on the parties involved, and serve as legal precedent for future cases.
It is important to note that the United States has a dual court system. This means there are two separate court systems in the country: the federal and state court systems. The federal court system has jurisdiction over cases involving federal law or the Constitution, while the state court system has jurisdiction over cases involving state law. In a later section, we will explore the differences between the state and federal court systems in greater detail.
The Role of the Executive
The executive branch of the government is responsible for enforcing the laws of the land, including the President of the United States, governors of the fifty states, and mayors of various towns and cities in America. These officials often make appointments within the criminal justice system, which are crucial for shaping the system’s overall direction. For example, mayors appoint chiefs of police in many towns and cities, while governors appoint law enforcement and correctional heads. The President appoints federal judges, including those on the Supreme Court, who play a crucial role in shaping federal criminal law.
In addition to making appointments, the executive branch plays a vital role in setting criminal justice agendas and galvanizing public opinion. Public officials at all levels of government must work together to create policies that balance the interests of the public, victims, and defendants while maintaining law and order.
One key theme when discussing the criminal justice system is the use and abuse of discretion. Discretion refers to criminal justice system agents’ power to make decisions based on personal judgments. In the context of the executive branch, this refers to public officials’ power to make decisions that shape the criminal justice system’s direction. For example, the President can use executive orders to change federal criminal justice policies, while governors can use their power to grant clemency to offenders.
In later sections, the discussion will turn to how the use of discretion by officers in the field influences the operation of the system and impacts the lives of citizens. The discretion exercised by police officers, prosecutors, and judges can significantly impact how the system operates. It is essential to examine how these decisions are made and how they affect the lives of those involved.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (1993), the criminal justice system has three overarching goals: efficiency, effectiveness, and fairness. Efficiency means using the available resources most cost-effectively to achieve the system’s statutory objectives and improve public safety. This involves balancing the need to allocate resources to various system parts, such as law enforcement, courts, and corrections, to ensure optimal outcomes.
Effectiveness refers to carrying out criminal justice system activities to ensure equity, proportionality, constitutional protections for defendants and convicted offenders, and public safety. The system must weigh the competing interests of the public, victims, and defendants and balance the need to ensure justice with the need to protect the public from crime.
Fairness is also a crucial goal of the criminal justice system. It encompasses justice-related issues such as ensuring equal treatment and similar processing of similar offenders and considering legally relevant factors in sentencing. Fairness is crucial since it is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States under the concept of due process. Due process means that every person is entitled to fair treatment under the law, and their rights must be protected throughout the criminal justice process.
The Supreme Court has focused on procedural due process as the ultimate measure of justice in the United States. This means that the criminal justice system must treat everyone equally as they are processed, ensuring their rights are protected and respected. However, the fairness of individual outcomes is often of little concern since the system focuses narrowly on treating everyone equally and providing due process.
The Constitutional Framework
The United States has two different criminal justice systems that operate independently of one another: the federal system and the state system. Both systems enforce the law, adjudicate criminal cases, and punish and rehabilitate offenders. However, the specific practices and procedures can vary considerably between the two systems.
One of the challenges of the criminal justice system in the United States is its complexity. Most law enforcement is conducted locally, with local police officers enforcing state laws. This means that most criminal cases are handled at the state level, which can lead to variations in how the law is applied and enforced.
Offenders sentenced to serve time may do so in local jails or state-run penitentiaries, depending on the nature of their offense and the jurisdiction in which they were convicted. In contrast, the federal system is less complicated, as federal agents investigate federal crimes and federal prosecutors handle cases in federal courts.
Despite the differences between the federal and state systems, it is essential to note that state and local governments bear the brunt of the criminal justice burden in the United States. Citizens rely on local police departments and sheriff’s departments to protect them from criminal harm, and these agencies play a vital role in maintaining public safety.
The Nonsystem Argument
There has been a longstanding debate over whether the criminal justice system in the United States can be considered a true system. The term system implies that different parts work together in a coordinated way to achieve a common goal. However, some critics argue that the various components of the criminal justice system – such as police departments, courts, and corrections agencies – operate independently, with their own budgets, priorities, and objectives.
According to these critics, a lack of central organization and direction leads to a fragmented and disjointed approach to criminal justice. This has led some to conclude that the criminal justice system is not really a system at all but rather a collection of separate entities that do not work together effectively.
This viewpoint is known as the Nonsystem Argument, and it has been the subject of much debate and discussion in criminal justice. Some scholars and practitioners argue that the criminal justice system can function effectively as a system, with coordination and collaboration among different components leading to better outcomes for victims, offenders, and society. Others believe the system is fundamentally flawed and needs to be overhauled to serve the public’s needs better.
Despite these ongoing debates, it is clear that the criminal justice system plays a critical role in maintaining public safety and upholding the rule of law. Whether it can be considered an actual “system” or not, the different components of the criminal justice system must continue to work together to address the complex challenges of crime and justice in the United States.
The criminal justice system in the United States is governed by a vast array of rules and regulations that guide its activities. These rules are arranged in a hierarchy, with the most fundamental and long-lasting ones being those enshrined in the Constitution of the United States.
The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and it sets forth the basic structure and principles of the American system of government. The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, contains many of the protections for individual rights and civil liberties central to the American criminal justice system.
The United States Code is a comprehensive collection of federal laws organized by subject matter. Beyond the federal and state constitutions, federal and state statutes govern criminal justice activities. At the same time, individual states have criminal codes that set forth the elements of various crimes and their penalties.
In addition to these various laws, court rules govern the procedures that must be followed in criminal cases. The high courts establish these rules and bind lower courts and criminal justice system agents, such as police officers and prosecutors. At the federal level, these rules are known as the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. They cover everything from the process of obtaining search warrants to the procedures for conducting criminal trials.
Finally, there are also agency rules and regulations that govern the activities of criminal justice system agents. These rules are established by agencies such as the Department of Justice. They cover a wide range of topics, from the use of force by police officers to the conditions of confinement in correctional facilities.
Taken together, these various rules and regulations create a complex framework that guides the activities of the criminal justice system in the United States. While this system is not perfect, it is designed to ensure that the rights of all individuals are protected and that justice is served fairly and impartially.
Discretion can be a double-edged sword in the criminal justice system. On the one hand, it allows criminal justice professionals to use their professional judgment to adapt to specific situations and make decisions that best serve the public interest. On the other hand, it can be exercised in ways that are biased, arbitrary, or unfair ways, leading to unequal treatment of different individuals or groups.
For example, in the case of police officers, some people may worry that discretion could lead to profiling or racial bias. Suppose a police officer has the discretion to stop and search people based on their appearance or behavior. In that case, they may be more likely to target individuals from particular racial or ethnic groups, even if those individuals have not committed any crimes. This could contribute to the over-policing of particular communities and the disproportionate enforcement of specific laws against certain groups.
Similarly, prosecutors have significant discretion in the criminal justice system, including deciding whether to charge a person with a crime, what charges to pursue, and whether to offer plea deals. While this discretion can be used to promote fairness and justice, it can also be used to pursue political or personal agendas or to target specific groups of people disproportionately.
Therefore, criminal justice professionals need to exercise discretion responsibly, transparently, and with respect for the rule of law and the principles of fairness and equality. It is also vital for the public to hold these professionals accountable when their discretion falls short of these standards.
For much of history in the United States, children were treated the same as adult criminals. According to common law, the defense of infancy was available to children below age seven (Grisso & Schwartz, 2011). The idea was that very young children were not culpable because they could not understand the wrongfulness of their actions. After age seven, the infancy defense disappeared, and children could face prison and even death (Scott & Steinberg, 2008).
During the 19th century, society’s view of children began to change. People began to realize that children were not merely miniature adults. They were still developing cognitively and morally. This new view of adolescence spawned a revolution in juvenile justice and led to a completely separate way of dealing with youths that committed crimes. The Juvenile Court Movement began in the United States at the end of the Nineteenth Century. The juvenile court statute adopted in Illinois in 1899 has spread the system to every State in the Union, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico (Feld, 1999).
Early reformers found the prospect of children receiving lengthy prison sentences and sharing prison space with adult criminals appalling. There was also a conviction that the duty to children went beyond mere justice. The reformers believed that it was the state’s duty to step into the role of the parent when the parents either would not or could not correct the wayward child.
Unlike adults, children were considered fundamentally good. The ridged and cold adult system was not appropriate for children; both the substantive and the procedural criminal law had to be discarded in favor of a system that fostered the child’s best interest. Thus, from inception, the focus of the juvenile system was “treatment” or “rehabilitation.”
Bureau of Justice Statistics. (1993). Goals and functions of the criminal justice system. U.S. Department of Justice.
Feld, B. C. (1999). The Evolution of Juvenile Justice. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 90(3), 1091–1146.
Grisso, T., & Schwartz, R. G. (2011). Youth and the Criminal Justice System. Oxford University Press.
Scott, E. S., & Steinberg, L. (2008). Rethinking Juvenile Justice. Harvard University Press.
Appellate Court, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Code, Common Law, Congress of the United States, Constitution, Criminal Code, Decisions (courts), Dual Court System, Dual Federalism, Due Process, Effectiveness, Efficiency, Executive Branch, Fairness, Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, Hierarchical, Infancy Defense, Judicial Review, Judiciary, Juvenile Court Movement, Juvenile Justice, Legislature, Nonsystem Argument, Penal Code, Plea Bargain, Procedural Due Process, System, Three Branches of Government, Trial Court, Unconstitutional, United States Supreme Court
Last Modified: 07/13/2023
This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.