Criminal Justice | Section 1.2: Roles, Objectives, and Limits in Criminal Justice

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

Section 1.2: Roles, Objectives, and Limits in Criminal Justice

Because the criminal justice system represents a function of the “state,” each of the Three Branches of Government has a role to play. Each branch has different responsibilities, thus each branch depends on the other to function properly. Keep in mind that each of these three branches of government exists on the federal, state, and local levels. Each of these levels of government dominates some aspect of the criminal justice system. Law enforcement is primarily a local government function, as are jail operations. Making criminal laws and operating corrections agencies is primarily a state function. The federal government duplicates all criminal justice functions on a national scale. Ultimately, prisons, jails, and corrections programs can be operated at all levels of government. In practice, one level of government tends to dominate each particular function within the criminal justice system.

The Role of the Legislature

The term legislature refers to lawmaking assemblies such as the Congress of the United States or the lawmaking bodies of all the states. Legislatures have many important functions in the criminal justice system. Perhaps the most direct function is that the legislature determines what acts are crimes and what the punishment is for particular crimes. They do this by enacting statutes. Official versions of the law that are organized by subject are called codes. Thus, when we refer to the criminal code (also called the penal code) we are referring to a collection of statutes that define crimes. In the dual federalist criminal justice system of the United States, state legislatures are the source of the bulk of criminal laws. Another crucial role of the legislature is to provide funding for criminal justice agencies and programs. Without funding, criminal justice activities would halt.

The Role of the Judiciary

The role of the judiciary in criminal justice is complicated by the hierarchical nature of the court systems. This hierarchy can be simplified by dividing courts into two major categories: trial courts and appellate courts. Trial courts adjudicate the guilt of people charged with crimes and impose sentences on those determined to be guilty. Hollywood leads to the conclusion that most criminal cases result in a trial by jury. This is substantially incorrect. The fact is that most criminal defendants who do not have their charges dropped prior to being formally charged will plead guilty. Most of those guilty pleas are a result of plea bargaining, an unglamorous but necessary process that takes place largely out of the public view.

Appellate courts are different in that they do not conduct criminal trials. Rather, then hear complaints raised by people who were not satisfied by their treatment by the trial court or some other aspect of the criminal justice system. The appellate courts can hear these complaints because they have the power of judicial review. Judicial review means that the appellate courts can review a law made by the legislature and determine if it meets constitutional standards. At the federal level, this means the standards set forth in the Constitution of the United States. At the state level, state appellate courts can determine if state legislatures have acted within the limits of that state’s particular constitution. If the high court determines that a law is unconstitutional, then the law becomes void.

Appeals courts also have the power to review the actions of government employees, such as law enforcement officers and correctional officers. The most important appellate court in the United States is the United States Supreme Court. The day-to-day activities of police officers, for example, are heavily influenced by Supreme Court decisions dictating how the police must treat suspects and evidence. Keep in mind that the United States has dual court systems due to the structure of the American government. In a later section, the differences between the state and federal court systems will be examined.

The Role of the Executive

The executive branch of government includes the offices of the president of the United States, governors of the fifty states, and the mayors of America’s many towns and cities. Often these individuals are directly responsible for many appointments within the criminal justice system. Mayors appoint chiefs of police in many towns and cities. Governors appoint law enforcement heads as well as correctional leadership. The president appoints federal judges, including those who sit on the Supreme Court.

The executive has a key role to play in setting criminal justice agendas and galvanizing public opinion. A theme that permeates any discussion of the criminal justice system is the use and misuse of discretion. The term discretion is used to indicate the power that agents of the criminal justice system have to make decisions based on personal judgments. At this point in the text, the discussion centers on discretion at the highest levels of government, and how that discretion influences the criminal justice system. 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 impact the lives of citizens.

Common Objectives

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (1993) has identified three common goals of every element of the criminal justice system. These are efficiency, effectiveness, and fairness. Efficiency means economically applying available resources to accomplish statutory goals as well as to improve public safety. Effectiveness refers to carrying out justice system activities with proper regard for equity, proportionality, constitutional protections afforded defendants and convicted offenders, and public safety. Fairness refers to justice issues such as assuring equal treatment and handling of like offenders and giving equal weight to legally relevant factors in sentencing. Fairness is of such great importance because it is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States under the catchall phrase due process. Note that the Supreme Court has focused on procedural due process as the ultimate measure of justice in the United States. That is, the system of concerned with everyone being treated the same as they are processed through the system. More often than not, the fairness of individual outcomes is of little concern.

The Constitutional Framework

No matter where you live in the United States, you are protected by two independent criminal justice systems. There is always the federal system as well as the system of the state. This means that at both the state and federal level we find those who enforce the law, those who adjudicate the law, and those who punish and rehabilitate offenders. While these broad goals are the same, the particulars are quite different.

The system is further complicated by the fact that most law enforcement in the United States is done on a local level. Thus, local officers are enforcing state laws. Offenders sentenced to a period of incarceration can serve their time in local jails or in state-run penitentiaries. The federal system is less convoluted in that federal agents investigate federal crimes, and federal prosecutors take those cases to federal courts.

By far, state and local government takes on the largest share of the criminal justice burden. As citizens, the local police departments and sheriff’s departments that serve us are whom we depend on to protect us from criminal harms.

The Nonsystem Argument

One of the most enduring debates about the criminal justice system of the United States is whether it is a system at all. The term system suggests components that work together to achieve some overarching goal. Critics argue that no such thing happens in American criminal justice. They argue that the police, courts, and corrections agencies act independently of each other with different financial resources and different goals and objectives. Many critics see a failure to organize around a central purpose, and thus we find that the criminal justice system is no system at all. This position is known as the Nonsystem Argument.


One common aspect of all criminal justice systems within the United States is the abundance of rules that govern criminal justice activities. These rules are hierarchical. The most important and enduring rules that must be followed by agents of the criminal justice system are those enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. Most of the safeguards of American civil liberties against intrusion by the government are contained in the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is the first ten Amendments to the Constitution.

After the federal constitution and the constitution of the states come federal and state statutes. The collection of federal statutes organized by topic is called the United States Code. States have criminal codes as well. There are also court rules established by the high courts that bind the lower courts as well as agents of the criminal justice system. At the federal level, these are known as the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. In addition to these various laws, there are agency rules and regulations that agents of the criminal justice system must follow.


Discretion refers to the authority the public gives agents of the criminal justice system to make decisions based on their own professional judgment. Discretion is necessary because formal rules cannot take into account every contingency criminal justice professionals encounter in practice. To function effectively, criminal justice professionals must make judgment calls. Discretion is called for when a police officer makes a decision as to whether to stop a motorist, question a suspicious person, issue a citation, make an arrest, or use deadly force. Prosecutors use discretionary powers daily in their work. Decisions must be made as to what to charge a person with, whether or not to offer a plea bargain agreement, and so forth.

Juvenile Justice

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 the age of seven. The idea was that very young children were not culpable because they lacked the capacity to understand the wrongfulness of their actions. After age seven, the infancy defense disappeared and children could face prison and even death. During the 19thcentury, 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. From the juvenile court statute adopted in Illinois in 1899, the system has spread to every State in the Union, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

Early reformers found the prospect of children receiving long 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 duty of the state 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 best interest of the child. Thus, from inception, the focus of the juvenile system was “treatment” or “rehabilitation.”

Key Terms

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

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Last Modified:  06/04/2021
APA Citation

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

This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License

3 thoughts on “Criminal Justice | Section 1.2: Roles, Objectives, and Limits in Criminal Justice”

  1. This article is very helpful as well because I learned a lot more about The Role Of Executive like how “the executive branch of government includes the offices of the United States, governors of the fifty states, and the mayors of America’s many towns and cities.”

  2. The section on Non System Argument was the most interesting part of this overall section because as someone who is aspiring to be an officer it shows that there will be many times where the courts will conclude very differently on a case and how sometimes its not a fully functional system that runs smoothly between the police, the courts, and corrections.

  3. This article was very helpful to me in understanding the laws in different perspective such as how laws really work and the different ways people understand them ,but also what are the correct ways of using them and also there meanings.

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