Criminal justice policy is an extremely important concept that underpins all notions of democracy, law and order, and justice across the United States.
The system that we recognize and rely on today is the result of hundreds of years of change, evolution, and, increasingly, structuralization.
In its earliest form, the criminal justice system of the United States was based on religious doctrine, and took the form of colonial crime code, with small courts and biblical crime codes spawning the first notion of the criminal justice policy.
Over the years, changes to society and law and order, increasing urbanization and growing populations have forced enormous change, and these changes have added and tweaked the concepts until we reached the hugely complex, multifaceted entity that we recognize today.
We now have local, state, and federal laws, a separation of offenses based on severity, and a criminal justice policy that comprises thousands of individual systems, each with its own unique jurisdiction at the city, county, federal, and even military level.
The Criminal Justice System
In order to obtain a better understanding of the purpose of criminal justice policy, it is worth taking a moment to consider the criminal justice system itself; this is the element that underpins the wider criminal justice policy and is based on the needs of society.
There are three major elements of the criminal justice system: law enforcement – such as police – courts (including judges, juries, prosecution, and defense attorneys), and corrections.
Each of these divisions can function independently, or come together for wider collaboration.
The main goals of the criminal justice system are to try and prevent and reduce crime, protect the public from criminal activity, offer support and assistance to the victims of crimes, make sure that perpetrators are held responsible for the crimes that they commit, and help offenders to return to society, rehabilitated as decent, law-abiding citizens.
The process goes through a number of steps, starting with the crime, and working up to corrections.
The first major element of criminal justice is law enforcement, and this promotes law, order, and safety to protect the public.
The job of law enforcement officers is to investigate any suspected criminal activity, and refer the suspected criminals to stage two – the court system. Law enforcement works at three levels: federal, state, and local, and each level works relatively independently.
Federal Law Enforcement
Federal branches of law are managed by the Department of Justice, which upholds federal law enforcement via the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the US Marshals Service.
The federal government usually steps in in situations where local and state law enforcement lack jurisdiction, and this is typically when a crime is committed on federal property.
State Law Enforcement
State law enforcement is usually responsible for providing and overseeing the duties and services of highway patrol and the state police, and each state will also have an attorney general – this is the department responsible for handling both civil and criminal detective work.
Essentially, attorney generals are the state-level equivalent of the FBI.
Local and Municipal Law Enforcement
The majority of citizens will be most familiar with local and municipal law enforcement, and this branch will have jurisdiction over a specific city, county, or local community. Local law enforcement branches are typically under the command of a chief of police, followed by a combination of assistant chief, deputy commissioner, colonels, inspectors, officers, and other law enforcement professionals.
Court and Legal Systems
Just as with law enforcement, the criminal justice system of the United States operates at both federal and state levels, and these remain independent of one another. The two court systems are primarily defined by the jurisdiction that they serve, and the types of cases that they hear.
State courts have a broad jurisdiction and cover the majority of both civil and legal cases. They will also typically hear cases that involve broken contracts, traffic violations, and family disputes, and will also hear about cases involving criminal activities, such as robbery or assault.
There are three main tiers here:
- Trial courts: these include municipal courts, covering traffic courts, preliminary felony hearings, and misdemeanors, county courts, covering probate law, family law, and violations of city ordinances, and state trial courts, covering major felonies, property disputes, family law, and probate.
- Appellate courts: these are used when the losing party has an issue with the decision of a trial court and uses transcripts, exhibits, and case documents to either affirm or reverse the original decision. The case can also be sent back to the trial court.
- Supreme Court: The Supreme Court is a final option for those who are unhappy with the result of the Appellate court. The court will decide whether or not to hear the case, and their decision is final.
Federal courts will hear cases in which the US is a legal party – this is primarily cases that focus on Constitutional violations and federal law, or cases in areas such as patent, maritime, and copyright law, as well as bankruptcy. Once again, there are three tiers of operation – trial courts, appellate courts, and the Supreme Court.
No matter the level, all courts in the US will work with law enforcement and correction agencies to decide whether or not a case should be heard, gather testimonies, determine sentencing and carry out pre-sentencing investigations.
The third link in the criminal process chain is the corrections system, and this has a number of functions, including separating criminal populations, promoting the rehabilitation of offenders, and enacting punishment for those who have committed crimes.
The corrections system includes a range of systems at the state and federal levels, both of which act independently, and which serve to incarcerate criminals, handle parole and probation, and facilitate community service.
The Criminal Justice Process
The criminal justice process has a number of steps, each of which is designed to facilitate the administration of justice.
Entry Into The System
Whenever someone commits a crime, the criminal justice process kicks into action, and this can occur when law enforcement responds to a call about a crime, or witnesses a crime directly.
They will then head to a scene and complete a crime report, which includes speaking to victims and witnesses and logging details about the location, time, and details of the incident.
This is the foundation upon which the rest of the investigation is built, and the arrest can depend on this. The information collected here can also determine the people who are called to testify, as well as the sentencing process.
Once the crime report is completed, law enforcement will start the next stage of the process -this can be a citation, giving the suspect a date to appear in court, or an arrest. If neither of these things happens, officers will start an investigation, attempt to identify a suspect, and collect enough evidence to warrant an arrest – this can be circumstantial or direct evidence.
Prosecution and Pretrial
The next stage starts with a court prosecutor deciding to formally charge an individual with a specific crime – they will make this decision using evidence, and by analyzing the criminal history of the suspect.
The prosecutor must find the suspect guilty beyond all reasonable doubt to charge, and charges are required to determine the severity of the crime in question – for example, manslaughter versus murder.
Once charges are made, a hearing occurs within 72 hours, and will involve arraignment. Here, the court officially informs the defendant of their charges and their legal rights, and the defendant enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, and, in some places, no contest. A guilty or no contest plea moves the process to sentencing, and a plea of not guilty moves the case to trial.
In some situations, the case will end here, if a plea agreement can be reached – this involves the defendant pleading guilty to one or more charges, in exchange for a reduced sentence. In some cases, some charges can be dropped altogether.
If a plea arrangement is not reached, defendants can opt for a jury trial or a bench trial – the latter tends to be more popular.
During the trial, both defense and prosecution present their arguments to the court, and witnesses are called to be cross-examined, and testify. The judge or jury will then decide on a verdict: a not guilty verdict sees the suspect released, while a guilty verdict moves the process onto sentencing.
Sentencing and Corrections
If the defendant is found guilty, a judge will set the sentence – this can be determined by the United States Sentencing Commission, or statements can be considered from the defense, the prosecution, and the victims.
Judges may also consider the maximum and minimum punishments that have been established by Congress for these offenses. Sentencing may involve jail time, parole or probation, fines, or financial restitution for victims.
The Criminal Justice Policy
Now that we have a better understanding of the criminal justice system, the real question is just what is the purpose of the system?
According to the excerpts, the criminal justice system aims to deliver justice for all – this is achieved by convicting and punishing those who are guilty while helping them to stop offending, as well as protecting those who are innocent.
Understanding the criminal justice policy requires more than simply memorizing a definition – it is also important to understand the structure and history of the entire system.
Only by understanding why we have the system that we do can we understand the purpose and intention of it, and the way in which it impacts every aspect of our lives.