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The American criminal justice system is a net work of government agencies and individuals whose purpose is to apprehend, prosecute, and punish criminal offenders, maintain societal order, prevent and control crime, and ensure public safety. Most criminal justice agencies and organizations that are responsible for these functions can be classified under three primary groups: law enforcement, courts, and corrections.
The term ‘‘system’’ implies that each group within the criminal justice network collaborates with one another to achieve a common goal. Although this is true in many respects, the criminal justice system resembles more of a loosely connected chain of individual entities that have separate and, at times, competing roles. For example, one of the responsibilities of law enforcement is to apprehend and arrest offenders, a function that operates on the crime control, or reduction of crime, model. Courts in the criminal justice system, however, operate under the due process model, which emphasizes fair application of the law and protection of individual rights. Individual entities within the system also frequently make significant decisions without consideration of how their decisions will impact the larger system. An aggressive driving while intoxicated law enforcement strategy, for example, can result in a high number of arrests. This decision can significantly affect the resources and case management capability at both the court and corrections stages of the system. Finally, the structure and organization of the criminal justice system vary widely among federal, state, county, and local jurisdictions. Acts which are classified as criminal violations in some jurisdictions may not be violations in others. A city prosecutor may endorse particular criminal justice policies that are not equally supported by the county prosecutor. In short, given the lack of coordination and consistency among individual entities, the criminal justice system is often referred to as a non system.
A common thread woven throughout the criminal justice system is the use of discretion, or individual professional judgment, to guide decision making. Not all persons who commit a crime can be arrested and processed through each stage of the criminal justice system. Therefore, criminal justice personnel in all levels routinely use discretion to make decisions on whether or how criminal offenders should proceed through the system. Law enforcement officers use discretion in deciding whether to issue a verbal warning or a ticket for a speeding violation. Prosecutors make discretionary decisions as to what cases to file with the court. The decision to release an inmate to parole is up to the discretion of the parole board members. While there is the potential for abuse (i.e., cases are disproportionately filed against a segment of the community, arbitrary application of the law), the system relies on discretion to operate efficiently.
Law enforcement serves several functions in the criminal justice system: preventing, detecting, and investigating crime, enforcing the law, protecting the public and property, apprehending and arresting offenders, and community service. Media images often depict law enforcement personnel as crime fighters who are regularly involved in high speed police pursuits, make large numbers of arrests, and routinely handle crisis situations. Contrary to these images, however, law enforcement officers spend most of their time gathering information for investigations and reports, maintaining order, establishing ties with community members, and providing services. Nationwide there are approximately 18,000 federal, state, county, and municipal law enforcement organizations. This estimate includes specialized law enforcement agencies such as university and college police, port authority police, and railroad police. In light of the increase in private security forces, many of which have some form of law enforcement powers, it is difficult to deter mine the exact number of organizations. Adding to the problem is the fact that there is little consistency among law enforcement agencies in terms of roles and responsibilities. Agencies can vary from one another according to mission, geographical area, community size, and community expectations. For example, a state high way patrol agency that focuses on enforcing motor vehicle laws plays a much different role in law enforcement than a sheriff’s department that is responsible for the county jail and local court security.
Entry into the criminal justice system begins when law enforcement officers make an arrest for a crime. Law enforcement officers rarely observe crimes in progress. Reports from victims, witnesses, or other citizens, or information from an investigation, are the main sources of crime reporting. Therefore, law enforcement officers rely heavily on their relationship with the public to perform their job. Law enforcement officers cannot arrest all citizens for all criminal violations, so they routinely use discretion to decide the best outcome for each situation. This outcome may involve hand ling criminal violations informally (e.g., verbal warning) or exercising other options besides arrest (e.g., transporting a homeless person to a shelter rather than making an arrest for loitering). Given their authority to decide who enters the criminal justice system, law enforcement officers are often called gatekeepers of the system.
After a law enforcement officer makes an arrest the case is presented to the prosecutor, who decides to either file formal charges against the defendant or not file charges and release the defendant. This action marks the transition into the courts stage of the criminal justice system. Law enforcement officers may additionally be called upon to participate in this stage by gathering more evidence for the prosecution’s case and/or testifying if the case goes to trial.
Many of the most significant decisions in the criminal justice system are made in the criminal courts. After an offender is arrested, the courts assume the responsibility of bail issues and proceedings, preliminary hearings, arraignments, pre trial motions, and plea bargains. At the same time, court personnel (prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges) make determinations as to whether a case proceeds through the criminal justice system, is removed from the system, or is referred to services outside of the system (e.g., treatment). Later phases in the court process establish the guilt or innocence of the accused, and the type of punishment, if any, a convicted offender should receive.
Courts in the United States operate under a dual court system, which encompasses both federal and state courts. Federal courts hear cases that fall within the federal government’s authority such as counterfeiting, money laundering, mail fraud, and kidnapping. In addition to one federal court structure, each state operates its own court system which differs by organization, procedural steps, rules, and constitution. In general, most states have three levels of courts in their judicial system: lower courts, trial courts, and appellate courts.
At the lowest level are courts of limited jurisdiction or lower courts. These courts typically hear cases on minor or misdemeanor offenses such as trespassing, theft, assault, and violation of city codes. Some jurisdictions have specific courts for traffic violations, family and probate issues (divorce, wills, child support), and small claims courts. Preliminary hearings for major civil suits and felony criminal cases may also be conducted in the lower courts. Cases generally move through the lower courts quickly and no detailed record of the proceedings is kept.
At the next highest level are the trial courts. Also called courts of general jurisdiction, criminal trial courts hear cases ranging from minor offenses to serious felonies. The purpose of the trial courts is to decide on matters of fact and evidence. Most courts of general jurisdiction also hear cases on appeal from the lower courts and have the authority to grant a trial de novo, or new trial. Under a trial de novo, the trial courts retry cases as if they have never been heard before. Although much of the media and public perception of what occurs in court proceedings is based on the trial court, most cases do not go to trial. Instead, the majority of cases are handled informally through bargaining between the primary court actors: the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney.
The highest level of courts in each state is called the appellate court, supreme court, or court of last resort. Some states have intermediate courts of appeal which review cases to be sent to the state’s supreme court. After a verdict has been reached in a trial court, either the defense or prosecution can appeal the case to the appellate courts. Unlike trial courts, however, appellate courts do not decide on facts and evidence. Rather, they review the written transcript from the trial courts to ensure the proceedings were fair and carried out in compliance with the state law. The highest federal appellate court is the US Supreme Court. Comprised of eight justices and a chief justice, the US Supreme Court hears a select number of cases on matters related to the federal statutes and the US Constitution.
Courts are also responsible for sentencing convicted offenders. Sentences can come in many forms including imprisonment, fines, restitution, community service, probation, and, in some cases, death. Several factors are taken into account in the sentencing phase. The pre sentence report (investigation conducted on an offender’s background to aid in sentencing decisions), for example, may reveal both mitigating and aggravating circumstances which impact the severity of punishment. Mitigating circumstances, or factors that may help reduce the offender’s degree of blame, can include a defendant’s admission of guilt for the crime, a defendant’s strong employment record, volunteer service to the community, and the willingness to compensate a victim. On the other hand, aggravating circumstances, or factors that increase the offender’s blameworthiness, are generally a previous criminal record, use of a weapon to commit the crime, cruelty to the victim, heinousness of the crime, and lack of remorse. Many states have some form of structured sentencing, mandatory minimum sentencing laws, or sentencing guidelines in which the judges’ discretion on how to sentence an offender varies. Sentences, like convictions, can be appealed to a higher court; most death sentences undergo an automatic review by the appellate courts.
Like many areas of the criminal justice system, the courts are overburdened. Consequently, given the high volume of cases presented to the system, courts are often unable to process cases in a timely manner. Suggestions to minimize the clogged courts consist of hiring more court administrators and personnel, scheduling night courts, alternative courts for specific offenses (i.e., gun courts, drug courts), and court ordered mediation, a form of alternative dispute resolution.
The corrections component of the criminal justice system is responsible for managing both defendants in pre trial detention and convicted offenders who have been sentenced by the courts. This includes maintaining secure facilities such as jails and prisons, as well as non institutional community based corrections such as probation and intermediate sanctions. Finally, corrections personnel monitor inmates who are released from prisons out onto parole.
Jails and prisons are the most common forms of incarceration in the United States. They are predominantly used for detaining offenders temporarily before trial and for housing inmates convicted of serious crimes who present too great a risk to be placed on probation. Although both jails and prisons house offenders, they differ in several respects. Jails are operated locally by municipal or county governments, and lodge inmates who have received short term sentences, generally a year or less, for misdemeanor offenses. Jails also serve as tem porary holding facilities for inmates awaiting bond, trial, or transfer to prison. Community based corrections including day reporting and electronic monitoring may also operate from jail facilities. Prisons, on the other hand, are operated by state or federal governments and house inmates convicted of felonies. Offenders can serve prison sentences ranging from longer than a year to life. Depending on the seriousness of the offense and risk to public safety, prisoners will be sent to facilities ranging in security levels from minimum, medium, to maximum.
While the organization and structure of jail and prison systems vary among federal, state, and local levels, all share the problem of inmate overcrowding. Prison overcrowding can result in ineffective prison management, behavioral problems among inmates, limited resources, and a reduction in rehabilitative program opportunities. Constructing more prisons, releasing inmates early, diverting less serious cases to intensive supervision probation, and contracting with privately owned prisons have been suggested to alleviate overcrowding. In addition to the problems associated with overcrowding, there are other concerns about special populations housed within correctional facilities. Inmates with sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, female prisoners, mentally ill, inmates with substance abuse issues, and the growing elderly population all create unique challenges to an already over loaded correctional system.
Most offenders convicted of less serious crimes are sentenced to some form of probation, which is the supervised conditional release of offenders into the community. Under probation, offenders must follow specific court ordered regulations or conditions which can require them to complete a substance abuse treatment program, obey curfews, meet regularly with a probation officer, and not associate with particular people (e.g., convicted felons). Probation can be revoked if an offender violates any conditions specified by the courts, is arrested, or convicted of a new crime. This means that, depending on the violation, offenders may be subject to further restrictive probation conditions, or possibly incarceration, for the completion of their sentence. Probation as a form of community based corrections is a viable alter native to correctional confinement in jails and prisons. It emphasizes keeping offenders in their communities and with their families, without experiencing the emotional and physical costs of incarceration.
Intermediate sanctions, which extend beyond simple probation, can be ordered for more serious offenders and can consist of intensive supervision (strictly supervised probation), day reporting centers, home confinement, and electronic monitoring. Community service, boot camps, fines, and restitution are also commonly used intermediate sanctions.
The supervised early release of an inmate from incarceration is called parole. Most states have parole boards that hold discretionary power to grant parole to offenders who have not served their entire prison sentence. In some jurisdictions, parole boards also have the authority to define conditions of release and revoke parole if appropriate. Factors for consideration in granting parole may consist of an inmate’s good behavior/disciplinary problems while incarcerated, seriousness of current offense, prior offenses, and acceptance of responsibility for actions.
Parole functions, in part, to transition inmates from an institutional environment back into society. Therefore, conditions of release may consist of working with a parole officer to find housing, enrolling in treatment centers, securing stable employment, and pursuing educational opportunities. Offenders who violate the conditions of release may have their parole revoked and be returned to prison to serve the remainder of their sentence.
Entry into the criminal justice system for both adult and juvenile offenders in many respects is very similar. An adult arrest or juvenile detainment initiates the system’s attention. Once in the system, however, juveniles are handled distinctly differently from adults. Unlike the punitive (punishment) approach in the adult system, the attitude toward youth in the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation (treatment).
The primary concern in the juvenile justice system is the well being of a child. Juvenile courts operate under the philosophy of parens patriae, which gives the state the power to exercise authority as a parent on the behalf of a child who may need protection. Further, in a juvenile court proceeding, judges consider both legal (e.g., seriousness of offense) and extra legal factors such as the situation of a child’s home life, school performance, potential mental health, and/or substance abuse issues in deciding the outcome of a case. Another contrast to the adult system is the prosecution of juveniles for status offenses, acts that are considered law violations only when committed by minors (juveniles). For example, truancy, curfew violations, running away from home, and disobeying parents are status offenses. Juvenile courts also hear cases on other matters specifically related to juveniles, such as neglect and abuse, adoption, and parental rights of children who are in the custody of the state.
A final distinction between the adult and juvenile system is the informal handling of most juvenile cases before reaching a formal adjudication (trial) hearing. At the intake or screening process in the juvenile courts, intake officers frequently refer youth to social service agencies or impose restitution, fines, or community service rather than move their cases to the court phase. Diversion, the redirection of juveniles from the court system to treatment and community services, is often implemented at this stage. The goal of diversion is to keep youths from entering juvenile court yet ensure that they remain accountable for their actions. Generally used for first time offenders who have committed minor offenses, diversion programs utilize a variety of options tailored for individual youth. Substance abuse treatment, counseling, restitution, letters of apology, community service, life skill development classes, and school attendance requirements are popular diversion program requirements.
Juveniles who receive a disposition (sentence) by the court may be required to live in non secure facilities such as foster homes, group homes, and halfway houses, or be sent to secure facilities such as reform or training schools. Juvenile offenders can also be assigned to community based corrections such as in home placement with intensive supervision, residential treatment programs, and probation.
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