Criminal Justice System
The Importance Of Viewing Criminal Justice As A System
Although criminal justice, in practice, is often highly un-"systematic," it is still very useful to take a system-wide approach when seeking to better understand and more effectively respond to problems of modern criminal justice.
Understanding criminal justice practices. A systemwide approach facilitates better understanding of the many ways in which decisions at earlier and later stages of the process affect each other (President's Commission, p. 7). Earlier decisions, such as those involving prosecutorial screening or pretrial detention, often anticipate later ones (conviction and sentencing), and provide the essential "inputs" for subsequent case processing. Later decisions react to or overrule earlier ones, and in some cases provide new system inputs (for instance, when unreformed offenders are released back into the community, or appellate courts adopt rulings limiting or expanding police powers).
Systemic analysis also helps to avoid the serious distortions that can occur when selected aspects of system functioning are compared across jurisdictions (or in the same jurisdiction over time). For example, a simple comparison of the proportion of convicted assault offenders who receive a custodial sentence in two jurisdictions will yield very misleading results if these two systems have different rates of case screening in earlier stages; convicted assault cases in the jurisdiction with higher screening rates will usually have stronger evidence and more aggravated offense and offender details, which would help to explain higher custody sentencing rates observed in that jurisdiction (Frase, 2001).
System-wide analysis also reveals common policies and principles that apply at very different levels or stages of the process. For example, although issues of criminal law, sentencing, and criminal procedure are usually analyzed separately, it is useful to recognize the common values that underlie legal rules in several of these areas, such as the need to limit state power (especially physical brutality); concern for crime victims; the value of equal justice (but also of flexibility and local control); and the critical importance of defendant cooperation. Similarly, an examination of the reasons for case attrition at different stages (victim nonreporting; police and prosecutorial dismissal; sentencing leniency) shows that cases are usually dropped (or charged down, or punished less harshly) for three basic reasons: because greater severity appears to be legally or factually unsupportable; because a less severe alternative seems more appropriate; or because the offense seems too minor to justify stricter measures. This similarity suggests a surprisingly broad policy consensus, but also raises questions as to which actor(s) should implement these agreed policies. Finally, the pervasiveness of case attrition (and of the various discretionary powers that produce it) becomes clear when all stages of the system are examined. The magnitude of this attrition, across the entire system, has important implications for our understanding of the limits of the criminal law, and the purposes it can feasibly achieve.
There is, unfortunately, also considerable system-wide disagreement on major issues and, in general, a lack of agreed goals, priorities, and performance measures for the whole system. The police measure their success primarily by arrest and clearance rates (even if no conviction results), and secondarily by reported crime rates (even if many crimes are unreported); prosecutors "keep score" according to their conviction rates (even if large numbers of cases are dismissed or charged down); judges saddled with heavy caseloads sometimes keep score in terms of how quickly they can dispose of cases (by any means); elected prosecutors and judges are tempted to emphasize how "tough on crime" they are (whether or not "tough" means "effective"). Systemic analysis promotes recognition of these conflicting standards, and the impact such conflicts have on the performance of the system and its separate parts.
Evaluating criminal justice reforms and operations. Systemic analysis also helps in evaluating the merits of proposed reforms, and the consequences of reforms that have been adopted. One consistent problem of criminal justice reform, which results from the pervasiveness of unregulated discretion, is the tendency for changes in one part of the system to be nullified or greatly weakened by compensating changes in other parts. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the system "hydraulic"; like a full tube of toothpaste, "squeezing" one part of the system causes it to "bulge" somewhere else. For example, mandatory minimum sentence reforms are often undercut by charging or plea bargaining decisions that prevent many eligible offenders from being convicted of the targeted offense.
Reforms that create new, intermediate options (pretrial diversion; strict supervision before or after conviction; prison "boot camps") provide another good example of the need for careful, systemic evaluation. Although many such reforms are designed to reduce the use of more severe options, in practice they are more likely (for reasons of public and political safety) to be applied to cases that would otherwise have received less severe treatment—thus increasing, not decreasing, the budgetary and other disadvantages of severity, and greatly complicating the selection of matched comparison groups to evaluate offender impact (Zimring and Frase, pp. 349–387). A third example of the value of systemic analysis is its ability to identify strong linkages between existing practices that may preclude a particular reform, or show that it is unnecessary. Thus, an American state may not wish to adopt the narrower, more flexible exclusionary rules found in many civil law systems if such rules depend on other practices—stricter police discipline or closer prosecutorial oversight of the police—which that state would be unable or unwilling to emulate (Frase, 1990, pp. 550, 553–564). Conversely, to the extent that civil law systems employ these compensating police and prosecution safeguards, they may have less need to adopt broader American exclusionary rules.
Beyond the assessment of specific reforms, the system concept underscores the need for system-wide planning and coordination, particularly of information systems. American criminal justice is highly balkanized; although planning agencies exist in many states and some local jurisdictions, it is rare that any agency has a mandate (and budget) to engage in detailed planning for all, or even many, components of the system. One notable exception is found in states with sentencing guidelines monitored by a permanent sentencing commission (Frase, 2000, pp. 70–71). Such commissions usually have members representing all major public and private agencies and interests involved in sentencing, and have the legal authority and resources to take a long-term, multiagency view of sentencing issues. Similar multiagency, criminal justice coordinating councils have existed in some metropolitan areas (National Advisory Commission, pp. 32, 35).
System analysis also encourages legislators and other criminal justice policymakers to keep the various components of the system in proper balance. This is particularly important in three areas:
Balancing the powers of the various sentencing agencies. The legislature, sentencing commission and parole board, prosecutors, defenders, courts, and corrections officials all share power over sentencing decisions, and thus serve as a check on each other (Frase, 2000). Reforms such as mandatory minimum sentencing tend to unduly concentrate power in the legislature and the prosecution (Reitz, pp. 396–398).
Balancing the funding provided to different agencies and levels of government. Funding for some agencies, especially courts and defense services, is less popular and tends to lag behind funding for the police and prosecution. States often pass criminal laws imposing unfunded mandates on local systems. Conversely, local judges have no direct stake in allocating scarce state resources, and thus are tempted to send too many offenders to state prison (the "correctional free lunch"; Zimring and Hawkins, p. 140).
Balancing short-term and long-term perspectives. As much as we may hate criminals, it is in our long-term interest to help them, since almost all of them return to the community (usually after only a few months or years). Moreover, extremely long custodial sentences, although politically popular and satisfying today, impose substantial added costs far in the future, when the benefits (e.g., of confining "geriatric" inmates) may be slight or even negative. As for shorter custodial sentences, these may be cheaper than noncustodial alternatives in the near term, but more expensive in the long run (the marginal cost of confining one more inmate is usually small, while noncustodial alternatives take time and money to set up).
Application of the system concept to criminal justice research and evaluation has many advantages. But the complexities and contradictions of modern criminal justice systems will always pose a challenge to those seeking to improve the design and operation of these systems. Perhaps the greatest problem is that few researchers, and almost no officials or private citizens, have a stake in studying, improving, and explaining the whole system. This lack of systemwide experts and defenders helps explain (along with conflicting goals and values, poor coordination, and chronic funding shortages and misallocations) why these systems are so often maligned and misunderstood. Officials and other actors in each system, as well as researchers, must try to do a better job of understanding—and explaining to the public—the system's purposes, values, and operations.
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