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Criminal Justice System

Structural And Theoretical Components Of Criminal Justice Systems, The Systems In Operation, The Importance Of Viewing Criminal Justice As A System

A criminal justice system is a set of legal and social institutions for enforcing the criminal law in accordance with a defined set of procedural rules and limitations. In the United States, there are separate federal, state, and military criminal justice systems, and each state has separate systems for adults and juveniles.

Criminal justice systems include several major subsystems, composed of one or more public institutions and their staffs: police and other law enforcement agencies; trial and appellate courts; prosecution and public defender offices; probation and parole agencies; custodial institutions ( jails, prisons, reformatories, halfway houses, etc.); and departments of corrections (responsible for some or all probation, parole, and custodial functions). Some jurisdictions also have a sentencing guidelines commission. Other important public and private actors in this system include: defendants; private defense attorneys; bail bondsmen; other private agencies providing assistance, supervision, or treatment of offenders; and victims and groups or officials representing or assisting them (e.g., crime victim compensation boards). In addition, there are numerous administrative agencies whose work includes criminal law enforcement (e.g., driver and vehicle licensing bureaus; agencies dealing with natural resources and taxation). Legislators and other elected officials, although generally lacking any direct role in individual cases, have a major impact on the formulation of criminal laws and criminal justice policy. Such policy is also strongly influenced by the news media and by businesses and public-employee labor organizations, which have a major stake in criminal justice issues.

The notion of a "system" suggests something highly rational—carefully planned, coordinated, and regulated. Although a certain amount of rationality does exist, much of the functioning of criminal justice agencies is unplanned, poorly coordinated, and unregulated. No jurisdiction has ever reexamined and reformed all (or even any substantial part) of its system of criminal justice. Existing systems include some components that are very ancient (e.g., jury trials) alongside others that are of quite recent origin (e.g., specialized drug courts). Moreover, each of the institutions and actors listed above has its own set of goals and priorities that sometimes conflict with those of other institutions and actors, or with the supposed goals and priorities of the system as a whole. Furthermore, each of these actors has substantial unregulated discretion in making particular decisions (e.g., the victim's decision to report a crime; police and prosecutorial discretion whether and how to apply the criminal law; judicial discretion in the setting of bail and the imposition of sentence; and correctional discretion as to parole release, parole or probation revocation, prison discipline, etc.).

Nevertheless, all of the institutions and actors in the criminal justice system are highly interdependent. What each one does depends on what the others do, and a reform or other change in one part of the system can have major repercussions on other parts. It is therefore very useful to think about criminal justice as a system, not only to stress the need for more overall planning, coordination, and structured discretion, but also to appreciate the complex ways in which different parts of the system interact with each other.

This entry describes the major components of contemporary American criminal justice systems, presents some of the available data on how these components typically operate in practice, and examines the various uses of the system concept. The entry will focus on aspects of criminal justice involving adult offenders and designed to enforce civilian criminal laws. There is, however, considerable overlap between the adult and juvenile systems. The police spend a substantial proportion of their time on juvenile suspects; serious juvenile offenders may be tried as adults; and juvenile court convictions (adjudications) may be taken into account in the sentencing of young adults.

Readers should also be aware that several legal regimes outside of the adult, juvenile, and military criminal justice systems can be used to impose serious deprivations of liberty and property (usually with far fewer legal safeguards than apply to criminal prosecutions). Of these, three deserve special mention. First, persons can be seized and detained, sometimes for lengthy periods, under the civil and administrative procedures used to enforce immigration laws. Second, state and federal law enforcement authorities often employ civil forfeiture procedures, permitting the confiscation of property alleged to be the fruit of criminal activity (for example, money earned from selling drugs) or to have served as an instrumentality of crime (for example, a car used to carry the drugs). Third, persons found to be mentally ill and dangerous to themselves or others are subject to involuntary civil commitment. Such a commitment can lead to indefinite confinement in a secure mental health facility that, from the inmate's perspective, is not much different than a prison. A number of states have expanded these procedures to make it easier to commit sex offenders who have completed their criminal sentences but who are believed to be too dangerous to release into the community.



Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law