As the country grows more diverse, there are growing concerns about criminal justice. Some of these concerns are based on claims of police misconduct and injustices.
Despite the criticism, the underlying objectives of the criminal justice system remain largely unchanged. The focus is on promoting more understanding of new criminal justice initiatives like community policing and restorative justice paradigms.Origins
As societies became increasingly centralized and urban, formal systems of crime control emerged. Governments developed criminal laws, police agencies, courts and facilities for incarceration. They hired lawyers to defend citizens in legal proceedings and judges to apply the laws to specific cases. Governments also subsidized criminal defense programs and created prisons to rehabilitate offenders and make them productive members of society.
The decision whether to formally charge someone with a crime rests with prosecutors who form their determination by examining all the assembled evidence and a suspect's previous history. The decision to keep a suspect in custody and the severity of the charges depends on whether prosecutors believe they have a good chance of convicting him.
The criminal justice system is much larger than most people realize because when someone is convicted, it ripples throughout the entire society. Moreover, the way criminal justice is conducted reflects societal ideals, customs and political ideas. In the past, private citizens had to resolve conflicts through blood feuds and trial by ordeal.
If the recent rioting across America is evidence of anything, it is that our criminal justice system is rotten to its core. While this does not excuse the violence or fecklessness of government responses, it does provide context for the anger of many protesters and the skepticism about the legitimacy of current objectives in crime control.
While Americans are rightly proud of their prestigious and expensive system of criminal law, they are also occasionally exasperated by its numerous safeguards for accused persons. These include the high burden of proof in criminal trials, requiring "beyond a reasonable doubt to a moral certainty" and requiring unanimous jury verdicts to convict.
Criminologists have long emphasized the value of community policing and restorative justice programs. Whether these approaches represent innovations or merely return to earlier criminal justice pursuits, the important point is that they are based on the principle that the State has a responsibility to protect society by punishing offenders.
The function of criminal justice in a democracy is to use state- sanctioned violence to discourage conduct that threatens the fabric of civil society: murder, violent assault, theft, fraud. American police and prosecutors exercise extraordinary power over the lives of other people, including the power of life and death, and are among the least accountable in any country.
Those who work in the courts and other areas of justice must always keep in mind that they are serving the public, not themselves. They must be willing to be flexible, adapting to changing social conditions. They must also be willing to embrace new ideas and approaches, such as community policing and restorative justice.
In the 1970s, many Americans became dissatisfied with the role of law enforcement, arguing that it should take a more proactive stance toward community issues. This desire was reflected in a growing emphasis on police training and community engagement. However, this was overshadowed by the growth of mass incarceration as a result of policies and practices intended to reduce crime and drug abuse.
Among Americans, prevention is seen as the most important function of a criminal justice system. But the criminal justice system has many challenges that inhibit its ability to fulfill this function effectively, including budgetary constraints and societal problems that challenge its legitimacy.
The most serious is the overcriminalization of society that has occurred since the nation's crime rate peaked in 1992. The result is massive incarceration rates that are out of step with both crime trends and public opinion.
A new emphasis on the problem has revived the national dialogue about reform, with even self-identified Republicans indicating they now favor a more restorative approach to crime control. One challenge that is hindering progress is our feckless judiciary that turns a blind eye to prosecutor coercion that threatens defendants with the harshest possible sentences if they do not waive their right to a jury trial. This is a clear violation of due process, and our courts should be putting a stop to this.