Criminal Justice Ethics

Criminal justice and ethics are closely related. According to social contract theory, the denizens of a country give up certain liberties to be protected by the government, and criminal justice professionals are agents of the government. Justice practitioners are expected to have a higher moral character, so that the common man can feel confident about the agents of the government that are affording them protections. Virtually all criminal justice professionals, be they police officers, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, correctional officers, probation officers, or parole officers, need to exercise the use of their discretion at some point or another during the course of their careers. Usually this occurs when practitioners are faced with specific ethical dilemmas, as opposed to taking a stand in matters involving broad ethical issues (Pollock, 2007). When discretionary decisions are guided by ethics, decisions can be said to be fair and just, because there are always shades of moral obligations that are higher than others (Souryal, 2006).

The awareness and importance of ethics in the field of criminal justice are increasing at a fast pace. This is because, as in virtually every other occupation, criminal justice officials also engage in unethical behaviors during the course of their 8-hour shifts. Every year there are practitioners who end their careers in disgrace by engaging in unscrupulous activities. This includes behaviors that are outright illegal, as well as those that have not been labeled as being criminal in nature. It is noteworthy that not every type of unethical behavior is necessarily illegal. In fact, criminal justice practitioners engage in many types of unethical behaviors that are not governed by the legislature and the court system.

Ethical Systems in Criminal Justice

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, “provided the first systematic study of ethics in the history of the Western world” (Albanese, 2008, p. 15). In this book, Aristotle proposed the ethics of virtue that is concerned with cultivating virtuous habits. Because Aristotle’s ethics of virtue was based on the cultivation of habits over time, it did not address the specific issue of ethical dilemmas and moral judgments (Pollock, 2007). There are several ethical systems that explain the ethicality of a moral judgment. Broadly put, the ethical systems can be deontological (nonconsequentialism) or teleological (consequentialism). A deontological ethical system is concerned with the inherent nature of an act, whereas a teleological ethical system is concerned with the consequences of an act (Pollock, 2007). Read more about Ethical Systems.

Police Ethics

There are two paradigms of policing and police ethics: (1) the traditional crime fighter role and (2) the more recent public service or community policing role (Pollock, 2007). In the United States, although crime control is the major role of policing, both paradigms can be seen. The public service paradigm is predominant in Europe. The public service paradigm can be identified with community policing, where the police are people’s friends, mingling with them in the community and aiming at social peace. The spirit of service is primary. The goal is to abide by the code of police ethics and be ideal protectors of the people, as expected by social contract theory. Under this paradigm, a criminal is viewed not as a member of a distinct group but as somebody from the neighborhood who has gone astray (Pollock, 2007). Read more about Police Ethics.

Court Ethics

Although police officers certainly engage in unethical behaviors, practitioners who work in the court also have the potential to act in an inappropriate or unscrupulous manner. This is because, to varying degrees, court personnel such as prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges have discretionary powers. When faced with ethical dilemmas, they can take decisions one way or the other, because moral obligations have finer shades (Souryal, 2006). Read more about Court Ethics.

Correctional Ethics

Although very little literature has systematically addressed the types of unethical behaviors in which correctional officers engage, at least a few studies have addressed these issues. One of the most common areas of ethical concern pertains to excessive uses of force that occur in penal facilities. Morris (1988) portrayed a classic depiction of abuse as he described the events that led up to the infamous 1980 New Mexico prison uprising. Morris gave a detailed account of the “goon squads” that were led by guards and designed to systematically abuse offenders as a means of achieving control. Ultimately, it was this informal control mechanism that was one of the major factors that led to one of the most devastating riots in American prison history. Read more about Correctional Ethics.

Probation and Parole Ethics

As previously mentioned, unethical acts are committed by employees in virtually every type of law enforcement endeavor. This is true even in the field of probation and parole, where employees are presumed to have one of the highest levels of education and job training (Souryal, 2006). Probation and parole officers have the potential to engage in many different types of unscrupulous behaviors. Read more about Probation and Parole Ethics.


Based on social contract theory, criminal justice professionals have been given a certain authority and power by the government, as its agents, to protect the inhabitants within a particular jurisdiction in exchange for a few liberties given up by these residents. This sets them apart from the general populace. Armed with the responsibility to guard the populace, criminal justice professionals are expected to have higher moral standards so that the people can trust them with the power they have to protect. Occasionally, instead of honoring the position and trust given to them, these professionals get distracted and use their discretion as they deem fit. This leads to a collapse of the social contract theory, often leading to disastrous consequences.

When the consequences of a decision are bad, the teleological or consequentialist ethical system does not support it. Oftentimes such decisions are motivated by personal gain following the ethical system best characterized as egoism. Because the essence of criminal justice is the service and protection of society, this is definitely at odds with the concept of egoism. The police officer, or the probation officer, or the judge who accepts bribes and gratuities, or engages in sexual relations with clients, begins his or her moral career that leads to higher forms of corruption and unethical behaviors (Pollock, 2007). Such corruption is engaged in solely for the purpose of personal gain and is condemned by most ethical systems, such as ethical formalism (deviating from duty), utilitarianism (not good for the majority), teleological (bad consequences), deontological (the act itself is bad), natural law (aimed at personal happiness rather than self-preservation), religious ethics (not supported by God), Plato’s summum bonum (against the principle of the ultimate good), Aristotle’s ethics of virtue (not a virtue or excellence), the Golden Rule (the corrupt would not want to be a victim of corruption), and the ethics of care (corruption does not show care). The only ethical system that justifies the unethical behavior of criminal justice professionals is egoism, which is focused on the self and happiness for oneself. Just as no act can be absolutely selfless (e.g., even charity gives self-satisfaction), no selfish act can bring ultimate happiness to the doer. As such, unethical behavior is going to cause more pain than pleasure in the long run, according to Bentham’s hedonistic calculus (Pollock, 2007).

On one final note, it is important to mention that there is at least one additional type of unethical behavior in which criminal justice professionals engage that can be explained as corruption for the good of the organization and not for personal gain. An instance of this might be an excessive use of force, as when a police officer tries to catch a crook by whatever means necessary or a when a correctional officer who uses it to teach a criminal a lesson. Another example could include a prosecutor who uses dubious evidence when he or she is convinced that someone has committed a crime and should not be allowed to be free. Even though these are guided by a noble cause—to rid society of the “bad guys”— such behavior might be problematic (Kleinig, 2008). Nevertheless, such corruption is often tolerated by individual departments. Other than civil litigation, the only way to check such unethical behavior within the agencies is to have ethical leaders who will not tolerate such actions by their subordinates. In sum, it is a matter of concern that unethical behavior is prevalent in all areas of criminal justice, be it among police officers, court personnel, or corrections officers. A strict adherence to the ethical codes, an ethical leadership, and a pride in their professions and the spirit it upholds are important steps toward addressing this issue.


  1. Abbott, K. (2002, December 5). Inmates, guards testify in sex trial. Rocky Mountain News, p. 22A.
  2. Albanese, J. S. (2008). Professional ethics in criminal justice: Being ethical when no one is looking. Boston: Pearson Education.
  3. Barker, T., & Carter, D. (1994). Police deviance (3rd ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.
  4. Barua, V. (in press). Accountability and transparency of the federal judiciary. The Criminal Law Bulletin.
  5. Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986).
  6. Bell v. Cone, 505 U.S. 685 (2002).
  7. Blood, M. (1996, February 26). Rikers is joining ranks of smoke-free prisons. The (Newark, NJ) Star-Ledger, p. 37.
  8. Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1863).
  9. Burdine v. Johnson, No. 99–21034 (5th Circuit, 2001).
  10. Carroll, T. (2005, September 16). Man alleges harassment, sues state. Juneau (Alaska) Empire, p. 1A.
  11. Clear, T. R., Cole, G. F., & Reisig, M. (2009). American corrections (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth.
  12. Close, D., & Meier, N. (2003). Morality in criminal justice: An introduction to ethics. Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth.
  13. Ex parte McFarland, 163 S.W.3d 743 (Tex. Crim App., 2005).
  14. Hales, D. (2005, August 24). Jail employees arrested for conspiracy to assault inmate. Muskogee Daily Phoenix and Times Democrat, p. A1.
  15. Hofer, P., Blackwell, K., & Ruback, B. (1999). The effect of federal sentencing guidelines on inter-judge sentencing disparity. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 90, 239–321.
  16. Holdaway, S. (1996). The racialisation of British policing. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.
  17. Hughes, J. (2002, December 5). Ex-colleague to tell of alleged trysts at prison inmate: Official seen having sex. Denver Post, p. B2.
  18. Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Project. (1996). All too familiar: Sexual abuse of women in U.S. state prisons. New York: Human Rights Watch.
  19. Irwin, J. (2005). The warehouse prison: Disposal of the new dangerous class. Los Angeles: Roxbury.
  20. Kauffman, K. (1988). Prison officers and their world. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  21. Kleinig, J. (2008). Ethics and criminal justice: An introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  22. Lucas v. White, 63 F. Supp. 2d. 1046, N. D. Cal. (1999).
  23. Maas, P. (1973). Serpico. New York: Harper.
  24. Mickens v. Taylor, 535 U.S. 162 (2002).
  25. Miller, S. L., Forest, K. B., & Jurik, N. C. (2003). Diversity in blue: Lesbian and gay police officers in a masculine operation. Men and Masculinities, 5, 355–385.
  26. Morris, R. (1988). The devil’s butcher shop: The New Mexico prison uprising. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  27. Pollock, J. M. (2007). Ethical dilemmas and decisions in criminal justice (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth.
  28. Reichel, P. (2002). Comparative criminal justice systems (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  29. Serrano, R. A. (2005, September 24). More Iraqis tortured, officer says the 82nd Airborne is accused of abuses in 2003 and early 2004. Los Angeles Times, p. A1.
  30. Silverman, I. J. (2001). Corrections: A comprehensive view. Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth.
  31. Souryal, S. (2006). Ethics in criminal justice: In search of the truth (4th ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.
  32. State v. Cardus, 86 Haw. 426 (1997).
  33. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).
  34. Toch, H. (2002). Stress in policing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  35. United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984).
  36. Walker, S., & Katz, C. M. (2008). The police in America: An introduction (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  37. Ward, R. H., & McCormack, R. (1987). Managing police corruption: Internal perspectives. Chicago: Office of International Criminal Justice.
  38. Welch, M. (2004). Corrections: A critical approach. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  39. Worley, R. M., & Cheeseman, K. A. (2006). Guards as embezzlers: The consequences of “non-shareable” problems in prison settings. Deviant Behavior, 27, 203–222.
  40. Worley, R. M., Marquart, J. W., & Mullings, J. L. (2003). Prison guard predators: An analysis of inmates who established inappropriate relationships with prison staff, 1995–1998. Deviant Behavior, 24, 175–198.