Criminal Justice System

It comes as no surprise to most criminologists that the U.S. criminal justice system is not an effective tool in preventing crime. One reason for this lies in the uncoordinated structure of the system itself. As Barkan and Bryjak note in Fundamentals of Criminal Justice, “the U.S. criminal justice system is only partly a ‘system’ as usually defined. ‘System’ implies a coordinated and unified plan of procedure. Criminal justice in the United States is only partly coordinated and unified . . . the U.S. criminal justice system is really thousands of systems” (p. 7). Another reason the criminal justice system is largely incapable of preventing crime is that law enforcement, courts, and corrections are reactive institutions; they respond to crimes already committed rather than addressing the root causes of criminal behavior before they fester into crime. This is not a condemnation of the efforts of law enforcement or corrections officers: the criminal justice system simply does not have the resources, expertise, or capabilities to deal with most predictors of criminal behavior.


U.S. Criminal Justice System

  • Arts Programming
  • Capital Punishment
  • Community Corrections
  • Crime Prevention Programs
  • Criminal Courts
  • Criminal Justice Ethics
  • Criminal Law
  • Criminal Careers
  • Drug Courts
  • Drugs and the Criminal Justice System
  • Felon Disenfranchisement
  • Forensic Science
  • Juvenile Court
  • Juvenile Justice
  • Mass Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice
  • Offender Classification
  • Police–Community Relations
  • Prison System
  • Prisoner Reentry
  • Problem-Solving Courts
  • Public Health and Criminal Justice
  • Racial Profiling
  • Restorative Justice
  • Sentencing
  • Street Gangs
  • The Police
  • Victim Services
  • Wrongful Convictions

U.S. Criminal Justice System

Arts Programming

The first conference that looked at the use of arts in the criminal justice system was held in 2007. This is indicative of a young but growing movement that attempts to create positive intervention strategies using nontraditional methods. Foremost among these efforts is the utilization of visual, tactile, and performing arts as a means to reach and teach people who have either been arrested or incarcerated. These efforts have ample anecdotal evidence behind them but limited quantitative research to support their efficacy. This research paper describes the growth and development of the use of arts as an intervention strategy, what the research does and does not tell us, and where the next steps may be. Read more about Arts Programming.

Capital Punishment

At one level, capital punishment, or the death penalty, is a minor issue. The media keep the public aware of all sorts of horrible crimes, but relatively few people are directly affected by those crimes, either as perpetrators or victims, or as family and friends of perpetrators and victims. Very few people are sentenced to die for their crimes, and still fewer people are ever executed. At another level, capital punishment represents two profound concerns of nearly everyone: the value of human life and how best to protect it. For most people who support capital punishment, the execution of killers (and people who commit other horrible acts) makes sense. Death penalty supporters frequently state that executions do prevent those executed from committing heinous crimes again and that the example of executions probably prevents most people who might contemplate committing appalling crimes from doing so. In addition, many death penalty supporters simply believe that people who commit such crimes deserve to die, that they have earned their ignominious fate. Read more about Capital Punishment.

Community Corrections

Out of the nearly 7 million people currently on correctional supervision in the United States, only 30% of them are incarcerated in jail or prison. The remaining 70% of persons who have had contact with the criminal justice system are supervised within the community. This research paper discusses community corrections, which is defined as a court-ordered sanction in which offenders serve at least some of their sentence in the community. Three assumptions rest behind the idea of community corrections. First, most people who break the law are not dangerous or violent. The vast majority of offenders have violated a law that requires that they be held responsible through some sort of injunction or punishment, but most do not need to be locked away from the community. Keeping the offender in the community can be effective if the offender is able to maintain employment obligations and family relationships and to attempt to repair harm he or she caused the community or an identified victim—all of this at a reduced cost to taxpayers. Read more about Community Corrections.

Crime Prevention Programs

As described by Michael Tonry and David Farrington (1995), criminal justice prevention refers to traditional deterrent, incapacitative, and rehabilitative strategies operated by law enforcement and criminal justice system agencies. Community prevention refers to interventions designed to change the social conditions and institutions (e.g., families, peers, social norms, clubs, organizations) that influence offending in residential communities. These interventions target community risk factors and social conditions such as cohesiveness or disorganization. Situational prevention refers to interventions designed to prevent the occurrence of crimes by reducing opportunities and increasing the risk and difficulty of offending. Developmental crime prevention refers to interventions designed to prevent the development of criminal potential in individuals, especially those targeting risk and protective factors discovered in studies of human development. The focus in this research paper is on developmental or risk-focused prevention. Read more about Crime Prevention Programs.

Criminal Courts

When most people speak of the law, they are probably referring to a body of rules of conduct that has been written down. This is what is known as the substantive law. The law, however, can also refer to the systems and persons that have the authority to put the substantive law into practice. The law may also mean many other things to many people. Quinney (1974) believes the law serves the needs of those in the ruling class. Others believe the reverse is true: The law serves as a means for those not in the ruling class to challenge the existing status quo. The law can be both and may at the same time be seen as liberating to some and oppressive to others. Throughout U.S. history, the law has been used to both enable and eliminate slavery and to control and liberate women, and it has served to both convict and acquit those accused of crimes, regardless of whether they were guilty or not. Whatever the law has meant at various times to various people, the criminal courts are both the institution and the structure that bring these ideas of the law to life. Without the courts and criminal procedures, and without legal actors, the law could not function to do any of the above. Read more about Criminal Courts.

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. 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. Read more about Criminal Justice Ethics.

Criminal Law

Criminal law is the area of law that deals with crimes and their respective punishments. Like other laws, criminal law has evolved over hundreds of years and remains in a constant state of flux (McClain & Kahan, 2002). Today, modern criminal law is merely the culmination of a great many influences. Those influences are as old as the traditional common law or as current as the Model Penal Code (Low, 1998). These influences tend to increase and decrease over time. In time, new laws will be adopted and old laws will be repealed (Frase, 2002). However, there is one overarching principle that remains constant: The goal of all criminal laws is the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of society. Read more about Criminal Law.

Criminal Careers

Since early in the study of crime, criminologists have been interested in the taxonomic identification of offenders. This interest dates as far back as the research of Lombroso, which attempted to define “born criminals” based on certain individual physical and psychological features. More recently, the study of criminal careers has brought renewed interest to whether, and to what degree, criminal offenders might concentrate, or “specialize,” in particular offense types. This gives rise to questions as to whether certain offenders engage predominantly, or exclusively, in drug offenses only, sex offenses, violent offenses, and so on. In short, research on specialization asks, can offenders be placed in distinct categories defined by their focus on particular types of crimes? Read more about Criminal Careers.

Drug Courts

Drug courts are the most successful innovation to address the treatment needs of substance-abusing offenders. After their launching in 1989 by the Dade County, Florida, local prosecutor, Janet Reno (U.S. Attorney General, 1994–2000), the number of drug courts has proliferated to nearly 800 adult treatment courts and another nearly 1,200 problem-solving courts. The innovation alters how the court handles sentencing and monitors the case, and it integrates treatment into the primary goal of the sentence. Drug courts provide a seamless system of care involving the judge, treatment agencies, probation/parole agencies, prosecutors, defenders, and other actors in the criminal justice system that are central in assisting offenders in achieving sobriety. This model provides a different framework for handling the drug-involved offender, including the recognition that sobriety is a process where decreased drug use occurs over a period of time. The use of drug testing, treatment, and sanctions also provides for an avenue to modify the existing process for handling offenders with substance abuse disorders. Read more about Drug Courts.

Drugs and the Criminal Justice System

Drugs have had a major impact on the criminal justice system for decades. Each year since 1996, more people have been arrested on drug charges than for any other single offense. If one were to include arrests specifically for alcohol (driving under the influence [DUI], liquor law violations), then nearly one third of all arrests have been directly related to alcohol or illicit drugs. If one were to count robberies, burglaries, and assaults conducted under the influence of alcohol or drugs, then it could be said with confidence that no other factor has demanded so many criminal justice resources or has caused communities so many problems. To understand the current situation, it is helpful first to look back to the beginning when drug abuse first came to be defined as a criminal justice problem. Read more about Drugs and the Criminal Justice System.

Felon Disenfranchisement

In general usage, the term felon disenfranchisement refers to the restriction of voting rights for convicted felons. Broadly speaking, felon disenfranchisement is a part of a larger category of collateral civil consequences, both formal and informal, that affect the status of convicted offenders, including residential restrictions, gun ownership bans, financial benefit exclusions, lost employment opportunities, decreased status, and social stigma. A felon is an individual convicted of an offense that typically carries a maximum penalty of at least 1 year in jail. Although almost all (48 out of 50) American states have felon disenfranchisement laws, these policies have become increasingly controversial in terms of their impact on elections. For example, Manza and Uggen (2006, p. 191) estimated that the exclusion of felons from voting provided “a small but clear advantage to Republican candidates in every presidential and senatorial election from 1972 to 2000” (p. 194). Specifically, they asserted that Democratic candidates would likely have prevailed in Texas (1978), Kentucky (1984 and 1992), Florida (1988 and 2004), and Georgia (1992; Uggen & Manza, 2006). Read more about Felon Disenfranchisement.

Forensic Science

For many Americans, the word forensics evokes a cascade of vibrant imagery that entails crime and intrigue. It is a buzzword for DNA, bite marks, bullet wounds, fingerprints, autopsy, gore, death investigations, semen stains, and rape kits. This, however, is only a small part of a much larger picture. Forensics itself is extremely broad—it is the application of the scientific method to assist the law. This can mean almost anything— accountants who perform analysis to assist the courts are forensic accountants; computer enthusiasts who hack into the hard drives of sexual predators are forensic computer technicians; physical anthropologists who study bones in a legal investigation are forensic anthropologists. The field of forensics is growing, and the list becomes even longer as more divisions of labor and specialization occur. With this large influx of experts in fields that expand with technology and multitudes of new techniques, it is amazing that the courts can even keep up. Read more about Forensic Science.

Juvenile Court

As therapeutic legal institution, the juvenile court balances rehabilitation and justice for America’s youth who are at risk for harm or have violated the law. The juvenile court was founded in 1899 in Chicago with the goal of rehabilitating wayward youth. Although the methods of rehabilitation, or treatment, have changed over time, it is a goal that remains central to the function and legitimacy of the juvenile court. Treatment encompasses many different means of attending to the needs of delinquent or neglected youth: psychological supervision, medical services, behavioral management, educational needs, and restitution to victims or the community. Despite treatment being the fundamental goal, juvenile courts recently have become more criminalized because of concerns about fairness; that is, they are more like adult criminal courts. Examples of criminalization include an increased use of determinate outcomes and more adversarial proceedings. Read more about Juvenile Court.

Juvenile Justice

Juvenile justice is barely over 100 years old but has undergone a range of transformations. It began by introducing a new philosophy of parens patriae into the handling of youthful offenders and has since been transformed into a hybrid of the new philosophy and the due process approach of the adult criminal justice system. Today, juvenile justice is still seeking out its appropriate form and place in society. While it is unlikely to totally disappear anytime soon, it is unknown exactly what it will look like in the future. Read more about Juvenile Justice.

Mass Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice

Crime and justice issues have been a stable fixture of mass media portrayal of American society. From the 1920s onward, crime appeared very frequently in tabloid journalism, especially in the context of photographic accounts of crime scenes. Since television became popularized in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, crime has been featured extensively on television programming, including both entertainment and news programming. In terms of local television news, coverage of crime has intensified as local stations have shifted to “eyewitness” and “action news” formats (which rely on live, from-the-scene footage) beginning in the 1970s (Lipschultz, & Hilt, 2002). Crime also occupies a prominent position on many of the “infotainment”-oriented cable news network programs (on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC) that infuse entertainment elements with news elements. Read more about Mass Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice.

Offender Classification

The origins of offender classification, which is essentially the examination of how offenders differ from one another, can be traced to a typology presented by Cesare Lombroso in his 1876 work entitled Criminal Man. Development of structured instruments for ranking offenders according to risk began in the 1920s, when researchers such as Burgess (1928) explored the utility of statistical methods to distinguish between violators and non-violators among prisoners paroled from state prisons. Though numerous practitioners, criminologists, and forensic psychologists advanced classification research following this time, it was not until the 1980s that formal, structured classification became widespread practice in corrections. Three factors—the discovery that a relatively small proportion of offenders contributed disproportionately to the crime problem, successful inmate litigation calling for improved conditions of confinement in state prison systems, and heightened sensitivity of the public to new crimes committed by offenders released back into the community—accelerated the development and widespread adoption of objective instruments to classify offenders by risk and needs. Today, offender classification is practiced by local, state, and federal corrections agencies throughout the United States. There are now many instruments available for the classification of adult and juvenile offenders, and work on improving prediction of recidivism via statistical methods continues as a focus of agency and university research. Read more about Offender Classification.

Police–Community Relations

Police in any democratic society are faced with an inescapable dilemma: Their role requires that they adequately balance the legal authority they have been granted by the public (through government) with their responsibility to protect individual rights and contribute to public safety. Police officers are a walking symbol of government authority. They have the power to stop, detain, question, arrest, and even use deadly physical force when necessary. At the same time, police have to be responsive to the wishes of the public. They must carry out complex tasks while respecting important legal and constitutional protections. The police are occasionally called upon to enforce unpopular laws while attempting to foster or maintain public support. How the police balance these concerns often determines the quality of the relationship that they have with the public. The actions of individual police officers (e.g., the use of excessive force), or policies enacted by a department that emphasize the coercive legal authority of the police (e.g., zero-tolerance policing) may jeopardize public satisfaction. In addition, the quality of police–community relations often contributes to the ability of the police to accomplish goals of public safety. When the public is satisfied with and has confidence in the police, they are more likely to contribute information that may assist the police in solving crimes. When community residents trust the police, they are more willing to work collaboratively with the police to make improvements to neighborhoods. Therefore, there are very real and practical concerns that should serve to encourage police departments to work on improving the relationships they have with local communities. Read more about Police–Community Relations.

Prison System

In 21st-century America, imprisonment has become a $60+ billion per year industry, and will continue to increase in scope in the coming decades. The “prison industrial complex” includes not only those agencies directly involved in delivering punishment (courts, corrections, parole and probation agencies, etc), but also a widening array of vested interests that depend for their political and economic well-being on an ever-increasing supply of inmates. This new constellation of interests includes financial institutions that bankroll and finance construction and management of correctional institutions; political action committees that lobby for new prisons; politicians who run on law-and-order platforms that emphasize punishment for criminal offenders; local development authorities that compete for prisons, believing they will be economic development catalysts for their communities; the many for-profit firms engaged in prison privatization; architectural and construction firms that specialize in large institutions; and a broad range of service providers that seek to secure long-term contracts to provide telecommunications, transport, correctional technologies, food and beverage, clothing, computers, and personal hygiene products to the 2.4 million inmates that currently reside in American prisons and jails. Read more about Prison System.

Prisoner Reentry

A defining characteristic of modern America is the nation’s unprecedented level of imprisonment. For the 50-year period leading up to 1972, incarceration rates in America had remained remarkably constant, hovering around 110 per 100,000 population. Beginning in 1972, however, the nation has experienced a rise in its prison population every year. The prison population grew during times of war and times of peace, when crime rates rose and when they fell, in the midst of economic boom and economic recession. The increase that began in 1972 has been not only relentless but also substantial. Between 1973 and 2005, the number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons increased by over 600%. There are now over 1.5 million people living in America’s prisons, translating to an incarceration rate of 496 per 100,000 population. If the jail population is included, the incarceration rate increases to 751 per 100,000 population and the number of people imprisoned in America totals over 2.3 million. Read more about Prisoner Reentry.

Problem-Solving Courts

Problem-solving courts, also called specialty courts, are a fairly recent, but rapidly growing development in the American criminal court system. Problem-solving courts are specialized courts that develop expertise in particular social problems, such as addiction, domestic violence, or family dysfunction, because their caseloads consist primarily of these types of criminal cases. The first of them was a drug court created in Dade County, Florida, in 1989. Besides drug courts, the most common types of problem-solving courts are domestic violence courts, mental health courts, and community courts. While not all problem-solving courts are the same, they share common elements that distinguish them from traditional courts. First, they use judicial authority to address chronic social problems. Second, they go beyond simple adjudication of cases and attempt to change the future behavior of defendants through judicial supervision of therapeutic treatment. Finally, they work collaboratively with other criminal justice agencies, community groups, and social service providers to accomplish particular social outcomes, such as low recidivism, safer family environment, and increased sobriety. Read more about Problem-Solving Courts.

Public Health and Criminal Justice

While some issues were gaining interest in fields of public health and criminal justice, three of the five leading causes of premature death— suicide, homicide, and injury—had received far less attention from public health researchers than criminologists. All three causes were strongly correlated with violence. In response, then- Surgeon General C. Everett Koop (1986) expanded the mission of public health and dedicated new resources toward the prevention and treatment of violence. By doing so, violence was now conceptualized as a public safety and community health issue, rather than principally a law enforcement matter. By 1991, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control was housed within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Medical Association had initiated practices designed to address family violence. Collaborative partnerships between criminal justice and public health increased, with the hope of pooling resources and creating synergy. In short, the field of criminal justice had experienced a paradigm shift and had incorporated the perspective of public health into everyday operations. Read more about Public Health and Criminal Justice.

Racial Profiling

Racial profiling is a disputed term, embodying either a pernicious police practice or an intelligent application of police investigative skills, depending upon ideological perspective. It is most commonly understood in the former context, a shorthand for unfair police targeting of persons of minority groups for greater scrutiny and intervention, based solely upon the belief that members of their ethnic group are more inclined to engage in criminal activity. The contemporary term has a specific history anchored in drug interdiction efforts (Buerger & Farrell, 2002), but its informal synonym, “driving while black” (or brown), predates drug interdiction, stemming from the racial and ethnic animus of earlier eras. Read more about Racial Profiling.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice is a “new” way of responding to crime and harm based on ancient practices. Criminal justice policy in much of the modern world, and in the United States in particular, views punishment as a primary response to crime. For advocates of restorative justice, however, crime is more than simply lawbreaking; rather, crime harms individual victims, communities, offenders, and relationships. “Justice,” therefore, cannot be achieved simply by punishing the offender, or even by only providing treatment and services. Justice must focus on repairing the harm crime causes, while ensuring accountability to those harmed by crime rather than to the state alone. Read more about Restorative Justice.


Few decisions in the criminal justice system exert as much influence over the life and liberty of criminal offenders as the final sentencing decision. Judges have a broad array of sentencing options, ranging from fines, restitution, and probation to incarceration in jail or prison. For much of the 20th century, criminal sentencing practices remained largely unchanged in the United States, but the past few decades have witnessed a virtual revolution in criminal punishment processes. A number of different sentencing reforms have been recently implemented or expanded, resulting in a variegated mix of different legal approaches to sentencing in the United States today. This research paper reviews the contemporary state of knowledge on U.S. criminal sentencing. It begins with a brief historical overview of sentencing philosophies, followed by a discussion of modern sentencing innovations. It then discusses research evidence regarding social inequalities in punishments before concluding with a discussion of unresolved issues in contemporary research on criminal punishment in the 21st century. Read more about Sentencing.

Street Gangs

After some time out of the media spotlight, youth street gangs have made their way back. News coverage of drive-bys and crimes committed by persons with “possible gang ties” appear regularly alongside Gangland documentaries chronicling the rise and fall of notorious gangs and their leaders. Occasionally, these stories tell of successful law enforcement efforts to dismantle the gang by “cutting the head off the snake,” as anonymous informants reveal coveted gang secrets and boast of their role in bringing down those who had somehow betrayed or disrespected them. Joining the usual suspects in Chicago and Los Angeles at the center of public scrutiny and fear are gangs and gang nations such as the United Blood Nation and Double II’s on the East Coast, Nortenos and Surenos in the Southwest, and MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) everywhere in the United States. Read more about Street Gangs.

The Police

The police have been a common feature in American society for more than a century. Today, police officers are seen patrolling streets, directing traffic, and serving the public in a multitude of ways. It has not always been so. Historically, the police were political assets for the power elites and had no pretence of treating everyone equally. The purpose of this research paper is to review briefly the history of the police, discuss the modern-day reality of police work, and assess the future of policing. Read more about Police.

Victim Services

A social and academic interest in the lives of violent crime victims reflects the changing role and importance of victims in the public imagination, public policy, lawmaking, criminal justice, and social service provision in recent decades. Prior to the 1960s, both the criminal justice system and the human and social service system largely ignored the plight of victims, instead focusing on the causes and nature of crime and the rehabilitation or punishment of offenders. The victims of crime have therefore gone largely unrecognized in public discourse and within the criminal justice system. More importantly, until the last several decades, the impact of criminal victimization had not been a focus of public concern. Instead, the victims’ role in crime was largely filtered through their role as witnesses within the criminal justice system. Beginning in the late 1960s and taking hold in the 1970s, academic research, the medical community, and law enforcement’s concern and actions taken for victims of crime began to expand. The research, activism, and legislation helped to identify and highlight the toll of violent crime in terms of the social, physical, mental health, and financial consequences of victimization. This public concern owes much of its impetus to the actions and advocacy of grassroots organizations that organized and mobilized to offer victims the tangible assistance and support they needed in the way of shelters, crisis care, advocacy, and representation within the criminal justice system. Read more about Victim Services.

Wrongful Convictions

Wrongful convictions occur when innocent defendants are found guilty in criminal trials, or when defendants feel compelled to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit in order to avoid the death penalty or extremely long prison sentences. The term wrongful conviction can also refer to cases in which a jury erroneously finds a person with a good defense guilty (e.g., self-defense), or where an appellate court reverses a conviction (regardless of the defendant’s factual guilt) obtained in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights. This research paper deals with the first type of wrongful convictions, or wrong person convictions. Note also that the verdict of acquittal in American law is “not guilty” rather than “innocent,” meaning that an acquitted person might not be factually innocent. For the sake of clarity, the term actual or factual innocence is used to refer to persons who did not commit the crime. Miscarriage of justice (a legal term in England) is also used to describe wrongful convictions. Read more about Wrongful Convictions.

Browse criminal justice research papers or view criminal justice research topics.

Politicians and the public present another obstacle in effectively addressing crime. For many reasons, including sensationalized accounts of crime in news and entertainment media, the inability of academics to package criminological research in a publicly palatable fashion, fear promoted by opportunistic political figures, and the unwillingness or inability of the public to inform themselves on crime and justice issues, the public has a distorted image of the crime problem in the United States (Reiman 2003). This distorted image leads to ill-advised, impractical, and ineffective criminal justice policies such as “three-strikes” laws (laws requiring prison terms of 25 years or more for offenders convicted of their third felony or serious crime), mandatory minimum sentencing, and the mandatory charging of juveniles as adults for certain offenses. These policies appeal to politicians because it allows them to appear to be “tough on crime” and makes the public think that the justice system is working. However, these policies represent knee-jerk responses to complex problems of crime; they divert resources from other approaches that carry a greater likelihood of success, and they take discretion away from sentencing judges and other criminal justice practitioners who have a more accurate sense of the crime problem. Ultimately, the onus falls upon members of the academic community to debunk crime myths, dispel stereotypes regarding deviant groups, and promote responsible criminal justice policy.