II. Social Control
III. Social Change
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 (Vago, 2006). 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 (Champion, Hartley, & Rabe, 2008). 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.
The criminal court system in the United States, however, can be a very complex and confusing system to study and understand. Every state and the federal government has its own court structure and procedures for prosecuting criminals. Adding to the complexity is the fact that each state can specify its own sentencing structure. Some states use indeterminate sentencing; others use determinate sentencing or sentencing guidelines. Other jurisdictions also use sentence enhancements such as habitual offender statutes, truth-in-sentencing laws, or mandatory minimums. Finally, criminal courts are not the only avenue for dealing with those who have violated the law. Offenders in some jurisdictions may be processed in tribal court, drug court, or through a military tribunal. Others may be diverted to community-based correctional agencies with a more restorative justice ideal. These different types of courts and the lack of uniformity among them can at times be confusing to those attempting to study the U.S. criminal court system. The functions of criminal courts are more straightforward, however, and can be classified into two broad categories: social control and social change.