Criminal Courts

II. Social Control

Social control is characterized as the methods a society undertakes to control its citizens’ behaviors. Social control can be differentiated by whether it is formal or informal. The process of socialization that each of us is subject to, starting from a very young age through adolescence and up to young adulthood, is a very important part of a society’s informal social control mechanisms. Parents, teachers, and even friends are integral in forming a person’s sense of right or wrong and what ultimately will shape the person’s future behaviors. Through a system of rewards and punishments, these informal social controls become effective tools that keep most people from displaying behaviors for which formal social control mechanisms would have to be invoked. Formal social controls include the police, the courts, and corrections. They usually need to be invoked because the informal social controls have broken down, or they were not in place to begin with. The formal social controls with which most people are familiar include being arrested by the police and being prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced by the courts. For most citizens, the formal social control mechanisms will never have to be summoned in order to keep their behavior law-abiding. This is because the socialization process and informal social controls are enough to keep their behaviors in check.

III. Social Change

Another function of the criminal courts has been social change. The law and the criminal court system is the main means of resolving important social issues. Legislators have made most of the laws society abides by, but the institution of the court is the avenue by which the laws of the nation are put into practice. Some believe that the judicial branch of the government plays a very important role in the functioning of society. The judiciary decides whether laws have been violated by individuals or whether the government has overstepped its bounds in charging individuals. Judges, especially those at the circuit court and Supreme Court level, often generate social change with the legal decisions they make. These decisions revolve around ideas about the correct interpretation and application of the U.S. Constitution and other legislation. The rulings of these courts in some instances establish precedents to which subsequent decisions must adhere. These precedents are the foundations on which social policy is made or transformed. Under common law and because of the idea of stare decisis, these precedents become law. Stare decisis literally means to stand by that which has been decided. This does not mean that every case must be decided in a similar way, nor does it mean that higher courts cannot overturn any of their previous rulings. It just means that the lower courts will adhere to the latest ruling on any given issue. This idea of judges making law is referred to as judicial activism and has been criticized by some who believe the legislative branch of government is the only body that has the power to create law.

This process demonstrates that the law and the courts and the citizen’s relationship to them are not static. Rather, it is a dynamic relationship, and change comes through constant iterations of policy and practice. Black (1976) believes that law increases in quantity when society becomes more stratified and characterized by specialized groups with competing interests. In this sense, the law enters more areas of individual life as it increases in quantity. The courts in turn also intrude into more areas of daily life as the quantity of law increases. The citizenry may resist and even protest if the law and the courts become too intrusive, and the law and the courts may eventually retreat from some areas of citizens’ lives. This dynamic ebb and flow of intrusion and retreat of the courts in social life is social change being realized.

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