Every society has laws criminalizing certain activities it considers morally unallowable. The criminal justice system is the set of institutions we have in place to deal with infractions to these rules.
Legislatures create the laws, which are then enforced by the courts. In a modern justice system, police forces are used to keep the peace, prevent crimes and bring lawbreakers to court, and the typical penalty for criminals is incarceration in prison. Professional police forces are a modern invention, but some form of local security was common in previous societies.
Retributive justice is one concept behind the criminal justice system; rehabilitation is another. The Stanford Encyclopedia explains retributive justice as “following three principles:
that those who commit certain kinds of wrongful acts, paradigmatically serious crimes, morally deserve to suffer a proportionate punishment;
that it is intrinsically morally good—good without reference to any other goods that might arise—if some legitimate punisher gives them punishment they deserve; and
that it is morally impermissible intentionally to punish the innocent or to inflict disproportionately large punishments on wrongdoers.”
(Stanford Encyclopedia, “Retributive Justice,” accessed 18Aug15)
Criminal justice in its modern form is expensive and complex, and requires a modern centrally-organized state with a well-established rule of law. Older court systems were less formal: typically, the local ruler would decide cases and dispense justice as he saw fit. The famous story of Solomon and his idea of cutting a baby in half is an ancient example. Often, a ruler would appoint judges to travel around a given region and decide local cases in the ruler’s name.
Incarceration as a punishment for crimes was typically beyond the means of early justice systems. Punishments were more immediate and easier to implement. Monetary and corporal penalties were common. Thieves might have a hand cut off; other convicts might pay a fine, receive a whipping, or be subject to public ridicule. Criminals could be put to death more easily than they could be put in prison.
Societies care about the moral significance of crime, but governments are limited in their ability to bring criminals to justice, so reform of the criminal justice system is a common moral outcry. One important reform was the invention of the modern prison.
As the methods of criminal justice have changed, so has its philosophy. The classical theory of criminal justice was most famously formulated by the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham. He argued that criminals were rational: they derived some financial or personal gain from their crimes, and weighed this gain against whatever costs they might incur. By this rationale, punishment deters crime by persuading potential criminals that their crimes aren’t worthwhile.
More modern theories of criminal justice often focus on circumstances outside the criminals’ control. These arguments commonly focused on the effects of poverty. One theory argued that residential density led to crime, because when people were forced to live too close together conflicts were more common. Others argued that crime was motivated by the poor being unable to realize middle-class social norms, forcing them to seek unlawful sources of power out of resentment or necessity. Another theory argued that certain groups of people were inevitably prone to crime, and this could be determined by measuring the shape of their skulls.
The utilitarian model of justice makes sense in terms of corporal punishment, but these modern theories were more compatible with the modern punishment of incarceration. If you believe that some people can’t help but commit crimes, then locking them up is the only way to protect the public. Furthermore, if you believe that criminals aren’t responsible for their crimes, then prison might be considered more humane than whippings or executions.
As a social institution, criminal justice necessarily involves the moral biases of the people who make the laws. The topic of criminal justice stirs up disagreements on what some see as ‘faulty justice.’
Unarmed young men or a child being gunned down by police, youth being detained in jail for more than a year without a trial, suicides in prisons, mentally-disturbed increasingly jailed, hours of interrogation forcing teenagers to confess, often with false promises of release—all these are dysfunctions of a criminal justice system.
On the other hand, we need to hear lesser known stories of police risking their lives without pulling their guns in violent domestic situations, cops taking risky chances with angry drunks, public defenders going far beyond the call of duty in hours spent digging up evidence to protect a targeted innocent. These show the importance, and often heroism, in the criminal justice system.
It is often argued that for much of the United States’ history, the justice system was only designed to protect the mainstream white population: police made no efforts to protect blacks, American Indians or other groups. Instead, police forces were employed to abuse these groups and maintain their subservient position. Under this argument, the recent cases of police brutality against African Americans and police failure to adequately investigate murders of African Americans are merely examples of how the system has always worked. The slogan “black lives matter”, in this context, is directed against the centuries old tradition of the justice system’s neglect of black lives, arguing that these traditions have continued into the present day.
According to the Associated Press NORC Center for Public Affairs Research Poll, July 2015, respondents who say police violence is a serious problem fall out in this way:
73% of Blacks think it a serious problem
51% of Hispanics think it a serious problem
20% of Whites think it a serious problem
We are a divided society in opinions about basic and important issues. There are many dimensions and nuances to this controversial issue which this topic seeks to explore in a way that will elicit our core values: “Think, Discuss, Act.”
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What do you think needs to change about our justice system? Do you think these changes are possible? How do they compare to the reforms that have been made in the past?
What feelings about the U.S. criminal justice system have you had in the past year? Can you remember any specific incidents that roused such feelings?
Do you think a prison sentence is often a rehabilitative influence on convicts? If not, do you think it’s even possible for prison to be rehabilitative? What would prisons have to look like for this to be the case?
What do you think about the accusations that the American justice system is and had always been racist, designed in the interests of white people and to the detriment of black people? How do you back up your opinion?
Do you think police violence in the U.S. is a serious problem? Why or why not?
The modern criminal justice system arose gradually as governments acquired greater capacity to enforce laws and the public demanded a more just response to crimes.
No society is perfect: laws are derived from the lawmakers’ public understanding of morality, and criminal justice will carry any biases or errors in that understanding.
Recent accusations of racism in the American justice system are unsurprising, given the United States’ history of racist institutions. The question is whether the American public is interested in making changes to these traditions. Institutions do not change overnight.
If the problem with criminal justice is a lack of funding, producing too little training or overloaded duties, on prison guards for instance, then we might have to pay a little more taxes to produce a healthy commonwealth.
If rehabilitation (of drug addicts and the mentally ill) is missing, and criminal justice, again perhaps for lack of funds, relies primarily on punishment, then we will reap the consequences of constant recidivism and increased public spending in the long run.
It would seem to be appropriate for schools, community groups, and religious institutions to discuss the issue of criminal justice. Part of this should be the discussion of justice—distributive, restorative, as well as retributive justice.