The Structure of Criminal Justice

The phrase criminal justice system refers to a collection of federal, state, and local public agencies that deal with the crime problem. These agencies process suspects, defendants, and convicted offenders and are interdependent insofar as the decisions of one agency affect other agencies. The basic framework of the system is provided by the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government.

The legislature

Legislatures, both state and federal, define crimes, fix sentences, and provide funding for criminal justice agencies.

The judiciary

Trial courts adjudicate (make judgments on and pronounce) the guilt of persons charged with crimes, and appellate courts interpret the law according to constitutional principles. Both state and federal appellate courts review legislative decisions and decide whether they fall within the boundaries of state law, federal law, and ultimately, the United States Constitution. Judicial review gives the courts the power to evaluate legislative acts in terms of whether they conform to the Constitution. If a law is in conflict with the Constitution, an appellate court may strike it down.

The executive branch

Executive power is given to the president, governors, and mayors. On criminal justice matters, they have the power to appoint judges and heads of agencies, such as police chiefs and directors of departments of corrections. In addition, elected officials can lead efforts to improve criminal justice by putting forth legislative agendas and mobilizing public opinion.

The major components of the justice system

The justice system's major components—police, courts, and corrections—prevent or deter crime by apprehending, trying, and punishing offenders.

Police departments are public agencies whose purposes are to maintain order, enforce the criminal law, and provide services. Police officers operate in the community to prevent and control crime. They cooperate with prosecutors in criminal investigations, gathering evidence necessary to obtain convictions in the courts.

Courts are tribunals where persons accused of violating criminal law come to have their criminal responsibility determined by juries or judges. The purposes of the courts are to seek justice and to discover the truth. The primary actors in the courts are the prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges.

Corrections include probation, parole, jail, prison, and a variety of new community‐based sanctions, such as electronic monitoring and house arrest. The purposes of correctional agencies are to punish, to rehabilitate, and to ensure public safety.

The differences between federal and state justice systems

Federal and state justice systems carry out the same functions (enforcing laws, trying cases, and punishing offenders), but the laws and agencies of the two systems differ. State legislatures make most criminal laws, which are enforced by state and local police. City and county prosecutors try persons accused of breaking state laws in state courts. Judges sentence offenders convicted of violating state laws to serve time in either locally supervised jails or state‐controlled correctional institutions. At the federal level, Congress enacts criminal laws, and federal law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, enforce these laws. U.S. attorneys prosecute persons accused of committing federal crimes, and U.S. courts try the cases. To punish and rehabilitate those convicted of federal crimes, the Federal Bureau of Prisons provides programs and institutions.

The first line of defense against crime

The administration of justice in the United States is mainly a state and local affair. State and local governments employ two‐thirds of all criminal justice workers and also pay a much larger share of the costs of criminal justice than the federal government. Then, too, state, county, and city criminal justice agencies provide most of the protection from thieves, rapists, and murderers.

Criminal justice as a nonsystem

Critics say criminal justice is really not a system. They point out that in some respects criminal justice agencies are independent bodies and that they take their authority and budgets from different sources. Police departments are funded mainly by towns and cities; prosecutors, public defenders, trial courts, and jails are mainly countywide; and prisons and appellate courts are mainly statewide. In addition to having separate sources of authority and funding, criminal justice agencies set their own policies. Finally, the agencies often fail to coordinate their activities and, thereby, ignore the impact that their decisions will have on other agencies.