The Criminal Justice System

Becoming a crime statistic is probably the greatest fear among Americans. To deal with crime and deter criminals, American society makes use of formal social controls, particularly the criminal justice system. Sadly, the American criminal justice system is biased. The likelihood of being arrested, convicted, and sentenced appears to be clearly related to finances and social status.

The poor are more likely than the wealthy to be arrested for any category of crime. Why?

  • Unlike the wealthy who can commit crimes in the seclusion of their offices or homes, the poor have little privacy. This means the poor are more visible to the police, as well as to other citizens who may complain to law officials.

  • Biases in police training and experience may cause police officers to blindly blame crimes on certain groups, such as people of color and lower‐class juveniles.

  • Finally, the fear of political pressure and “hassles” may prompt law enforcement officers to avoid arresting more affluent and influential members of society.

Poor people typically cannot post bail, so they must wait in jail for their trial. Hence, they are unable to actively work in their own defense. Moreover, when the time for the trial comes, defendants who are not out on bail look guilty because they must enter the courtroom led by police—probably influencing judges and juries. A person who was released on bail enters the courtroom like any other citizen. Social research even indicates that defendants who pay their bail are more likely to be acquitted than those who do not.

Even though the United States entitles all defendants to legal counsel, the quality of this assistance varies. Poor people receive court‐appointed lawyers, who may receive lower wages and have a heavy caseload. These lawyers may rush the cases of poor defendants in the interest of time and effort. On the other hand, affluent defendants hire teams of skilled and resourceful lawyers who know how to “work the system.”

When it comes to sentencing, the poor generally receive tougher penalties and longer prison terms than do the more affluent convicted of the same crimes. The race of the victims seems to play a role in the harshness of sentencing as well. Regardless of the murderer's race, those murdering whites are more likely to receive the death sentence than those killing minorities.

Nonetheless, the criminal justice system and prison system serve society in several potentially useful ways:

  • By being placed in jail, convicted criminals receive “just rewards,” or retribution, for their crimes.

  • Prisons ideally should deter crimes. As the theory goes, prisons are supposed to keep released criminals from offending again and potential criminals from committing crimes. The social research on this question of deterrence provides mixed results. Prison seems to deter white‐collar criminals, for example, but does nothing to deter sex offenders. The literature remains inconclusive with respect to the effects of deterrence on non‐criminals.

  • Prisons isolate criminals from the general public.

  • Prisons ideally serve to rehabilitate criminals into productive citizens who no longer commit crimes. Programs within prisons designed to rehabilitate prisoners include education, personal counseling, and vocational training to prepare them for eventual release and parole.

A short report card on how well prisons achieve their purposes: Prisons successfully punish and isolate inmates, but they seem to be less successful at rehabilitating inmates and deterring future crimes.

Today's prisons are overcrowded, as inmate populations have increased dramatically in recent decades. Excessively brutal conditions cause prisoners to experience a wide variety of health problems, such as heart disease, hypertension, psychological disorders, and suicide. And although incarcerated populations continue to grow, the number of crimes committed in the United States also increases. Sociologists are quick to admit that they have no easy answers that explain the growth in prison populations and crimes, or easy solutions (for example, in‐home detention, early parole) to change this situation.