Criminal Justice System

Zhuofan Hua


From US Legal 

Criminal justice system refers to the collective institutions through which an accused offender passes until the accusations have been disposed of or the assessed punishment concluded. 

The criminal justice system consists of three main parts: (1) law enforcement (police, sheriffs, marshalls); (2) adjudication (courts which include judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers)

;(3) corrections (prison officials, probation officers, and parole officers). In the criminal justice system, these distinct agencies operate together under the rule of law. 

The criminal justice system in the United States includes different levels of court.There are federal courts, state courts, and district courts. For the federal courts, “there are 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts, and one Supreme Court throughout the country.” (UDSA)  The case can be divided into two types: civil case and criminal case. For the majority of federal courts, they pay attention to civil cases more than criminal cases. Moreover, United States established tribal courts in certain states as well. According to the National Center for State Courts, it defines the tribal courts as following:     

“Tribal courts are courts of general jurisdiction which continue to have broad criminal jurisdiction. Though Public Law 280, the federal government transferred to these states the federal government’s criminal jurisdiction over Indian country.”

The establishment of tribal courts is the symbol of respect to indigenous people. However, state jurisdiction also overlaps in the area where the tribal court’s rules apply. 

To more thoroughly understand the criminal justice system, it is significant to define the key players and recognize their roles in the system. There are three key players: police, prosecutor and judge.

From the Oxford dictionary

  • Police are the civil force of a state, responsible for the prevention and detection of crime and the maintenance of public order.
  • Prosecutor is a person, especially a public official, who institutes legal proceedings against someone.
  • Judge is a public officer appointed to decide cases in a law court.

The key players work together to enforce criminal law and maintain the order of the criminal justice system in society. Police officers detect suspicious behavior and arrest the individual with probable cause. Prosecutor comes up with charge options, and the judge would decide the sentence in a court with the jury. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.


In early America society, people rely on religion and sin as a way to regulate people’s conducts. During the colonial period, colonial crimes defined from biblical terms, such as profanity, blasphemy, and sacrileges. These crimes are highly punished. During that period, citizens uphold God’s law above everything. As the expansion of the landscape and population, the United States started to change the idea of the criminal justice system to uphold the value of morality. Also, it resulted in creating more laws and more punishments. In 1845, New York established the first police department. Since then, police have uniforms, patches and they are able to exercise coercive force. (

Americans are not the first group to establish the criminal justice system in North America. The indigenous tribes own the land before the “May Flower” came. Those tribes created the tribal criminal justice system. Ada Pecos Melton, a professional scholar focus on Indigenous Justice Systems and Tribal Society, she states: “These systems are guided by the unwritten customary laws, traditions, and practices that are learned primarily by example and through the oral teachings of tribal elders.” Indigenous people do not have a codified law to regulate people’s behavior, nonetheless, they determine an individual’s conduct base on moral standards. In addition, indigenous people are divided into different tribes, those tribes would have similar standards but variance custom.

LSJ 200 course presents four types of punishment theory, indigenous’ custom do not fit in those modern punishment theories. Indigenous people’s goal is to treat criminal behavior as misconduct. They focus on repairing relationships between offender and victims. According to Ada Pecos Melton, she describes: “The communal aspect allows for crime to be viewed as a natural human error that requires corrective intervention by families and elders or tribal leaders.” It means there is no prison in the tribal criminal justice system, the offender needs to rebuild the relationship between victims and other tribal residents. When the tribe demands the offender to reconnect the relationship, they have serval methods as indicated in Ada’s article. The offender could “make amends through apology, asking forgiveness, making restitution, and engaging in acts that demonstrate a sincerity to make things right. (Ada Pecos Melton)” 

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The criminal justice system can maintain society orders, keep public safety, reduce crime rates in general. This system also brings tremendous effects on society.  In the book of “Improving Collection of Indicators of Criminal Justice System Involvement in Population Health Data Programs: Proceedings of a Workshop”, it explains the criminal justice system effects on different groups of society, the chapter divides the group to individual, family, and community. Also, under the individual category, it divides into incarcerated adults and their families. 

The individual could be incarcerated with different reasons, however, their lives are affected by the criminal justice system in similar ways. As an incarcerated individual, the criminal behavior and prison experience will be on their personal record through the rest of their life. It directly affects job applications, housing loans, and other social opportunities.

Their record will not only prevent them fit in the society financially but also their physical condition is pooer than same age. “men’s incarceration has been linked to depressive symptoms and psychiatric disorders.” (White 16) When they released from prison or jail, they have fewer opportunities to afford their lives and they have concerned health issues. Criminal justice system not only keeps safety in the society but also took away some rights from incarcerated people, such as vote, travel limitations and so on. U.S. criminal justice system holds the most proportional criminals in the world, and it affects individuals’ lives even after the release. 

For family and community, the criminal justice system brings concerns in two perspectives. On the one side, the criminal justice system can keep the social order. On the other side, the criminal justice system is violating citizens fundamental rights with discretions in every stage of criminal justice. For example, police exercise implicit discretion while they detect suspicious behaviors. According to the speech “Blackness and Criminal”, society often link the blackness with criminality. When the police try to decide whether or not to arrest the individual, they would have discretion based on their past experience. After the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American man, was fatally shot by a white police officer. ( public started to teach kids “do not play BB guns on the street” and teaches kids to always put hands where the police could see. This community norm reflects how police discretion impacts society in general. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.


Criminal justice system exists in almost every country in the world. Since the first group of people is from the United Kingdom, the UK criminal justice system and the U.S. criminal justice system are similar to each other. In the UK, they have police as the same function as in the U.S. to detect a crime, then the crown prosecution service gave police for possible prosecution, and they help police to determine the charge. (Police.UK) As the same as in the U.S., the case will bring to a court, it has a different name in the UK which is called “magistrates’ court.”  In the court, the judge sentences the individual if the jury or the magistrates consider the individual is guilty. Nonetheless, the most different from the UK and USA criminal justice system is that judges granted full power to make the sentencing decision in the UK. Judges’ decision will not be interference by other bills or legislators. It secures the judicial power in the UK and prevents the judge to have the discretion from politics. 

Nowadays, judges’ power in the United States has been reduced by some bills passed by legislators. Legislators desire to take the sentencing power from judges to enhance their public trust and popularity. 

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Connection to LSJ

LSJ stands for law, society, justice. From LSJ 200 lecture, one of the three themes is that law is ultimate violent. From the criminal justice system to social policing, the nature of law associates with violence. 

In the criminal justice system, police as the first role to seek suspicious behaviors, they carry lethal weapons in duties. Police are the front line of the criminal justice system, however, police discretion existed in their exercising coercive force. From the reading “Pull Over” police racial discrimination leads to individual discretion and cause the innocent people to pull over with investigatory stops because of their skin color. When police exercise their force, such as handcuff, pepper spray, less-lethal weapons. They often violate 4th amendments in the Constitution. In the criminal justice system in the US, people often questioned with the law enforcers excessive use of force. Moreover, violent inherent from the law does not only exist in the policing, but it also exists in the punishment. 

Beginning of the criminal justice system explicitly express the use of violence, it is the same at the end of the social justice system. The last step of the criminal justice system is the charged individual sentence by the judge. The punishment such as be incarcerated is limiting someone’s liberty against their will. According to the statistic from the justice system (source on lecture powerpoint), current US interest is five times than fifty years ago, also compare with European states, U.S. incarcerates rate is seven times greater than European states such as UK and Finland. Moreover, the growth of incarceration reflects from 1950 to current, US has longer sentences because the legislature passed a series of bills such as reduction in parole, and mandatory minimum sentence, sentencing guidelines to increase the length of sentencing and took away judges’ power. 

In Page’s article about the Pell Grant, he explains that legislators want to solve public anxiety about crime rates and flat income for the middle class by moving the prisoner’s education money to middle-class kids. Also, it reflects the core of the punishment, legislators often write the law, they write laws to gain public trust. According to the reading, the tougher legislator writes punishment, the higher the public vote. Politicians use the punishment to reaffirm group value and draw the boundary between social groups. Criminal justice system serves for keeping orders of society, however, police officers and policy makers apply discretion leads to enlarging the violence existed in law, society, and justice.

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Reading:Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship

Public opinion

According to the Marshall Project, “solid majorities of voters support major reform of the criminal justice system in the United States (57 percent), including nearly one-in-five voters (19 percent) who support a complete overhaul of the system.” Voters eager for criminal justice reform after 2018 midterm election. Criminal justice reform including restoring voter’s right who commit a felony, abolish unanimous jury conviction and so on. Moreover, in the Washington Post, Senator Cory Booker is running for the 2020 Presidency. He addresses the importance of criminal justice reform and he gained enormous support. His idea of criminal justice system reform plan is 

legalizing marijuana, reducing workplace discrimination against convicts, giving federal money to areas the government determines were most hurt by the war on drugs and improving the treatment of incarcerated women, among a host of other policies,

Public opinion also reflects their will to against War on Drugs in several states. In the near future, the politician may bring a new revolution on criminal justice system reform because of public opinion. Public opinion pushes legislators to pass bills in order to change the criminal justice system less violent. 

Cory Booker is not the only one who propose criminal justice reform,  another group of people (formal incarcerated people) believe the criminal justice system needs institution correction. It means institutional racism exists in society.  Supreme cases such as  Korematsu v. U.S. (1944) , Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) , Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and so on represents the institutional bias existed in current society. ( (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.) For instance, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) is the case about adopting segregation in public school. It is the symbol of institutional racism and bias to minority groups. From the conversation among the formally incarcerated people, they discuss the two factors which influence the current criminal justice system. One is race, the other is whether or not the offender could afford an attorney.

In theory, judges and prosecutors should not apply any bias in any criminal cases.In fact, according to one of the formally incarcerated individuals states: “If the individual could afford an attorney, the situation will change. They would give money to an attorney, then the attorney will contact the prosecutor and judges to split the money and decrease that defendant’s sentence.” While another formal incarcerated individual claim: “Criminal justice system is broken.” Those incarcerated individuals were in the prison over five years, they were involved in the system so their expression and judgment about the criminal justice system would add into account. 

In the future, there is a trend to structure the reform of the criminal justice system in the United States. Senators are proposing bills to reduce the influence mandatory-minimum sentence on drug crimes; social movements like “Me Too” and “Black live matters” is the public call to bring change in the criminal justice system; institutions are suspending racial bias laws such as “Chinese Exclusion Act” to enhance the legitimacy of all institutions. 

From an individual to the highest institution in the United States, everyone is engaging some form of reform to the criminal justice system. In a democratic country, change an institutional system is a long journey. Criminal justice system reform is starting now.–20181219.html (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

criminal-justice-reform-action-climate-change/?utm_term=.3b8873a476be (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Works Cited

“Criminal Justice System Law and Legal Definition.” USLEGAL. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

“Definition of judge in English.” Oxford Living Dictionary. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Gotoff, Daniel and Lake Celinda, “Voters Want Criminal Justice Reform. Are Politicians 

Listening?”, The Marshall Project, 13 Nov. 2018, (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Ans-listening (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

“Introduction To The Federal Court System.” United States Department of Justice. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Melton, Ada Pecos, “Indigenous Justice Systems and Tribal Society”. In Wanda D. McCaslin, 

ed., Justice as Healing: Indigenous Ways. Writings on Community Peacemaking and Restorative Justice from the Native Law Centre. St. Paul, MN: Living Justice Press. Pp. 108-120, 2005. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Page, Joshua, “Eliminating the enemy.” SAGE Publications, 4 Feb. 2008. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Stein, Jeff. “Cory Booker’s 2020 policy agenda: ‘Baby bonds,’ criminal justice reform, action on climate change”, The Washington Post, 1 Feb. 2019, (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

criminal-justice-reform-action-climate-change/?utm_term=.3b8873a476be (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Tamari, Jonathan, “Criminal justice bill a major marker for Cory Booker as 2020 announcement 

looms.” The Inquirer. 19 December 2018.–20181219.html (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

“The Criminal Justice Process.” Police.UK. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

“Tribal Courts Resource Guide.” National Center of State Courts, 17 October 2018. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

White, Jordyn, “Improving Collection of Indicators of Criminal Justice System Involvement in 

Population Health Data Programs: Proceedings of a Workshop,” The National Academies Press, pg.16, 2017. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.