12 An Overview of the System

One of the most important advantages to living in a civil society is the security that it provides. In contemporary society, the role of ensuring security is relegated to government. That is, citizens have a reasonable expectation that society, as a collective, will protect us from rogue members. In giving power to government to perform this critical security function, we create the potential for the abuse of that power. In the American system of criminal justice, we see two competing and equally important ideas: We demand both security and freedom from governmental abuse of power. These freedoms are collectively known as individual rights or civil liberties. These civil rights are woven into the very fabric of our government at both the state and federal level.

In this context, we can view the criminal justice system is a collection of rules and people (usually in the form of public agencies) working together to protect the public from harm. These elements are commonly divided into three broad categories: police, courts, and corrections. These three elements have the same basic function: To respond to crime. A crime is a violation of some criminal law with no legal justification or excuse. Local, state, and federal governments can make criminal laws. The vast majority of criminal laws are a matter of state statutes .

Saying that the criminal justice system has the purpose of “responding to crime” results in a dramatically oversimplified view of how the system works. Every agency within the criminal justice system will agree that it responds to crime, but we find profoundly different mission statements, goals, objectives, and methods among these myriad agencies. A major reason for these differences is that the public has several conflicting definitions of the concept of justice.

Course Learning Objectives

After completing this course, the student will be able to:
1. Describe the pathway that an individual follows from first arrest to incarceration.
2. Describe the basic structure, function, and origin of each of the major elements of the criminal justice system and the juvenile justice system at the local, state, and federal levels of government.
3. Explain the roles of the various actors in the criminal justice process, and describe how constitutional safeguards limit the actions of these actors.
4. Describe the roles of various actors, institutions, and political ideologies in shaping criminal justice policies.
5. Explain the basic functioning of both the procedural and substantive criminal law.
6. Identify and define basic terms and concepts that are needed for advanced study in criminal justice.
7. Explain the importance of ethics, professionalism, communication skills, and an appreciation for diversity to a successful career in criminal justice.
8. Identify and describe the various methods by which crime statistics are gathered, and identify trends in the data.


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