The Intent and Reality of the U. S. Criminal Justice System

By C. J. Oakes

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The Issue: The Intent of the U.S. Criminal Justice System is to punish the guilty, but often, the innocent are punished while the guilty go free.


The Essay: The Intent and Reality of the U. S. Criminal Justice System


When the Founding Fathers of the United States framed the Constitution, included among the provisions were numerous principles aimed at reducing the number of innocent victims of the new justice system.  So as to ensure that only the clearly guilty are convicted and sentenced of a crime, such

Cover of "Criminal Justice Today: An Intr...
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ideals as trial by jury, right to counsel, avoidance of self-incrimination are included in the Bill of Rights.  Over time, these ideals have been tested and interpreted by the Supreme Court.  These tests form the Criminal Justice system known today.  The intent of the system remains the same as originally drafted, but reality presents a different picture.  A look at the system as it functions demonstrates that the ideal continues to live, but consideration of the changing nature of the definition of crime demonstrates that the ideal is dying.
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According to the book Criminal Justice Today crime is defined as “conduct in violation of the criminal laws of a state, the federal government, or a local jurisdiction, for which there is no legally acceptable justification or excuse” (Schmalleger, 2009, p. 7).  On the surface, this is a good definition of crime, but a closer examination of that definition reveals the malleability of what constitutes a crime.  If laws never changed, then conduct that constitutes a crime would remain the same.  However because laws are ever-changing, the conduct of society must continually change as well.  For example, before the 1980s, it was not a crime to abstain from wearing a seatbelt when driving a car.  Today it is a crime nationwide.  This can make it very difficult on a society to become crime-free for it is very similar to living in a home with a parent who changes the rules daily.  Such actions can produce individuals with no respect for the existing authority and will generally drive these individuals to some other authority or group (Lewis, 2003).

Anomie Theory by Merton

In 1939, Robert Merton developed the Anomie theory that explains this criminal justice concept in part (Schmalleger, 2009).  Merton described persons who accepted certain values of society but rejected the means to achieving those values as innovators.  Lewis explains that such innovators form groups similar to tribes and within the confines of these groups, individuals have their most fundamental needs

Thomas Merton (1915-1968)
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) (Photo credit: DUCKMARX)

met.  Group values become reinforced as needs are met further strengthening the belief that this is the best way of life for the group.  In addition, the group must have a common enemy to add cohesion to the group and because innovators have rejected the (legal) means of attaining their values (wealth, power) such groups automatically become at odds with law enforcement.  With a common enemy, the members of the group find strength and reinforcement further solidifying the rightness of their way of life.  The group does not consider the activity of its members to be criminal; instead, the enemies of the group (lawful authorities) are criminal.

This simply illustrates that a crime is nothing more than conduct considered wrong according to the group in power; this can be seen after revolutions and coups.  In the case of our own nation, we must accept that had the revolution been lost, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and all the others would have been hanged by England as traitors or criminals.  Crime actually has more to do with power and authority to punish than any true sense of justice or injustice (Duff, 1998).

We can look at the Criminal Justice system in place today and gain an understanding into why the ideal upon which it is based continues to live but also see how it is in danger of dying.

The foundation of the entire Criminal Justice system is known as the Rule of Law.  Simply put, the Rule of Law requires that the law must be applied equally to all.  This includes those entrusted with writing and enforcing that law.  However, the connection between law and justice is tenuous at best.  To have justice, there must be the Rule of Law, but this does not ensure justice (Allan, 1998).  It is the lack of understanding of this very duality that causes many to lose faith in the system.  Any abuse or failure of the system is seen as a failure of the entire concept and many choose to reject the system in favor of some alternative just as Merton suggested (Schmalleger, 2009).

This is how the Criminal Justice system is meant to work (The Intent)

Legislative authorities given power by the people of the United States determine what is law hence, what is a crime.  Police then respond to offenses against that law by investigating and arresting as necessary the alleged offenders.  The suspected offender is provided with an opportunity to argue his case in a Court of Law and that court determines whether a crime was indeed committed.  If the court

determines that a crime did take place, it decides how it should be punished.  The punishment can either be sanctions such as community service, fines, and probation or could extend to imprisonment or death, depending upon the nature of the crime.

Protection of the innocent occurs in the specifics:

At every step in the process, protections are built-in so as to provide an innocent person with the opportunity to prove such innocence.  The police secure a warrant prior to searches and arrests.  The courts provide for as impartial a trail as possible by screening prospective jurors, silence by the accused (to protect against possible self-incrimination), and opening up all accusatory information for discovery by the accused.  By doing so the accused may examine and explain contradictory or incriminating evidence.  Even if imprisoned, every convicted person can appeal to a higher court.  The higher court may reverse the decision.  Such protections in the Bill of Rights are in place so as to avoid ideally the prosecution of an innocent person.

The reality, of course, is that although the Rule of Law applies to all, such proceedings are very expensive.  Often it is those with the means necessary to fire back at the big guns of the state that win their cases innocent or not.  One such case of note was the O. J. Simpson trial that is still hotly debated (Schmalleger, 2009).

In recent years the case of Sean Bell and others have shifted again to the matter of race being a factor in the distribution of justice.  Many are beginning to question the fairness of the U. S. Justice System (Maddox, 2008).  So although the intent of the system remains intact, the realities of the system endanger its continued existence.




  • Allan, T. R. (October, 2010). Rule of Law. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (), . Retrieved from
  • Duff, R. A. (October, 2010). Crime and Punishment. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (), . Retrieved from
  • Lewis, H. (2003). A Question of Values: Six Ways We Make the Personal Choices That Shape Our Lives (3rd ed.). Mt Jackson, VA: Axios Press.
  • Maddox, Jr, A. H. (Feb 21, 2008). Justice for Sale in Sean Bell, et. al.? New York Amsterdam News, 99(9), 12-40.
  • Schmalleger, Ph D., F. (2009). Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st Century (10th ed.). : Prentis Hall.

3 thoughts on “The Intent and Reality of the U. S. Criminal Justice System”

  1. Steve, keep in mind that the law enforcement prosifseon is tough to break into I will tell you this being a MP in the military and comparing that to being a civilian police officer is two totally different things..They are nowhere close to even being the same job. However, the discipline and team work you would learn in the military would benefit you in other ways..The college role is always smart also due to the fact that you can use your degree in other ways if you decide that law enforcement just wasnt for you I’ll tell you this..I would much rather have a recruit on the street who has real life experience rather than no life experience and tons of book knowledge..Nothing wrong with either but its a matter of personal choice.. As far as your brother getting turned down in his hiring process..its not unusual and I would recommend he apply again Sometimes it takes 2-3 times of going thru the process before you can get hired Lots of people dont make it through hiring processes and there are lots of different reasons why But I have seen departments hire former military, college grads people with niether a degree or military all in the same hiring process..So its more of a fact of how you do on your interview and evals than it is of your education or experience..also remember that most civilian police departments will not give you any points or credit during thier hiring processes for military training but they will for college

  2. There area a lot of reasons that polepe get turned down. On the average in the US only 15% of applicants make it.There is a change going on with hiring in most of the US.In the recent past the call was for more and more college. Most large and suburban departments require 60 semester hours (AA) and some 120 hours (Bachelors). They usually do not care what your major was. (I have always believed that a liberal arts education is best to start.)Within the last 3 years I have noticed a number of departments waiving the education for the same amount of time in the military.The old timers always wanted ex military, for their ability to follow orders, team work ethic and the discipline learned, but that changed after the draft was ended.Good luck

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