1.1. Crime and the Criminal Justice System

Shanell Sanchez and Kate McLean

Theft as a Child

The first lesson in crime, criminality (and private property) I remember was when I was a toddler. Walking through the check-out at the supermarket, I began filling my play purse with candy. I knew that we had to buy items at the store – after all, my parents were paying for our food – but somehow it didn’t seem wrong to just take the candy. Since I made no effort to hide my theft, my parents stopped me, horrified, and forced me to return the candy to the shelves. I complied, but not without a fight. I don’t remember feeling guilty at the time, but now I’m shocked by my actions.

Think about a time in your life when you may have done something similar. Was this first lesson in crime and criminality from the person you were raised by? Did they teach you that what you did was (or could be) a crime and, how to avoid this behavior again? Were you punished, and how?

Imagine all the questions you may have for your parents at the moment: Why was it wrong? What would happen to me if I did not tell you? What is a crime? Who decides what makes a crime? What happens to me if I commit a crime and get caught? What is my punishment?

Perhaps because I was so young, I don’t remember being punished. In your opinion, what would be an appropriate punishment for a young child who is caught stealing?

Most criminologists define crime as the violation of the laws of a society by a person or a group of people who are subject to the laws of that society (citizens). Thus, crime is defined by the government (federal, state, or local). Essentially, crime is what the law states, and a violation of the law, stated in the statute, would make actions criminal. [1]

For example, if someone murdered another individual in the process of stealing their automobile most people would see this as a criminal and a straightforward example of crime. We often see murder and robbery as wrongful acts that harm society, as well as social order. However, there are times that crime is not as straightforward, and people may hesitate to call it criminal. For example, in 2022, the state of Georgia passed a law that makes giving away food or water “within 150 feet of the outer edge of a polling place building, within a polling place, or within 25 feet of any voter in line” a misdemeanor-level crime, punishable by up to a year in jail or a $1,000 fine. [2] While the state claims that this legislation is required in order to prevent illegal campaigning at election sites, voters’ rights advocates have argued that the new law will deter voting and suppress turnout, particularly among marginalized voters. [3]

Constitutionally, all criminal laws are meant to respond to an existing or likely threat of harm.  Harm can concern individuals’ physical, economic, social, and emotional well-being, or the social order and environment more generally. But individuals have differing opinions about what actions are harmful, and when the benefits of an action – or law – outweigh the negative consequences. These conflicts may threaten the perceived legitimacy of the criminal justice system.

The criminal justice system is a major social institution that is tasked with controlling crime in various ways. Police are often tasked with detecting crime and detaining individuals, courts often adjudicate and hand down punishments, and the correctional system implements punishments and/or rehabilitative efforts for people who have been found guilty of breaking the law.

Criminal Justice Process

When the law is broken, the criminal justice system must respond in an attempt to repair the harm that is thus implied. The criminal justice system is made up of various agencies at different levels of government that can work independently and together, using the different powers at their disposal. Challenges may arise when agencies do not work together or work together inefficiently. The notorious serial killer Ted Bundy may serve as an example of failed collaboration between U.S. law enforcement agencies, due to a lack of technological means to freely exchange information and resources about killings in their area. Bundy exploited gaps in investigative processes between different jurisdictions, and ultimately was able to avoid arrest and detection for over four years (during which he committed at least 30 murders). If various agencies at the Federal, State and Local law enforcement levels had worked together, they could have potentially stopped Ted Bundy sooner. Following Ted Bundy, a Multi-agency Investigative Team manual, also known as the MAIT Taskforce, was created through the National Institute of Justice to develop information about the crime, it causes, and how to control it [4] As is still evident in political debates today, the United States has historically prided itself on local governance, often rejecting a strong, centralized government; however, this tradition has also resulted in unexpected complications and a sprawling system of law enforcement, with over 18,000 local law enforcement agencies that are not coordinated by any national office [5].

Working Together?

 Many countries have national police forces, who are responsible for all law enforcement in the country. The United States has obviously not followed this model. What is one advantage of a national, centralized police force? What is one advantage of our decentralized system?

Although agencies may operate differently, the way cases move through the criminal justice system is consistent. The first step after getting caught stealing something from a store is involvement with police – if law enforcement is called. The next step in the process is to proceed through the court system to determine guilt. If you are found guilty then you will receive a sentence that may be implemented by the correctional system, which is responsible for the formal punishment and/or treatments determined by the courts. An individual may not go through the entire process, and diverse criminal justice officials decide whether the case should continue on to the next stage. Perhaps the officer decides not to cite you and your contact ends there. Similarly, the district attorney (DA) may decide to drop your case before it even goes to trial. While the formal criminal justice system is composed of three major components – Law Enforcement (“Cops”), the Courts, and Corrections – the above example also reveals a 4th “C” – the citizenry that observes and reports crime. In fact, without the participation of citizens in reporting crime, the rest of the criminal justice chain would be largely helpful.

News Box: In 2019, 377,866 individuals were arrested for marijuana possession in the United States – the highest count for any drug possession offense. In fact, there were more arrests for marijuana possession in 2019 than arrests for aggravated assault, rape and robbery combined. [6] Marijuana criminalization and enforcement goes to the heart of some of the most pressing issues facing the criminal justice system, policymakers, citizens, and the world. Is criminalizing drug use effective, especially for marijuana? Is the money used to enforce drug laws, prosecute drug crimes, and punish drug offenders well-spent? The United States has taken a get-tough approach with the “War on Drugs”, created mandatory minimum sentences, and punished people in large numbers – but has it worked to deter individuals from using drugs like marijuana? For reference, over 48.2 million Americans over age 12 were estimated to have used marijuana in 2019 [7]


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1.1. Crime and the Criminal Justice System Copyright © 2019 by Shanell Sanchez and Kate McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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