The American Criminal Justice System

The American Criminal Justice System


The Constitution of the United States is the basis of the American Criminal Justice System.  It is over 200 years old, and it has been interpreted and amended on various occasions. Consequently, the criminal justice system has changed over the years to reflect the beliefs and needs of each succeeding generation. This has been reflected by changes in various approaches adopted by the criminal justice system to tackle the ever  transitioning face of crime. The police have changed their reactive approach to proactive preventative approaches, the courts have adopted alternatives to incarcerations, while the correction system has adopted a rehabilitative approach to correction. In sum, the American justice system has been in a constant state of change adapting to the needs of the American people.















The criminal justice system in America is an intricate consolidation of three major machineries: law enforcement agencies, the court system and the corrections system. Each section works autonomously while at the same time interdependently as part of the total system function. The usual direction of operation of the system is from law enforcement to the courts systems and finally the corrections system. The criminal justice system forms a critical component of the American society. It costs billions to taxpayers and commissions million of people in its operations. It deals with the lives of millions of individuals who go against laws of the United States and their victims. In some occasions, it deals with issues of life and death. This paper presents a literature overview of the American criminal justice system. It addresses contemporary and traditional criminology issues and views of the successes and failures of the system, the changing roles of the system agencies, the impact of technology as well as the effect of a declining budget.


Traditional criminology theory touches on the criminal justice issues that were in the past century. They include the period when technology had been moderately adopted by the criminal justice systems and the approaches to policing were fairly undeveloped. Despite the failings in terms of adopting contemporary approaches to crime solving, they proved to be successful in addressing some of the pressing crime concerns of the United States at the time.

Analysis of the Success and Failures of the American Criminal Justice System

Successes of the Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system in the United States has experienced successes in its fight against crime. The first and most apparent success comes in the form of reduced rates of violent crimes. Various states statistics indicate that the rated of violent crimes reduced by one-third, while in some cities it reduced by two-thirds.  Rates of Property crimes such as burglary, larceny, and auto thefts have also declined. Inroads have been madeby the use of technologies and improved methods of policing. It has also been attributed to an objective court system and corrections institutions that use rehabilitative approaches as opposed to punishment.

The system has incorporated strategies that made it more effective and efficient. This has involved experimentation with new approaches to fighting crime such as inclusion of the community in policing, and involvement of women and minorities into the police force. There have been resolute endeavors to better police image and relations with the communities they serve. Public relations efforts towards this end have encompassed the use of crime prevention programs such as neighborhood watch programs and community policing. These programs have encouraged citizens’ involvement in tackling crime as well as their cooperation with the police. This has resulted in better police-community relations.

The Courts and Corrections system have also made positive strides in fighting crime. This has been achieved through the search for alternatives to incarceration, such as probation sentence, restitution, and halfway houses. Other alternatives to incarceration include boot camps, home confinement, intensive supervision probation and parole (Roth, 2011). These alternatives address the problems of overcrowding and rising recidivism rates. The American criminal justice system has also been commended for its efforts and successes at being more equitable and more attuned to the needs of the United States of America twenty-first century citizens.

Failures of the Criminal Justice System

Despite the successes of the criminal justice system in tackling crime, it has its failures. First, the true extent of violent crime in the United States has largely remained unknown. This is so because many crimes remain unreported to any law enforcement agency. Crimes like rape remain unreported for fear of shame, while others remain unreported because organized crime gangs terrify their victims into silence. In other cases, victims of crime do not know how to access law enforcement agencies and district attorneys. Thusthey are not able to report crimes against them. Consequently, prosecution of the offenders is limited, ipso facto, because prosecutors are not called on to deal with the many offenses never brought to their attention. Such occurrences are failings of a criminal justice system. In addition, district attorneys offices are overworked and understaffed. The police have also been blamed for use of excessive force and misuse of force, and failure to involve better-educated and better-trained police officers.

The functioning of the courts and the correction system has raised concerns. The effectiveness and justice of the American criminal justice systemhas been questioned. Concerns have been raisedconcerning the overrepresentation of minorities in the prisons. 40% of the prison population consists of African American inmates. In some cities, 50% of young African American men are under the supervision of criminal justice system. Another failure is concerning the cost and length of incarcerations. Incarceration cost are high raising concerns about the viability of long incarceration sentences for crimes that could be punished in other more efficient and effective ways. Additionally, there have been complaints concerning the conviction of innocent citizens and racial bias in conviction. Many convicted citizens have been victims of false prosecution. Other failures of the courts system and correction systems are in the federal sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences policies that are considered unjust; and the dehumanizing experience of prison. The failure to recognize the importance of rehabilitation as a punishment goal is another failure of the system.

Roles of Police, Courts, and Corrections Systems

The criminal justice system is a section of government that ismeets three needs of the public. The first is the need to address crime, and thus maintaining social order and safety of citizens. The society wants to have a sense of security in their homes and public places. The second is the need for law-abiding citizens to feel that lawbreakers are getting what they deserve. The society often feels prejudicially treated when punishment is seen as unfitting a crime. The third need is the need to ensure that lawbreakers are treated justly and fairly. In America society, this means according to the rights stated in the constitution(Worrall & Siegel, 2014).

Roles of the Police

There are various law enforcement agencies at the local levels and federal state level. Each tasked with the duty of upholding law within its jurisdiction. These outfits maintain law and order by enforcing the law. They prevent the commission of crimes, investigate crimes and provide social services in an attempt to maintain peace. The police are the first to respond to a criminal act in response to a victim or citizen report or after observing the act. Therefore, the policeare referred to as “gatekeepers” of the criminal justice system. They use their discretion to make a decision on what steps to be taken in each case. In minor and less serious cases, a suspect is warned and let free. However, in serious cases, an offender is arrested and booked into jail. Law enforcement officer’s jobs do not end with the arrest of an offender. They are tasked with talking to the victim and witnesses and responsible for gathering evidence that would be used in court proceedings. They work closely with the prosecutor to prepare a case for trial.

Roles of the Courts

The United States operates a dual system of federal and state courts that function independently. State courts systems include courts of limited jurisdiction and courts of general jurisdiction. Courts of limited jurisdiction hear misdemeanor and less serious cases, while courts of general jurisdiction hear more serious felony cases and misdemeanor cases. These courts, together with the U.S district courts are the most common associated with conceptions of the criminal justice system. Judges play a critical role in courts. Their role as a neutral party is to interpret the law and determine matters of fact in criminal cases. The judge presides over courtroom proceedings and impose sentences on those found to be guilty. The state and federal courts work under the adversarial system. Under this system, the prosecutor and defense counsel argue opposing cases. The prosecutor prepares and presents the states case that proves the guilt of a criminal defendant beyond reasonable doubt. The defense counsel on the other hand ensures that the defendant’s constitutional rights are protected. He also assists in building a case that will ensure that the defendant is not wrongfully convicted.The justice system has distinct courts for juvenile offenders, although the courtroom work group and processes are similar. The juvenile courts are driven by the goal of serving the best interests of the child. This is as opposed to adult courts where the courts take a more neutral stand towards the parties involved.

Role of the Corrections Institutions

TheCorrection System is composed of several agencies:probation, jails, prisons, and parole. Each designed to carry out the punishments that the courts have imposed. Probation is a front-end community-based sanction. This is where a judge has seen it fit that an offender deserves a chance to be placed on probation where he is subject to certain conditions of release.Jail is an institutional sanction. They accommodate defendants in criminal cases who are awaiting trial as well as sentenced offenders awaiting transportation to prison. Prisons operate at the state or federal level. They are responsible for the care and custody of felony offenders sentenced for more than 1 year. Besides incarceration, they offer mental health, recreation and educational services designed to rehabilitate criminals. With the war on drugs and tough on crime laws, prison populations have skyrocketed, creating a problem for the management and leadership of the various criminal justice agencies. Parole is a back-end sanction designed to protect the public and ease offenders’ transition back into the community.

Juvenile services are delivered through other distinct entities,however, the correction mechanisms are alike. Different terms are employed to denote the rehabilitative approach employed with juvenile offenders. Jails are referred to as “detention centers,” prisons are called “youth development centers” while parole is called “aftercare.”

The Impact New Technology on the Criminal Justice System

The revolution in ICT has had tremendous impact on the criminal justice system. It has become a critical part of policing. It has enhanced the capabilities of law enforcement to identify and apprehend criminals. It has made the system more effective in identifying and tracking known and wanted offenders. Television, videotapes and computer simulations have been used in investigations and courtrooms to present and test evidence, and to reduce delays and costs.

Technology has created a standard for crime control and prevention that the criminal justice system has had a difficult accomplishing. The onset of computer-assisted dispatching, the internet, and global positioning system have changed the approaches to crime detection and criminals supervision. The use of forensic science has also assisted in crime solving. Courts rely on technological systems such as computerized dockets and public access to computer records. In correction institutions, the reliance on keys for prison  doors has diminished, replaced by automated control. Probation and parole officers no longer have to drive around keeping an eye on offenders’ location. They track them with GPS units and electronic monitoring.

It is of note that as the society increasingly uses technology for various activities, the criminal justice system struggles to handle the increased workloads, and educational requirements necessitated by technological advancements. Other challenges faced by the criminal justice system in the face of technological advancements are the difficulty in finding individuals who understand and can use technology available to address crime. Additionally, technology use attracts great costs. In the face of budget cuts, Criminal justice systems do not always have the resources to facilitate their use. Technology has also resulted in the creations of newer forms of crimes. In an age of information technology, people and corporates are sharing personal and financial information through the internet. This has created an avenue for fraud as well as the onset of crimes such as cyberterrorism, identity theft, and cyberbullying.

Budgetary Influences to Criminal Justice in a Declining Economy

Funding has formed one of the most crucial and sensitive issue in the criminal justice system. With no funds, law enforcement agencies cannot be in a position to be proactive in fighting crime, and probation no longer becomes a tool for treating and rehabilitating offenders. Additionally, correction institutions would not address a majority of the challenges they face. Funding defines the programs that would be undertaken and those that would be stopped. The budgets of the United States criminal justice are predominantly financed by public funds, and are dependent on political and social concerns. Thus, the system’s budget is never guaranteed, especially when competing against other perceived more essential public services.

According to Roth(2011) the financial cost of operating criminal justice agencies at all levels of government increases annually by 4 percent. Of the more than 4 million law enforcement, court and correctional employees, a vast majority works in law enforcement, and most of these staff members are on the payroll of local government agencies. However, while courts employ fewer staff than the police and correction, they account for 25 percent of the expenditure. The demands on staff in criminal justice system are high. In the face of a declining economy and competing national needs, the criminal justice system has been faced with a series of budget cuts. This has resulted in a decrease in the quality of service offered to the public by these agencies. The courts have continually been crowded with case backlogs; the correction system has failed to achieve its mission of rehabilitation, while the police agencies have failed to provide apt security to the public. In the face of such challenges, it has become necessary for more effective approaches to criminal justice to ensure that even with budget cuts services are being provided. This has necessitated the adoption of newer strategies to overcome this challenge. These strategies have included the adoption of advanced technologies, as well as recruitment of better-educated and better-trained officers. It has also necessitated the training and grooming of the criminal justice system personnel for leadership and management positions. These individuals will be expected to rely more on intellect and acumen to solve the various challenges facing the criminal justice system.



When asked what crimes scare them the most, the society expresses fear over assault, rapeand other traditional crimes. It is not common that they worry about being caught in an international criminal syndicate, or being a victim of a terrorist attack. Attempts have been made to control traditional crimes,however, emerging forms of crime have presented a considerable threat to society. Because of their importance, effect on public confidence, and capacity to damage, two of the contemporary challenges stick out: cybercrime and terrorism. Neither crimewas known 20 years ago, however in the present day, the criminal justice system at all levels of government have been forced to change and adapt to the threats they present.

Terrorism and Cybercrime

One reason why cyber crime and terrorismexemplify difficult challenges to the criminal justice system is that both are evolving in complexity and seriousness (Power & Kirwan, 2013). Terrorism encompasses the use of illegal force against harmless people to attain political objectives. Tackling terrorism is critical because of the destructive methods adopted such as bombing, killing of hostages, agents and chemical warfare. The tactics employed are outlandish to the American public who desist from violent solutions to their problems. Terrorists have no stake in preserving the social, economic and political structures. They actively plot its ruin. They do not follow any rules of combat and employ any tactic to achieve their goals. Law enforcement agencies have little exposure dealing with such ruthlessness.

Cybercrime is a major contemporary challenge confronting the criminal justice system. It is a product of technological advancements. It refers to any illegal behavior that aims at targeting the security and data processed by computer networks. It encompasses crimes such as implanting computer viruses and illegal acts that target computer networks. These include internet crimes such identity theft and fraud.Although it presents law enforcement systems with a different problem than do terrorism, they share a common basis. Both crimes are dependent on secrecy and stealth. Although they seem independent, cyber space provides avenues for terrorist acts. Making use of the internet as a playhouse of operations, cyber terrorists can launch attacks against a target country’s technological infrastructure, an action referred to as cyberterrorism.

The Composition and Changing Needs of Criminal Justice System

In the face of evolved crimes such as international terrorismand cybercrimesthe composition and needs of police have also changed. There has arisen the need for higher-educated and better-trained police officers.There has also been widespread acknowledgment by stakeholders that the training and education policing need to beupgraded.In recent times there have been efforts to train and recruitbetter educated officers in management and administrative positions. It has been established that better-educated and better-trained police officers bring benefits to their respective law enforcement agencies. According toWorrall & Siegel(2014)College-educated officers communicate better with the public, receive fewer citizen complaints, and show more sensitivity to racial and ethnic group. Theyuse discretion wisely and have lesser disciplinary problems.These are traits invaluable to the criminal justice system. Consequently, there have been efforts to overhaul the training approaches of law enforcement agencies to make them prepared to handle the newer forms of crimes. There have been steps to advance the education levels of law enforcement officers preparing them for higher positions of responsibility as well as absorb them into more specialized units of various agencies.

Changing Roles of the Criminal Justice System

In contemporary criminal justice, the roles of the various agencies in the system have largely remained the same. However, due to the changing and emerging crimetrends, it has necessitated the adoption of newerapproaches to policing. This notwithstanding, the roles of the various systems have largely remained unchanged.Although in the past the police, the courts and corrections institutionswere perceived as separate institutions, they now form a loose system of criminal justice. Each interacts with and is influenced by the others. The police as gatekeepers of the criminal justice system influence the types and number of cases entering the court system. Their investigative work directly affects a prosecutor’s ability to secure a conviction. The decision about prosecution impacts on the workload of the courts.  The court system on the other hand, determines the type of offenders transitioning into the correction system. A court system that adopts tough on crime approaches results to overcrowding in prisons. Consequently, crowding in prisons results to early release of criminals into the society, where many of them recidivate and go through the criminal justice system again.

After the 9/11 terror attacks, dramatic changes have been made in the priorities of the government. The priorities of various law agencies were changed to emphasize on the prevention of terrorisms. Specialized agencies were established to deal with newer forms of crime. However, the traditional roles of the criminal system have largely remained the same.

Changing Demographics of the American Population in Contemporary United States

As there have been advances in technology, the demographic and cultural makeup of the society in America has changed. Migrants have settled in the United States in increased numbers than before. Consequently, the stresses on the change in structure and the capacity of the criminal justice system to fulfill the demands of the new population have been challenged. While laws usually make it possible to easen the burdens placed on the criminal justice system as a result of demographic and cultural changes, this has not been the case.Changes in a community population shapes the manner in which the criminal justice system functions. Consequently, the criminal system in the United States has changed.Demographic factors including gender, age, and race affect crime rates. According to Travis & Edwards(2015)90 % of violent crimes are perpetrated by the males, and 50% by persons below the age of 25. In states where the population is made up of a higher proportion of young males, as will be the case withtheUnited States population, it is expected crime rates will soar.Demographic changes have complicated the fight against crime. This is because they have necessitated the adoption of different approaches to tackle crime. This has strained the human resources that can be channeled towards fighting contemporary crimes, as well as strained the systems especially in light of budget cuts.

Technology Use in Contemporary American Justice System

Presently, the criminal justice system has been faced with financial constraints in the form of budget cuts. The consequent budget realities have demanded that police administration make the most effective use of their forces.Technology has presented amethod of increasing productivity at a relatively low cost. The introduction of technology has been explosive. Today nearly, every law enforcement organization relies in some form of computer technology.

Contemporary criminal justice system use of technology extends beyond computers. It falls into the categories of hard and soft technology. Hard technology includes improved police protection devices and weapons, and offender and citizen IDs via biometrics. Innovations in soft technologies include new programs and system integration. They includeprofiling potential offenders, threat and risk assessment, and crime analysis.Police have become sophisticated in their use of computer software to identify, locate and convict criminals. Technology being employed includeHigh-Definition Surveying, Crime Mapping, Biometrics, Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems (AFIS), and DNA testing (Siegel & Worrall, 2015).

The correction systems have also adopted the use of technology in their operations. Modern prisons and jailsare making use of technology to improve custody and services. Electronic perimeter security has reduced construction costs andaccelerated construction schedules for new prisons. Closed circuit television, automatic locking devices, and careful planning have reduced the need for custodial staff in prison and jails. Corrections systems have adopted satellite monitoring, heartbeat monitoring and smartcards that allow officials to track each inmate with little paperwork.These technological advancements adopted have enhanced justice and in the face of the evolving criminal trends such as international and domestic terrorism, internet theft, white collar crimes, drug trafficking they have proved to be invaluable tools for addressing crime. In general, with technological development, the criminal justice system is now able to detect, apprehend, and process offenders more quickly and economically.

While access to technology has enhanced the criminal justice systems efficiency, and information sharing in tackling crime, it has created widespread challenges.Technological advancements have raised the bar for criminal justice. The public demandsthe system employs technology to administer laws, detect crime and address crime rates. Increasingly, the society not only wants law enforcement agencies and the court system to have instantaneous access to information on case laws, but they also want the corrections institution to monitor offenders residing in the community through technology. Additionally, as services have become more efficient and effective as a result of technology, they also become harder to provide. This is because of the invention of new offenses like cyber bullying, internet fraud, and identity theft. This is in addition to a lack of training and skilled employees, and the inability of the system to afford the technologies available.



The criminal justice system is changing more quickly than ever. What was once a slow evolution based on experimentation and innovation has turned into a proactive attempt to contain and suppress criminal behavior that was unthinkable in years past. The future of the criminal justice system is likely to pivot around several key areas. These are technology, demographic changes, leadership and management, changing crime and law and policing practices.

The expected changes in the demographic composition of the population will necessitate the criminal justice system to adapt accordingly. The composition of the justice system is expected to be more inclusive and accommodative to the changing population by recruiting from diverse communities and adopting policies that are not discriminatory. While population trends are important, the economy and technological advancementalso shape the direction of the criminal justice system. Technological advancements have created new classes of crime. Although crime rates have trended downwards, internet crimes are more than likely to increase in future. This will be coupled by increases in international terrorism threats. The justice system will be forced to continually adopt more advanced technologies and more effective approaches to policing will have to be adopted.While traditionally law enforcement agencies were reactive and contemporary police proactive, the future criminal justice system is likely to be more proactive and future-oriented in their decision-making and operations. The role of the criminal justice system in the society will broaden. The system will be accountable for broader quality of life than simply crime control. Future criminal justice practices will stress on crime control over due process. It is expected that there will be increased criminal justice system efforts at crime prevention, accompanied by less concern about individual liberty and due process.



In conclusion, criminal justice systems must adopt planning programs that are proactive to observe changing trends and conceive new approaches that facilitate and meet emerging trends. The criminal system must form partnerships with the public and private sector. This will assist in the provision of expertise and resources with which to tackle evolving and newer forms of crimes such as terrorism, cyber crime and manage demographic diversity in the American population. Criminal justice system Management styles should also change giving emphasis to leadership ability and interpersonal relationship building.

Finally, it is worth noting the while the United States criminal justice system evidently has its failings, it is achieving some of its missions and goals and expected roles. The law enforcement agencies are providing protection to those who are in need the protection of the law. They are addressing and keeping crime in check. The court system is ensuring justice is served and avoiding discrimination in the course of serving justice. It is also ensuring that reasonable limits on punishments are maintained. On the other hand, the corrections systems are endeavoring to ensure that convicted offenders are rehabilitated and come out of the criminal justice system as improved and reformed citizens.



Power, A., & Kirwan, G. (2013). Cybercrime: The Psychology of Online Offenders. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roth, M. (2011). Crime and Punishment: A History of the Criminal Justice System. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

Siegel, L., & Worrall, J. (2015). Introduction to Criminal Justice (15 ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

Travis, L. F., & Edwards, B. D. (2015). Introduction to Criminal Justice. Waltham, MA: Routledge.

Worrall, J., & Siegel, L. (2014). Essentials of Criminal Justice (9 ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

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