Understanding the criminal justice system

Phases of the criminal justice system

PUNISHABLE CRIMES Considers the overuse of criminal law as well as the abuse of low-level offenses. POLICING Covers practices by and powers of law enforcement, including aggressive enforcement of minor crimes. PRETRIAL & TRIAL Considers key aspects of criminal adjudication, including the grand jury and decision to detain a defendant prior to trial. PUNISHMENT AND SENTENCING Reviews the traditional rationales for punishment and the related failures of modern sentencing. PRISON, RELEASE & REENTRY Covers confinement and release, and whether prison rehabilitation programs can reduce recidivism.

About the phases

Every morning in the United States, 2.3 million people wake up in a state or federal prison, while 6.6 million people continue living their lives under some form of correctional supervision. Committing a punishable crime was their entry point into the criminal justice system. which authorized the government to arrest, detain, prosecute, and ultimately convict them. Punishable crimes are, in this important sense, the foundation of our criminal justice system. But what are they?

Criminal laws are the rules and prohibitions—typically drafted by legislators and codified in criminal statutes—that tell us how to behave if we want to avoid state-sanctioned punishment. Crimes are acts that violate these laws. In a nation with 5% of the world’s population, 20% of the world’s prisoners, and more criminal laws than anyone can count, now more than ever, it is important to consider what activities should be punished as a crime. America’s approach to criminalization can be simply summarized. Too many people are convicted of crimes, while many we do convict spend too much time in prison. As a result, individual lives are destroyed, families are separated, and communities are devastated.

We have identified some of the key issues that arise when determining what behavior to criminalize and the academic literature on those issues. The research collected here raises and then answers essential questions for those interested in addressing the issue of punishable crimes in American society such as: Do we have too many crimes and, if so, what should be done about it? Should a guilty mind—or what the law refers to as mens rea—be a necessary component of criminal liability? Should we criminalize the use and distribution of controlled substances and, if so, what should our drug laws look like? Why are punishable crimes disproportionately enforced upon communities of color, and what have the consequences been? How should we approach criminalization decisions in other contexts—from guns to gangs to bullying?

Police are charged with enforcing our criminal laws, which includes preventing crime, investigating crimes that have occurred, identifying and apprehending suspects, and gathering the evidence that will be used at trial. Much of what police officers do on a day-to-day basis though, has nothing to do with solving crime. Police are often called to quiet noisy neighbors, relocate homeless individuals, and render aid. As a result, police are often the most visible element of the criminal justice system. They have also become the most controversial element. This is, in part, because they have significant discretion on where and how to enforce laws. In particular, unlike the rest of us, police are authorized to use force against the members of the community they serve. To truly reform policing practices, we need to answer two broad questions: What do we want police to do? and How can we ensure they do it well?

We have identified some of the aspects of policing most examined in the academic literature. The research collected here raises and then answers specific questions for those interested in improving policing. Those questions include: What limits should the law impose on police techniques for investigating crimes and collecting evidence? How do we ensure those techniques do not infringe on individual rights or contribute to wrongful convictions? When, and under what circumstances should police be authorized to use physical force against members of the community? How can we hold police officers and departments legally accountable when force is used inappropriately? What can be done about the consistent and demonstrable racial disparities in police-citizen interactions and outcomes?

What happens after the police arrest someone? The prosecutor must decide whether to charge the defendant and with what, a grand jury must decide to permit the prosecutor to proceed, discovery and further investigation occurs, pre-trial motions on a variety topics, such as the exclusion of evidence must be filed and decided, a plea bargain might be offered and accepted, and, if not, the case goes to trial, where a jury is selected, evidence is presented, and the jury decides whether the government has proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed a crime. This portion of the criminal justice process is especially prone to human bias and error because the prosecutor has significant power and wide discretion to use it, or not.

The prosecutor gets to determine whether or not to charge a defendant or offer a plea bargain, the terms of which he gets to set. Ninety-five percent of people charged with criminal offenses take a plea deal and never make it to trial. The fairness of the pretrial and trial process may be affected by lack of funding for the numerous indigent defendants brought through the system, restrictions on pretrial discovery, and the use of forensic evidence found to be scientifically unsound. These and other issues have contributed to wrongful convictions of innocent individuals. Crime victims’ interests must also be considered during this phase of the process, and as with every aspect of the criminal justice system, racial disparities abound.

The academic research collected here raises and then answers essential questions about the pre-trial and trial aspects of the criminal justice system.

After a defendant is convicted or pleads guilty, he must be sentenced. Sentencing is typically done at a separate hearing and reflects societal norms and values. The type of sentence and its magnitude represents a judgment about the wrongfulness of that act, the defendant’s liability, and the threat posed by the incident and the individual. The sentence might serve any number of goals, including deterrence, protecting the public, and retribution, among others. Sentencing is one of the most potent actions any government can take against the governed: the deprivation of status, property, liberty, and even life itself.

Below, we have identified some of the key issues that arise when determining how a defendant is sentenced and the academic literature on those issues. The research collected here addresses essential questions for those interested in exploring important questions: Why do we punish? How are sentencing decisions made? What are the consequences of U.S. sentencing law and policy?

U.S. prisons house 1.5 million people. This section explores life in prison, the ways people are released from prison, either through clemency or by serving their sentences, and how people transition from prison life to society, often called “reentry”. Most who leave prison face unforeseen consequences from having a criminal conviction, from housing, to parental rights, to employment. These consequences can follow them long after they’ve served their sentences and continue to hinder their ability to rejoin society as productive members.

The academic research collected addresses essential questions about the aspects of prison, release, and reentry and how to remove unnecessary barriers that may lead people back to the criminal justice system.