criminal justice

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Criminal justice is an umbrella term that refers to the laws, procedures, institutions, and policies at play before, during, and after the commission of a crime. As a modern concept, criminal justice expresses two central ideas: 

  • Suspects, convicted criminals and victims of crime all have certain rights;
  • Criminal conduct should be prosecuted and punished by the state following set laws. 

By contrast, throughout ancient history, criminal acts were resolved privately, often by ”blood feuds” for murder and trial by ordeal for other crimes. The biblical phrase "an eye for an eye" embodied the criminal justice principles of ancient times. In ancient Athens, for example, citizens were left to investigate and prosecute crimes with no government assistance. In this context, criminal justice referred to all available means private citizens had to avenge the harm caused by a crime.

Criminal justice has since evolved as a concept. In modern times, criminal justice reflects developments in legal theory, social science, politics, and changes in legal systems. Private citizens are no longer charged with the duty to investigate and prosecute crimes for personal vengeance. Instead, modern societies are built on a social contract that governments are responsible for maintaining order in their jurisdictions. To achieve order, governments created criminal laws, developed police systems, and established courts and facilities for incarceration; including jails and prisons. Governments funded criminal defense lawyers to represent the indigent in legal proceedings and paid the salaries of judges to apply laws to the case at hand. In this context, criminal justice is the system that prescribes the fate of the criminal. It is also the system that provides recompense to the victim under the rule of law. Criminal justice seeks to deter future crimes by creating penalties for criminal conduct and rehabilitate criminals through incarceration. It is a system that delivers "justice" through a punishment proportionate to the crime.

In the United States, criminal justice evolved dramatically during the Hoover administration when President Herbert Hoover established the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, chaired by U.S. Attorney General George Wickersham. Known as the Wickersham Commission, the coalition studied the criminal justice system's current state, from policing tactics, prison conditions, and the root causes of crime. The final report documented rampant corruption among police officers, dangerous prison conditions, and hostile police tactics. Indeed, the Wickersham Report criticized the police for their "general failure... to detect and arrest criminals guilty of the many murders, spectacular bank, payroll, and other holdups and sensational robberies with guns." In turn, the Commission led to dramatic reform in the criminal justice system.

Criminal justice also refers to reform movements targeted at ending mass incarceration. In the United States, criminal justice reform efforts highlight issues such as discriminatory policing, the disproportionate number of poor people of color incarcerated, the high cost of incarceration, the dangerous conditions of the prison, and the questionable benefit of imprisonment to public safety, among others.

 [Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team