What's the Purpose of the Criminal Justice System?
Every day, it seems like discussions about the U.S. criminal justice system come up – whether in the media, society as a whole, or our own conversations. The topics range from the discretion police officers have in executing their duties when protecting our communities and enforcing laws to the state of our prison system to calls for criminal justice reform.
Over the years, as our country has grown and progressed, parts of our criminal justice system have transformed. For instance, laws have changed, as many states have legalized the recreational and/or medicinal use of marijuana. Processes have also changed, such as requiring police officers to have a warrant before compelling a person to submit to a DUI blood draw.
Regardless of recent and continuing criminal justice overhauls, one of the primary and underlying purposes of the system has not changed: ensuring that anyone accused of a crime is afforded a fair justice process. Without our criminal justice system, it's possible that there would be no law and order and that individuals in positions of authority could abuse their power, haphazardly punishing those believed to have violated a law.
The Structure of the Criminal Justice System
In the U.S., a singular criminal justice system does not exist. Instead, each state has its own processes for handling criminal matters, as does the federal government.
That said, the overall structure of state and federal criminal justice systems is fundamentally the same. Each is composed of three primary components: the police, the courts, and the corrections.
The individuals within these sections have their roles in the criminal justice system:
- Police investigate and arrest criminal suspects
- Prosecutors pursue or drop charges
- Criminal defense attorneys protect the rights of the accused
- Judges interpret the law and accept pleas
- Juries hear the facts and determine the suspect's guilt or innocence
- Corrections officials confine those found guilty of crimes and may play a role in rehabilitating inmates to help with re-entry into society after the sentence is complete
At the same time, the individuals within the components of the criminal justice system interact to prevent miscarriages of the law and protect the safety of society.
Whether a person has been accused of a state or federal crime, the criminal justice system in the jurisdiction where the matter is handled must, at all times, respect the individual's rights. Various checks and balances within the different justice system components facilitate this.
Of course, our criminal justice system is not always perfect – any system existing in a sphere composed of people of differing beliefs is bound to have at least some flaws. But generally, the structure of our criminal justice system protects individuals from undue government intervention or restriction of liberties.
Preventing Government Officials from Overstepping Their Authority
The criminal justice process begins when someone is suspected of committing a crime. The report to local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies triggers an investigation. This is our first glimpse of the purpose of the criminal justice system at work.
The reason for the investigation is to identify and apprehend a suspect. It is also to collect sufficient evidence for the prosecutor to pursue the case.
To facilitate fairness in the criminal justice process, when law enforcement officials investigate, they must do so following specific laws and rules. Investigators cannot violate a person's rights when gathering and preserving evidence. Doing so could impact the case later.
Some of the things law enforcement officers must do during the investigation include, but are not limited to:
- Reading the suspect their Miranda warning. Essentially, this warning reminds those arrested and being interrogated that they do not have to answer the investigator's questions; they have the right to remain silent. This facilitates fairness by preventing the suspect from saying anything that could be misconstrued as incriminating information.
- Obtaining a warrant before conducting a search or seizure. For the most part, before investigators can look through or confiscate a person's property, they must obtain permission from the court. If this were not a requirement, people could be deprived of property or privacy at any time – even if officers did not have a valid reason to look through their stuff. Likewise, law enforcement officials need a warrant to arrest someone. The same justification for needing a warrant to conduct a search applies to the arrest requirement – people's liberties could be unjustly restricted if officers did not have cause to do so. It must be noted that exceptions to the warrant requirements do exist. However, officers must still show that such action was necessary and lawful.
- Collecting evidence as carefully as possible. When gathering evidence, officers must be precise and adhere to policies and procedures established by the law enforcement agency. They must also ensure that things are done in a way that does not infringe upon a person's constitutional protections. Failure to exercise care during the investigation could result in a conviction of an innocent person.
Facilitating a Fair Trial
The second component of the criminal justice system, the courts, is responsible for ensuring that the defendant gets a fair trial.
The process begins with the prosecutor. After law enforcement officials complete their investigation, they hand off their findings to a prosecutor, who decides whether or not to proceed with the case.
In the American criminal justice system, the government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for a person to be convicted of a crime. The prosecutor's decision is based on the evidence provided. If the prosecutor does not believe that enough evidence exists, they might decide to drop the case – preventing a person from standing trial for conduct that cannot be sufficiently proven. Yet, if there is enough evidence, the case will move forward.
After the prosecutor decides to proceed, the judge steps in to ensure the defendant's constitutional rights are protected. Specifically, they make sure the defendant understands the charges brought against them.
Within a reasonable amount of time, the defendant must be brought before a magistrate, who reads the charging document the prosecutor submitted. They explain what the defendant has been accused of and ask if the defendant understands. At this point, the defendant can have a criminal defense attorney represent them and provide further clarification.
Criminal defense lawyers play an important role in facilitating a fair trial. Although many people associate the defense counselor's job with proving innocence, that's not actually what they do. In fact, because the American criminal justice system affords the presumption of innocence, the criminal defense attorney does not have to prove their client is innocent – it's the prosecutor's job to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Instead, the defense attorney examines the details of the case, from the investigation to charges being brought. They identify inconsistencies, constitutional violations, or other procedural errors that cast doubt on the prosecutor's arguments. Defense lawyers ensure that laws are followed, and the scales of justice are not tipped unfairly in one direction.
Typically, in a criminal case, jurors decide whether someone is guilty or innocent. They do this by listening to both the prosecutor's and defense attorney's arguments. Having an impartial jury is a protection afforded by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It ensures that criminal matters are not decided by law enforcement officials, prosecutors, or any other party who may be biased and base their findings on their desire to punish anyone supposed to have committed a crime.
In some situations, a judge might decide the case. However, their decision must be grounded in the law and the facts.
The final decision in the case brings us back to the investigation. The judge's or jury's decision must be based on the evidence, which law enforcement officials initially gathered at the beginning of the case. This is why investigators need to follow the rules and procedures. If they don't, an innocent person could be convicted of a crime.
Fortunately, the U.S. criminal justice system has additional checks and balances in place to facilitate fairness. If someone believes that they were wrongly convicted, they can file an appeal and have a higher court review the case.
Depending on the situation, the defense may bring up various grounds to argue that the defendant was unjustly convicted or sentenced. These include, but are not limited to:
- Misinterpretation of the law by the judge
- Misconduct on the part of jurors or prosecutors
- Conviction based on insufficient evidence
The U.S. criminal justice system has a primary purpose of facilitating fairness for all. But because of its complexities, if you have been accused of a state crime in Rhode Island, reach out to The Law Office of Thomas C. Thomasian, Esq. for legal representation. Attorney Tom Thomasian will be your voice and stand up for you at every stage, addressing any injustices and seeking remedy.
To schedule a free consultation, call (401) 312-4385 or submit an online contact form today.