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Criminal Justice System and Societal Expectations


Social order and protection of citizens are often considered the main priority of the state and the government. Society has considerable expectations of the Criminal Justice System seeing it as the protection against violence and crimes. Considerable expectations of the Criminal Justice System are explained by fear of crime and fear of violence. In general, crime is a social phenomenon of some consequence. Each year millions of people are injured and billions of dollars are lost yet the significance of crime goes far beyond the physical pain and economic loss (Bowling & Phillips 2002). Crime has become such a focal point in our lives that it is often a basis for interpreting the events around us. If a person sees a group of teenage boys moving toward, he/she worries that they may be muggers.

Fear of crime

If a person is awakened during the night, his/her first thought is that someone is breaking into a home. Fear of crime appears to be gnawing away at the very fabric of modern culture. Crime is a common topic of public debate and is often an important issue of public policy. Elected officials have gained office by promising to do something about it. But the significance of crime does not stop there. Citizens are mass consumers of the sensationalism of crime. People watch television and movie crime dramas, read report after report in newspapers of violent crimes, and view in homes during the six o’clock news the victims and the perpetrators of crime (Bowling & Phillips 2002)

Desire for protection

High expectations of the Criminal Justice System are explained by concerns and the desire for protection typical for human behavior. Body language of people in public places is an excellent example. When police officers appear on a subway platform, the crowd gravitates toward them. Fewer people wear jewelry in public places, instead of concealing it beneath clothing for fear it will be snatched. To isolate themselves psychologically, people avoid making eye contact with one another in crowded public places. People are also adopting more aggressive and violent means of self-protection (Cavadino & Dignan 2002).

As crime has risen as an issue of public concern, politicians and public officials have attempted to respond to the problem. In recent years the direction of these efforts has been toward “getting tough” on criminals. Many states have passed new legislation that has tightened sentences, reduced judicial and correctional discretion, and restricted probation and parole to strengthen punitive efforts. The law enforcement establishment has undertaken new programs aimed at detecting career criminals. Each of these efforts is intended to increase the chances of detection and the severity of sanctions, so offenders will reconsider the profits of crime, and remove from the community those offenders who are most dangerous (Australian Institute of Criminology 2008).

Fear of crime and the motivation to do something about it is based on two commonly held beliefs. The first is that people are engulfed in a historically unprecedented wave of violent and predatory crime. This implies that the situation today is different from that in the past. Furthermore, there is a belief not only that there is more crime but also that criminals are more dangerous (Australian Institute of Criminology 2008).

The problem is therefore seen as qualitatively worse, more violent, and less rational than in the past. The second belief is that responsive government should and can respond to the problem. Implicit in this assumption is the conviction that crime is a solvable problem, that action can be taken to reduce crime and return the nation to the safety and harmony known in the past. Surprisingly, these ideas are seldom questioned in a public forum (Cavadino & Dignan 2002).

Few people–the media, politicians, or agency officials-ever investigate their validity, ever ask whether crime is as bad as most people believe or whether public action can reduce the incidence of crime. Crime is uniquely debilitating because it destroys feelings of security and the sense of interpersonal trust that binds a community together.

People believed that the criminal-justice system stressed rehabilitation at the expense of punishment. The Post went on to observe, “The only way to stop crime is to punish the guilty and do it quickly, firmly and severely. The trouble at present is that we are spending millions of dollars and valuable time in providing ways to ‘reform’ criminals and make it easier for persons who ought to be in jail to escape the law” (The Boston Post p. 6).

Living with high crime rates

Violent crime at unprecedently high levels is, alas, not confined to Australia, although few other developed societies have experienced comparable rates. A peculiarly Australian phenomenon can be seen in the frequency of gun-related homicides and other serious offenses, as well as self-inflicted injuries, which cannot be dissociated from easy access to a vast and feebly regulated reservoir of firearms. In Britain too over recent decades, criminal offending reported to the police has risen to levels previously unknown in the twentieth century, leading to a widespread and debilitating fear of crime, and a creeping normalization (Levin & McDevitt 1993).

Today, living with high crime rates is regarded as normal, a fact of modern life, like pollution or the perils of heavy road traffic that has to be accommodated. But normalization does not mean acceptance or passive resignation. On the contrary, anger and frustration are propelled to the forefront of both media attention and electoral politics. How politicians, and the officials who advise them and have the unenviable task of managing the consequences of their policies, translate the forces of opinion into legislation is a fascinating subject for study (Faulkner, 2001). Both categories are, or ought to be, aware of the limited capacity of governments to control, still less reduce, the incidence of crime.

Yet democratic electoral politics do not allow for such admissions. Hence the emergence of punitiveness as a reaction that can be exhibited to the general public even if, in anything beyond the short term, it is likely to exacerbate the social blight caused by such extensive criminality rather than ameliorate it (Faulkner, 2001). The superficial attraction to the general public of proclaimed toughness is self-evident. It is infectious and quickly spreads across the political spectrum. However, it can serve as a rhetorical smokescreen, presaging the introduction of questionable policies which then come to be regarded as politically irreversible (Australian Institute of Criminology 2008).

The growing emphasis on crime prevention, or self-protection, will provide a substitute for the protection of the citizen which the authority of the state can no longer provide. The bulwark of the judges, fortified by the instrument of judicial review, will prevent too drastic a degradation of standards of justice. Politicians will begin to lead opinion as well as reacting to it. But it is hard to be at the same time confident and realistic about the prospect (Levin & McDevitt 1993).

During the last several decades, a gradual disenchantment with the criminal justice system has occurred. Seemingly, citizens have acquired a strong degree of cynicism about law enforcement, the courts, and corrections, and their respective abilities to process, punish, and manage offenders. In the area of law enforcement, there is little differentiation between juvenile and adult offenders. Police officers are responsible for arresting law violators, whether they are juveniles or adults.

For the most part, the procedures employed by the police vary little as the result of a suspect’s age (Croall, 1992). There are some differences, however, and these variations will be explained. When making arrests, most police methods are identical for juveniles and adults. After an arrest occurs, police procedures begin to diverge based on the age of the offender (Dobash & Dobash 1993).

These distinctions include fingerprinting and photographing of suspects and interrogation techniques. The fear in handling juvenile suspects is that such routine “criminal” processing would emphasize or increase the stigma associated with formal justice system processing. Therefore, police operations reflect the original conception of the juvenile justice system: procedures should be confidential, non-adversarial, and, to the extent possible, non stigmatizing (Cullen & Newell, 1999).

Although most local law enforcement officials understand the problems with official statistics, they still rely on them. When the Uniform Crime Reports are published, local officials comment on the changes from the previous year and try to explain why their community experiences more or less crime than other cities. But one never hears a police chief claim that the statistical figures do not provide an accurate representation of crime in the community or the nation.

That would raise questions about the accuracy of local figures (Hudson, 2003). More importantly, the psychology and emotional circumstances of law enforcement contribute to a belief that crime is increasing. Police departments are closed organizations whose members often become emotionally cut off from the rest of society. Many recruits are attracted to the occupation by a sense of social responsibility and a desire to make the community a better and safer place in which to live (Faulkner, 2001). Those dreams are often quickly frustrated as the rookie police officer develops a cynical attitude about people which is common among other members of the force.

Police officers are continually faced with human misery, cruelty, and degradation, which begin to take an important place in their worldview. An officer’s feelings are amplified by the isolation he or she feels as social contacts outside the department become strained. People react negatively to the occupation and its authority even when a police officer is off duty. As a result, a strong sense of the we/they dichotomy develops (Faulkner, 2001).

Psychologically as well as organizationally, this part of police work makes it possible to accept the suggestion that crime is worsening. It follows that one harboring a negative view of human nature would expect community life to degenerate. Many of the daily experiences of police work exacerbate this attitude: having to inform a murder victim’s family of the tragedy; investigating the brutal rape of a child; arresting some people over and over, just to see them freed.

Police officers are not immune to the effects of incivility either. As they patrol an area and observe it succumbing to urban deterioration, or face teenagers who progressively defy their authority, they feel the effects of these visible signs and because of their orientation are inclined to view them as indicating that control is being lost. It follows that there would be a corresponding increase in crime. Despite these opinions, members of the law enforcement establishment as well as others in the criminal justice field cling to a belief that improvements can be made. This is the second perception that plays a significant role in guiding the system (Faulkner, 2001).

It is expected that if “appropriate” actions are taken the system will be able to stall the tide of rising crime and make communities safer. Police officers believe that the system if given the necessary resources and allowed the freedom to attack the problem as seen fit, can fulfill its mission of crime control. This expectation is based on a possibly unrealistic assumption that crime is a solvable problem for which some action or change can be taken to reduce or preclude criminal acts (Cullen & Newell 1999).

Imposition of the death penalty

Resentment over the imposition of the death penalty, especially in the European states, had been building up for a long time. The argument advanced by some scholarly critics, as well as by black activists, was that sentencing for homicide was unduly influenced by the race of the defendant and/or the race of the victim. Statistics on disparities in a sentence were marshaled to support the contention that capital sentencing was administered in a racially discriminatory way.

To the extent that support for capital punishment is a symbolic response by the public to the violent crime rate, there appears to be little likelihood that the death penalty debate will be resolved soon (Cullen & Newell 1999). This is especially true because violent crime rates have remained high relative both to levels earlier in this century and to those of other industrialized countries. Indeed, during the 1990s, although the overall crime rate was growing much more slowly than in previous decades, it still was at an all-time high (Davies et al 1998).

Continuation of the agency to ensure jobs, positions, and continued service delivery is the objective of survival activities. Growth takes us back to Hobbes’ observation that self-protection necessitates the constant and perpetual search for “power after power.” Expansion protects agencies from external threats from larger public bureaucracies that have more political power. This tendency toward growth is evident in the yearly budget requests of criminal justice agencies.

Seldom is an equivalent budget requested; instead, funds for additional personnel and supplies and new programs and projects are included in each year’s proposal. This approach to public finance produces growth: the agency becomes larger, its functions are broadened, and greater public dependence is slowly fostered. Over time, these trends firmly establish the organizational function as a public priority, ensuring the power of its officials and the survival of the organization (Davies et al 1998).

In embodying a strong sense of self-preservation, organizations may displace their original purpose with the means to obtain organizational goals. Within criminal justice agencies, goal displacement takes the form of a less aggressive approach to responsibilities to maintain organizational strength. To avoid public resentment, police departments refrain from full enforcement of laws (Faulkner, 2001). Laws affecting the poor criminal are more often vigorously enforced than those directed toward wealthy embezzlers, polluters, fraudulent investors, and other white-collar criminals.

Losing sight of original objectives because of preoccupation with administration issues is not unique to criminal- justice agencies; in fact, it appears to be a common organizational response. Political parties, unions, and other government agencies are similarly burdened (Faulkner, 2001). Organizational self-interest intensifies as an organization is threatened in some way. Criminal-justice agencies also function within uncertain and often politically precarious environments. Their fates are often decided by politicians who do not have the same interests as members of the organization. In studying the Indianapolis police department (Walker et al 1987).

Because criminal-justice agencies are funded within political environments, they must compete with other public organizations for resources. If the public and government officials are convinced that the services of the sanitation or fire department, the educational system, the zoo, or even the providers of defense are more important than criminal justice, then the justice system may suffer fiscal cutbacks. Resources may be reduced, personnel may be laid off, and new equipment may not be provided (Bowling & Phillips 2002). These factors contribute to uncertainty within criminal justice agencies.

Officials strengthen their organizational position by showing people that crime is a serious threat to their well-being but that the system can provide needed protection if supported. To convince citizens that its services are required, the crime control establishment is one of the few organizations that admit and even fabricates its failure. Since few alternatives are available to citizens, they cling to the assurances of the system. Most people have no direct and personal interest in the welfare, so its failure is met with resignation, but because fear of crime is so intense the public is willing to invest further in the potential of law enforcement (Bowling & Phillips 2002).

Since criminal-justice agencies exist within a myriad of public service organizations, including fire protection, ambulance services, welfare, sanitation, parks and recreation, highways and streets, and health and education, their survival and growth is determined by the competition with these agencies for scarce and relatively fixed resources (Brownlee, 1998). If criminal-justice agencies fail to convince government and political decision-makers that their services are needed and that they can protect the public, their ability to compete in this struggle for resources will be limited and they will not fare well in annual budget hearings (Brownlee, 1998).

Preventive detention

Preventive detention has been debated for many years. Its proponents argue that it would prevent crime by incapacitating those likely to re-offend. Its opponents claim that it is fundamentally unfair because it allows a judge to decide a person’s future behavior. Since no one can accurately predict behavior, particularly criminality, the chances of mistakes are high. It is also considered to be a dangerous step toward punishment without trial. Since most of the nation’s jails are already overcrowded and in disrepair, it is pragmatically an unworkable solution. During the heyday of rehabilitation, the form of sentencing most often used was the indeterminate sentence (Faulkner, 2001).

Legislatures set wide ranges for sentencing, and judges meted out minimums and maximums that also had a wide range. This allowed correctional personnel the discretion of releasing offenders when they were reformed. No one, other than correctional authorities, cared for this system. Inmates did not like it because their release depended on the whims of the parole board and because offenders never knew exactly when they would be released. Judges and the public did not like it because the term served never resembled the actual sentence given and was almost always shorter. Recent legislation in many states replaced the indeterminate sentence with more determinate forms of sentencing (Walker et al 1987).

Discretion has been taken away from correctional personnel and assumed by legislators and judges. New laws specifying set lengths of sentences for particular offenses allow modifications of the time served based on the specific circumstances associated with a given incident. Judges then sentence according to the prescribed scheme and set a specific time for a person to remain incarcerated, which correctional officials can do little to modify (Faulkner, 2001).


Criminal-justice officials understand the causes of crime and are motivated solely by a desire to attack those problems to reduce crime. This is not to suggest that criminal justice personnel are devoid of human compassion or motivated solely by self-interest. Police officers risk their lives to arrest violent offenders, public defenders work overtime to represent their clients, jurors deliberate in stuffy rooms for days to arrive at proper verdicts, and probation officers loan clients their own money to help them through troubled times. The altruistic concern is important in determining behavior within the system, yet self-interest is also a factor. The goal of self-preservation is evidenced by activities that promote organizational survival and expansion.


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  2. Bowling, B. and Phillips, C. 2002, Racism, Crime an Justice, Harlow: Longman.
  3. Brownlee, I. 1998, Community Punishment: A Critical Introduction, Harlow: Longman.
  4. Levin, J., McDevitt, J. 1993, Hate Crimes: The Rising Tide of Bigotry and Bloodshed. Plenum Publishing Corporation.
  5. Cavadino, M. and Dignan, J. 2002, The Penal System: An Introduction, 3rd edn, London: Sage.
  6. Croall, H. 1992, Understanding White Collar Crime, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
  7. Cullen, E. and Newell, T. 1999, Murderers and Life Imprisonment: Containment, Treatment, Safety and Risk, Winchester: Waterside Press.
  8. Davies, H., Croall, H. and Tyrer, J. 1998, Criminal Justice, 2nd edn, Harlow: Longman.
  9. Dobash, R. P. and Dobash, R. E. 1998, Rethinking Violence Against Women, London: Sage.
  10. Faulkner, D. 2001, Crime, State and Citizen: A Field Full of Folk, Winchester: Waterside Press.
  11. Hudson, B. 2003, Understanding Justice: An Introduction to Ideas, Perspectives and Controversies in Modern Penal Theory, 2nd edn, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
  12. Walker, J, Collins, Mark and Wilson, P. 1987, ‘”How the public sees sentencing: an Australian survey’, Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, 4: pp.1-6. Web.
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