Imagine a society where there are no laws. Everyone is free to do as they please and no one is held responsible for their actions. Feeling hungry but don’t have any money? Just walk into the nearest café, pull out a gun and ask for a burger. Need to get somewhere but your car is broken? Simply steal your neighbor’s car and get on with your journey.

How do you think life would be in such a society? It’s obvious that such a society would be characterized by chaos and violence. It would be survival for the fittest.

Humans are social creatures, and to enable us to live in harmony with each other, we have laws that govern what we can or cannot do. The purpose of these laws is to create a safe environment for everyone. They create an environment where you can walk down the street without feeling threatened and interact with others without fear. While they are important in ensuring safety and reducing conflicts in society, laws would be entirely useless if there was no system in place to ensure that these laws are followed and that those who do not follow them are punished.

This is where the criminal justice system comes in. The criminal justice system is essentially a combination of government agencies, institutions and processes that are tasked with identifying crimes, apprehending the law breakers and imposing punishment on the law breakers.

The criminal justice system is also tasked with minimizing the occurrence of crime, rehabilitating offenders and to some extent, providing moral support to victims of criminal behavior.


The criminal justice system is comprised of different branches, each of which has its own specific roles and functions. However, there are some goals that cut across all branches of the criminal justice system. These include:

  • Pubic protection: It is the role of the criminal justice system to prevent and deter criminal behavior and to make sure that offenders are brought to book.
  • Justice and rule of law: It is the responsibility of the criminal justice system to ensure that defendants are treated properly and fairly.
  • Public order: It is the responsibility of the criminal justice system to ensure that there is public order at all times by maintaining law and social order.
  • Denunciation: The criminal justice system is also tasked with registering social disapproval against certain behaviors.
  • Victim services: The criminal justice system should provide appropriate assistance and advice to victims of criminal behavior.
  • Public confidence: Finally, the criminal justice system should ensure there is confidence in the government’s ability to effectively and fairly deal with any public threat posed by criminals.

While these goals cut across all branches of the criminal justice system, different branches will prioritize these goals differently according to specific role played by each branch.


Even though the criminal justice system is a combination of several different agencies, institutions and processes, it can be divided into three major branches, based on the different stages a criminal case goes through from inception to punishment.

These three branches are law enforcement, the court system and the corrections systems.

Law Enforcement

If you go outside right now and take a walk down the street, there is a high chance you will come across police officers on patrol. These police officers are part of law enforcement. If you witness a crime, you will probably call 911 and report the crime to law enforcement officers.

Law enforcement is the most visible branch of the criminal justice system, owing to the fact that it is the first point of contact between an offender and the criminal justice system. Law enforcement is tasked with helping to prevent crime, taking reports on crimes, arresting offenders, investigating incidences of crime, and gathering and protecting evidence. Law enforcement officers may also be required to give testimony in court.

The law enforcement branch includes sheriffs and deputies, patrol offices, federal agents, detectives, game and park rangers, and any other offices who comprise the first point of contact between criminals and the criminal justice system.

Law enforcement officers are required to be knowledgeable of and to uphold the individual rights of anyone suspected of breaking the law. These rights include search and seizure rights, the Miranda rights, right to know grounds of arrest, and many others. In some cases, law enforcement offices are allowed to use force or other forms of legal coercion when apprehending a suspect or in order to maintain social order. Some instances also give law enforcement officers the power to override some of these rights. For example, an officer is allowed to search a suspect without a warrant if he has reason to believe that evidence is going to be destroyed.

In many municipalities, an individual can become a law enforcement officer without having a degree in criminal justice. However, this does not downplay the importance of education among law enforcement officers. Various studies show that having an education improves effectiveness in law enforcement offices. According to this paper published in Police Quarterly, police officers with only a high school education of GED are more likely to use force compared to those with a higher education.

After arresting a suspected offender, investigating the crime and gathering evidence, law enforcement hands over the offender to the court system.

The Court System

The court system is tasked with determining the guilt or innocence of the offender, now referred to as the defendant, and determining an appropriate punishment based on the crime that the defendant is charged with. The court system consists of judges, who oversee courts, as well as other individuals such as attorneys, members of the jury, and ancillary court staff.

In court, the defendant is given the chance to defend himself against the evidence presented by the prosecution. The defendant can be represented by an attorney of own choosing. If the defendant cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint a counsel to represent him or her.

The judge and the jury listen to the evidence presented by the attorneys and then determine whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. The jury should be a representation of a fair-cross section of the community. It is the responsibility of the court to give a fair and unbiased judgment based on all the evidence presented. If the courts find the defendant guilty of committing the crime, the judge gives a sentence or other appropriate punishment and then hand over the defendant to the corrections system.

If the guilt of the defendant cannot be proved, he or she is released. Judges are also tasked with the responsibility of accepting or rejecting plea agreements.

Just like with law enforcement, the court system is supposed to be knowledgeable of, and to uphold the rights of the defendant. These rights include the right to a jury trial, the right to counsel, the right against incriminating oneself, the right to confront one’s accusers, and many more.


If the defendant is found guilty, he or she is sentenced and then handed over to the corrections systems, which is tasked with the role meting out punishment to the convict. The most common form of punishment is incarceration, especially if the convict was charged with a serious offence. In this case, the convict is sent to a jail or a prison. Prisons house convicts who committed serious felonies and were sentenced to more than one year of incarceration.

Jails, on the other hand, are used for offenders who committed less serious offenses, and are usually used to hold offenders who were sentenced to less than one year. In some cases, the offender might be sentenced to probation if the court feels that the offender is not a threat to society.

The corrections system consists of corrections officers, probation officers, and parole officers. The role of corrections officers is to supervise incarcerated convicts serving time in prison. Probation officers are given the responsibility of supervising offenders who have been sentenced to probation.

Probation officers may also be require to conduct presentence investigations to help the courts determine whether the offender is a threat to society, which can in turn help a judge determine whether to have the offender incarcerated or to sentence them to probation. Parole officers are tasked with supervising individuals who have been released early on parole and ensuring that they are adhering to the terms of their parole.

The corrections branch of the criminal justice system has five basic goals, which are:

  • Incapacitation: This function of the corrections system aims to prevent future crimes by isolating the offender from society. Incarceration, house arrest and the death sentence are all forms of incapacitation.
  • Deterrence: The aim of deterrence is to urge citizens and potential offenders to follow the rules of law and to deter people from committing crimes. There are four types of deterrence. Specific deterrence aims at punishing an individual with the aim of deterring them from committing crimes in future. General deterrence hopes to deter others from committing crimes by punishing one individual. Marginal deterrence tries to analyze the effectiveness of different types of punishment in deterring crime, either specifically or generally. The fourth type of deterrence is partial deterrence, which refers to situations where the threat of punishment deters someone engaged in illegal behavior from committing an even bigger offense. It’s good to note that measuring how effective the corrections systems is in deterring crime can be a difficult thing since people may follow the low not because of the threat of punishment, but also because of other factors, such as lack of opportunity or due to religious or moral beliefs.
  • Retribution: The corrections system also aims at preventing crime by providing victims of crime and society at large with a sense of justice or a feeling of satisfaction that appropriate punishment has been meted out to the offender. When society feels that the justice system is working effectively, this is likely to decrease the rate of crime. According to this paper by Dan Nagin, the certainty of punishment for crime deters criminal behavior, even more than the severity of the punishment. Incarceration and fines are a form of retribution.
  • Rehabilitation: The corrections system also tries to help criminals overcome the factors that drove them to commit crimes and tries to act as a bridge to help criminals transition back to society as useful members of the community. The corrections systems does this by helping criminals resolve psychological issues such as aggression and drug addiction and by providing them with occupational skills that they can use to earn a living.
  • Restoration: This is a relatively new and radically different approach being adopted by the corrections system. The aim of restoration is to create an avenue for an offender to amend the relationship between the offender and the victim, as well as the community where the offender committed the crime. The restoration approach is more common in crimes that involve youth offenders.

Just like with the other two branches of the criminal justice system, the corrections system is supposed to observe the rights of convicts, the most important of which is the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. The corrections systems is supposed to ensure jails are not overcrowded, to prevent physical abuse of convicts by corrections officers and to provide proper medical care to incarcerated convicts.


The criminal justice system is a process that follows a number of steps. It begins with the report of a crime and ends with a convicted offender being released from a corrections facility. Of course, the steps may vary depending on the nature of the crime, the age of the offender, as well as other factors. However, most criminal cases generally follow the steps below:

Step 1: Entry Into The System

Crime report: The criminal justice process starts with a crime report. The crime report can come in different ways, such as:

  • An officer who has just heard gun shots while on patrol reports this back to the station before proceeding to investigate or waiting for backup.
  • A person who has just been mugged walks into a police station to report the crime.
  • A person who has witnessed someone breaking into a neighbor’s house calls 911 to report the crime, resulting in officers being sent over to investigate and hopefully apprehend the burglar.

Investigation: After a crime has been reported, law enforcement officers start an investigation with the aim of identifying a suspect or gathering evidence that can be used to support an arrest. Part of the investigation might include performing a search of the suspect or their property. Before a search warrant is issued, the enforcement officers need to show probable cause, which means that they need to show facts or apparent facts indicating that the evidence of the crime might be found on a certain person or at a certain place.

Arrest or citation: If the law enforcement officers find enough evidence pointing to a suspect in course of the investigation, the officers may take the suspect into custody and hold him until he is produced in court. Before arresting the suspect, law enforcement officers must show a reasonable link between the suspect and the crime. In some instances, mostly in low level crimes, law enforcement officers might issue a citation instead of arresting the suspect. The citation allows the suspect to be released with the promise that he will appear in court at a specified time.

Step 2: Prosecution And Pretrial

Charges: The law enforcement officers who investigated the crime present their evidence to a prosecutor. Depending on the presented evidence, the prosecutor may decide to either file a written charge to kick-start the prosecution or to let the accused go.

Arraignment: In the event that formal charges were filed by the prosecutor, the offender is brought before the court where the charges against him and his rights are read out. Depending on the presented evidence, the judge may choose to hold the accused or to let him go. During the arraignment, the accused pleads guilty or not guilty. In case the accused pleads guilty, there is no further need for trial, and a sentence is handed then or later. If the accused’s plea is not guilty, the judge then sets a date for the pretrial. An attorney is also appointed to represent the accused if he does not have one.

Bail or bond: After hearing the evidence, the judge will have the accused held in jail if he is deemed to be a flight risk. Otherwise, the judge may release the accused on bond, bail or own recognizance. If the accused is released on bail, they have to deposit some cash or property with the court as a guarantee that they will appear in court for trial. Bail is usually paid in the form of cash or bond. If the accused is released on his own recognizance, it means that accused promised on their own recognizance that they will show up in court for trial.

Preliminary hearing: Many states give the accused the right to have a grand jury listen to their case. The prosecutor presents his evidence to the grand jury, which then decides whether the presented evidence is enough to indict the accused. If the evidence is sufficient, the grand jury submits an indictment to the court. In states where the accused does not have the right to a grand jury, he will be presented in front of a judge for a preliminary hearing. If the judge deems the evident against the accused to be sufficient for trial, the accused is formally indicted. If the evidence is not sufficient, the judge may release the accused. During the preliminary hearing, it is the burden of the government to prove that there is enough evidence that a crime was committed and that it was committed by the accused.

Step 3: Adjudication

Plea Bargain: Many cases do not get to trial. Instead, they are resolved by plea bargain. This is an arrangement where the accused agrees to plead guilty to a particular charge in exchange for some concession from the prosecutor. In many cases, the accused pleads guilty to one of several charges or to a less serious charge. In exchange, the prosecutor dismisses the other charges or recommends that the court give a more lenient sentence. A plea bargain saves the accused the time and expenses associated with defending himself at trial and the risk of being convicted on a more serious charge at trial. In most cases, plea bargains are subject to the court’s approval.

Trial: If the accused did not enter into a plea bargain, the case goes to trial. The trial can either be a jury trial (judge and jury) or a bench trial (judge). During the trial, evidence is presented by both the prosecutor and the defense attorney. Both are also allowed to question witnesses and to issue their closing statements to the court. Based on the evidence presented, the judge or jury may decide that the accused is either guilty or not guilty. If the accused is found guilty, a date is set for sentencing. If the accused is found not guilty, he gets released.

Step 4: Post-Trial

Sentencing: During the sentencing, the charges and the verdict will be read out in court and the prosecutor and defense attorney given a chance to present different aspects of the case – the impact on the victims, the circumstances of the offense, the offender’s circumstances and so on. The judge considers these aspects to give a sentence that is fair and proportionate. Some options that the judge has when it comes to sentencing include restitution, probation, fines, imprisonment, or the death penalty.

Appeals: If the defense feels a certain aspect of the trial was not handled properly, they may file an appeal with the appellate courts. The appellate court reviews the details of the case and decides whether to uphold the results of the case or to reverse the case. If the appellate court reverses the case, the previous trial because moot. It is up to the prosecutor to decide whether he will refile the case or drop the charges.

Punishment and rehabilitation: If the defendant was sentenced to imprisonment, he is sent to local, state or federal correctional facilities to serve his time. The inmate remains incarcerated until he has served his maximum sentence, or until an early release mechanism is activated, such as a pardon or a parole. It is important to note that most incarcerated convicts get released without serving their complete terms.


If you do not work within the criminal justice system, it might appear to be intimidating, overwhelming and confusing. However, as you might have noticed while reading this article, it is not really that complicated. Knowing about the criminal justice system is important. If you ever find yourself as a victim to a crime, you will be aware of what to expect throughout the whole process.

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