The Ethics of the Criminal Justice Culture

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.

—Warren Buffet


Criminal justice is a broad field relating to the established systems for prevention, detection, and investigation of crime. The field spans from prevention of crime, to apprehension of criminals, to prosecution and punishment, to assistance and rehabilitation postconviction. Justice is defined as equal distribution of society’s goods. The principles necessary for distribution of justice are as follows:

  • 1. Principle of the greatest equal liberty: Each and every person should have the right to liberties equal to those of everyone else having the same right (freedoms) (Robertson and Mire, 2009).
  • 2. Principle of the greatest equal opportunity: The rights of citizens for equal opportunities are not subject to politics or to social interest; they should depend on ability.
  • 3. Difference principle: People accept differences in wealth and privilege; inequalities should be arranged to offer the greatest benefit to the least advantaged (Souryal, 2003).

Justice is a primary virtue and should operate as such from the perspective of an unbiased, rational observer. However, it is common that the interpretation of justice impacts, and at times shapes, society. Issues such as abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, gun laws, and technology are important social issues that have recently impacted society and the law. Such examples demonstrate the need for features of fairness, equality, and impartiality, which help to describe the criminal justice profession. In addition to police officers, the field includes parole, corrections, and probation officers. The primary focus of the criminal justice profession is police because of the long history and sheer magnitude of this branch of criminal justice. Policing employs many aspects of assistance: Police are to serve, to keep peace, to maintain order, to educate, and to protect society, whether the need is crime oriented or service oriented. The public may have varied perceptions of police from respect to fear that stem from the diverse roles of officers in society. Not only are police officers the initiators of the criminal justice process thus entrusted with great power, but they also have the choice not to initiate the criminal justice process. This inaction is illustrated by officers’ discretion in particular situations, with individuals, or toward evidence (e.g., What crack pipe? I didn’t see anything). Discretion is an aspect of law enforcement that may allow officers to provide justice while applying laws in a flexible manner; however, this discretion may have disadvantages as is shown through many recent situations regarding the use of force. The appropriate use of power by practitioners reinforces the authority they are given to protect the community and to enforce the laws. Policing is a noble profession that requires exemplary officers. The model officer is flexible, loyal, fair, and skilled in humanity. The primary concerns to achieve quality in criminal justice are social order and moral order. Social order is human concern for legal restrictions and societal standards, such as public safety, freedom, privacy, and good economy. John Rawls’s (1971) definition of society is “the particular individual and government institutions in social agreements.” Moral order is human concern for values such as compassion, fairness, and civility. Values are defined as “enduring beliefs that a specific mode of conduct or end-state of existence is personally or socially preferable” (Rokeach, 1973). Peacemaking is the foundation for law enforcement and is made up of three themes: connectedness, care, and concern. Connectedness may also be viewed as responsibility and provides insight that everything is related so an officer’s actions will impact everyone. Care involves the concern for others the officers show and is cyclical in nature; if law enforcement officers care for their community, the community will care for them. Mindfulness or concern provides a sense of awareness about what needs attention or the big picture of situations encountered (Braswell, 2008). Criminal justice is an expansive profession whose members hold society’s trust to maintain objectivity and fairness.

Ethical issues associated with the criminal justice system include the high public trust placed upon law enforcement officers, officers being viewed as role models in society, the great need for coping mechanisms in response to the types of experiences faced during their duty, the potential for corruption, the high degree of stress that accompanies the position, the management of pride versus ego that comes with being a respected public figure, the level of accountability expected from officers, the attention given by society, the unique pressures associated with the role of law enforcement officers, and the political influence that is underlying in the criminal justice culture.

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