Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a world where there are no formalized laws or rules to guide our behavior and protect us from criminals? Well, that is what life was like in the colonial period and early Americans have lived through this time. Americans, during this period, were trying to figure out how they could coexist in their new land. Many of the first Americans who made their voyage carried with them their principles, but many things were not the same and with the progress of America, things began to change.

The modern system of U.S. criminal justice resulted from several changes that our society has gone through since the foundation of the state. Over the century, mechanisms have been developed by Americans that institute and impose rules on society, assign responsibility to people and punish those who commit offence. Today, the police, corrections and courts carry out those functions. This structure was not present in the early days of the American criminal justice system.

Before formal institutions, rules and laws were established in the U.S., Americans mostly relied upon sins and religions as means for shaping society and the behavior of people. Many colonial codes of crime were defined in terms of bible which made offenses like blasphemy, sacrileges of the Sabbath and profanity exceedingly punishable. Punishments such as whipping, stoning and dunking were designed with the purpose to humiliate offenders and lead them to their repentance.

As American society grew in terms of both location and population, religion’s use of guiding criminal justice lessened. The law was reshaped in such a way that it upheld moral values, which were the concern of many Americans during that time instead of religion. This changed caused development of more laws and the violations increased as well, which is another trend that is evident today. Many people are of the view that this trend began because laws based on morality are not as internalized as the laws based on religion, which makes them less effective in shaping behavior that is acceptable in society. Another way to say this is that the law of God is more effective in shaping acceptable behavior in society than courts, corrections and the police are.

Whether effective or ineffective, right or wrong, the truth is that these events have shaped the modern criminal justice system of the U.S. The progression from religious similar, small town to large cities where cultural customs and religion was vast, forever changed the criminal justice system and created a need for formalized courts, corrections and the police.


The United States criminal justice system is composed of three components: law-enforcement, courts and corrections. The responsibility of law-enforcement or the police is to investigate the crime and apprehend individuals suspected of committing the crime. The responsibility of the court is to interpret and apply the law in criminal cases. The corrections are tasked with the protection of society from criminal activities through monitoring, housing and other programs. In some cases, corrections include incarceration in prisons or jails, while sometimes they involve supervision in the parole, probation or community. The basic components are same throughout the state, but the criminal justice system of the United States is actually composed of many smaller systems. For example, the U.S. federal government has one criminal justice system, each state possess its own system while each country of U.S. possess its own system. Although the components of each system work together in different occasions, but they have their own separate budgets and mostly work independently. Sometimes, they are required to work cross-purposely. For example, child trafficking may be cracked down by the police by making many arrests which would overwhelm the judicial system and the office of prosecutor. Or judges may be required to put more criminals in prison, but there may not be enough cells in the prisons to hold new prisoners. This problem can then force the officials of prison to let other inmates out early, overcrowd the cells or requests funds to construct new prisons.



The first component of the criminal justice system as highlighted above is the law-enforcement. Individuals in the law-enforcement include the police, patrol officers, deputies and sheriffs, detectives and federal agents. It is the responsibility of these individuals to uphold the law, investigate crime and apprehend individuals who have committed the crime. Law enforcers must be aware of individual legal rights of those who suspected an offence like Miranda warning and search and seizure, etc. Law-enforcement officers must also know the civil rights of citizens to ensure that they don’t violate the rights given to individuals by the state and compromise an investigation if the offender indeed committed a crime.


Courts are the second component of the criminal justice system of the United States. Key individuals that are included in the second component of justice system include prosecutors, judges, jury members and defense lawyers. Elected officials like district attorneys and county and judges elect most of these positions.

Generally, defense attorneys are private practice attorneys who have specialization in particular areas of the law like drug law or family law and a defendant hires them. The defense attorneys who are appointed for individuals who don’t have the money to afford an attorney are called public defenders.

The pool of registered voters selects jury members in a jurisdiction of the court and then these members are further selected into a group of six to twelve members by the attorneys who are a part of the case. In the court component of the criminal justice system, individuals work to ensure that the rights of an individual aren’t violated and the trial is fair. Judges and juries sentence individuals for criminal offences, but they are required to follow guidelines of federal and state statutes.


U.S. criminal justice system’s third component is corrections. This component includes parole officers, correction officers and probation officers. These individuals make sure that the offender convicted of a crime serves his/her sentence as directed by the court and keep the convict under their supervision while they are servicing their sentences.

Intimates who are sentenced to a prison are supervised by correction officers. Corrections officers also supervise inmates who are serving sentences in city and country jails for misdemeanors (minor offenses) or are being detained prior to or during trial.

Probation officers are responsible for supervising adult or juvenile offenders who’re being monitored by the court instead of being sentenced to the jail. Presentence investigations are also conducted by probation officers for the court and they give recommendations to a judge about sentencing with compiled information. In presentence investigations, criminal history is gathered and interviews are taken from colleagues, family and friends of the person convicted of crime. Progress of the person in probation is also reported to the court and recommendations are provided for possible revocation.

Parole officers supervise individuals that are released early from prison on parole. They also conduct home visits, drug testing and ensure that the convicted offender adheres to the terms of parole. If terms are broken, parole officers make recommendations for revocation.


Even though the criminal justice system of the U.S. comprises of many systems, the series of stages or events in all these systems are mostly similar. The case begins with a crime committed by an individual. The crime can enter into the next stage if it is recorded by the police. Most of the cases are not actually reported to the police and are not taken to the criminal justice system. If a crime is not reported, the police investigate it. The chances of criminal being arrested differ from case to case, but 80 percent of all serious crimes that aren’t reported to the police don’t end up with the criminal being arrested. Sometimes the suspect is not found by the police and sometimes although the suspect is found, but the evidence isn’t sufficient to arrest the accused.

If the accused is arrested, then a sequence of stages follows. Information of the case is provided to the prosecutor by the law-enforcement (police). Then, the prosecutor decides whether formal charges should be charged against the accused or should they be released. Even if the prosecutor has charged formal charges, they can still decide to dismiss all charges or release the suspect at different points during the process. The prosecutor may dismiss the charges because the evidence presented against the individual charged is too weak or the witness is uncooperative or due to other specific reasons. If the decision is taken by the prosecutor that the case should go on, and then the defendant is required to appear before a judge, hear all the charges that are filed against him/her and determine if there is sufficient evidence present to proceed with the prosecution. Often, defense counsel is assigned at the first appearance as most of the suspects don’t have the money to afford an attorney on their own. At this appearance or a later one, the decision is taken by the judge to either release a defendant on bail or on his/her own recognizance.

In later hearings, it is determined whether probable cause is present to establish that the crime was committed by the defendant. If a decision is made by the judge that there’s probable cause that can establish that the defendant committed the crime, the grand jury takes over the case. The evidence related to the case is presented to the grand jury and he/she must decide if the evidence justifies the trial. If it is decided by the grand jury that the evidence presented is sufficient and justifies the trial, the defendant is indicted. Some jurisdictions do not use a grand jury and information is issued to the court by the prosecutor that is similar to an indictment.

These decisions take the case to the trial stage. After an information or indictment is filed, the defendant faces an arraignment in front of a judge. Here the defendant is told about the charges against him/her by the judge and he/she is also advised about his/her legal rights. The defendant is also asked to plea on the charges. It must be decided by the defendant whether they’ll plead guilty or not guilty. If the defendant pleads not guilty, then he/she must make a decision about whether he/she will go with a bench trial or request a jury trial. Most defendants plead guilty because it reduces the severity of charges and in most cases reduces their sentence. If a defendant decides to go with a trial, the judge or jury will make the final decision whether the defendant is guilty or not. If the defendant is declared guilty by the judge, then an appropriate sentence will be decided for him/her. A sentencing hearing often takes place during which each and every aspect of the defendant’ case is taken into consideration including any mitigating or aggravating circumstances. The judge also goes through a presentence report made by the probation officer that provides information about the defendant’s personal background. The most significant decision that can be made by the judge during the stage of sentencing is that whether the defendant should be incarcerated or not. Those defendants who committed minor crimes may be sentenced to prison for less than 12 months while those who committed serious offenses may have to spend their life in prison for a year or more. Instead of incarceration, a defendant may be sentenced to probation by the judge. In case of probation, the defendant is allowed to stay in the community; however, he/she must fulfill specific conditions and follow rules like drug testing under probation officer’s supervision. The judge may also fine defendants or sentence them to other kinds of sanctions like electronic monitoring and house arrest that are although stricter than probation but aren’t as harsh as incarceration.

Often the terms jail and prison are confused by the media and citizens. Jails are local facilities that counties and cities manage; they perform an overlapping but distinct purpose from penitentiaries and prisons. In prisons, individuals who’re convicted of a criminal offence are held, but in jails both the individuals who have been convicted and those who haven’t been convicted are held. For example, jails detain individuals who haven’t been offered bail or those who aren’t able to make bail before a trial. In prisons, people who have committed serious offenses are held while jails hold people convicted of less serious offenses. If a prison is overcrowded, federal and state felonry prisoners who are serving long sentences may also be held in jails.

Once a defendant has been sentenced, the correction stage begins. Full length of their sentence is served by most inmates while some are released early if the parole board makes a favorable decision. After the release of an inmate from prison, a parole officer usually supervises him/her and the inmate is required to follow specific conditions that are similar to those followed by convicted offenders during probation. If these conditions are violated by them, there is a risk of them being sent to the prison again. Once offenders complete their release terms successfully, they get freed from the correction system and aren’t supervised anymore.

The description provided above only applies to adult offenders and there is a separate procedure for juvenile offenders. The U.S juvenile justice is separate from the U.S. adult criminal justice system. Its stages are more informal than the adult criminal system.

One important thing that is missing from this discussion about the criminal justice system is the victim. The interaction of victim with the justice system takes different forms due to which it becomes difficult to describe it. There are several things which victims must attend to, most of which are not inside the criminal justice system’s scope. They may require psychological or emotional support, medical care or assistance getting insurance. One action that can be taken by the victim or other people around them is that they can inform the police about the criminal offence. If the police is alerted and gets involved, then they will consider the victim an important witness for the criminal case. Questions will be asked from the victim during the case’s proceedings. Victims report variation in being informed or playing a certain role about the criminal case proceedings. Court advocates are paired with victims to assist them. Victim advocates are trained and experienced professionals who provide support to victims through the criminal justice process. Advocates provide victims with information that educates them about the proceedings of criminal justice system. Resources provided to victims also offer them options required for financial, psychological or emotional support. Victims are educated about their rights by advocates and sometimes the advocates also attend court proceedings to support victims.


Now that the structure of U.S. criminal justice is clear, the next important thing that must be understood is why the system works this way; what are the goals of the criminal justice system of the United States.

There are several goals which the U.S. criminal justice system tries to serve. The first and the most important goal that the criminal justice system serves is control and prevention of crime. The system tries to catch people who commit criminal offence and punish them. It takes these measures to prevent and reduce crime by deterring those who offended as well as other people from committing crimes. The goal obviously is to protect American people and keep them safe from criminal offenses.

The component of the U.S. criminal justice system that is most visible is the police as it makes an effort to make this goal achievable. Most people only face the police when they violate traffic laws, but even in this case, the police is trying to keep the roads safe from driving misleads of people.

The other components of the U.S. criminal justice system that get considerable attention in controlling and preventing crime is the system of corrections, which tries reducing crime in variety of ways. First, the criminals are put behind bars by corrections to incapacitate them and once they are there, they do not pose a danger to the general public. Second, the correction system teaches offenders a less, which if they do not learn, is repeated until the offenders stop committing crimes. Finally, other people are deterred from committing crime by it as they fear incarceration.

Achieving justice by providing protection to citizens of the state- both guilty and not guilty- from abuse of power by the government is the second goal of U.S criminal justice system. This concept can be referred to as ‘the rule of law’. In the United States, individual freedoms and rights must be respected by government agents and the police as they pursue the criminal justice system’s goal of controlling crime. Otherwise, the state would turn into an authoritarian nation instead of democratic. This goal is reflected in the Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution, which guarantee legal rights to people who are suspected of crime or convicted of it. These provisions were adopted due to the colonial era’s misconducts in which the courts were abused by England for harassing the colonists. People framing the Bill of Rights and Constitution had this abuse in their minds and they believed that it was extremely important to protect the rights of people who are accused of crime. The goal of the criminal justice system to protect the rights of citizens often conflicts with the first goal.

The United States has adopted a tough approach towards criminal activities in the last ten years and expanded the powers of law enforcers while increasing the punishment for those who convict offence. It is quite difficult to create the perfect balance between the two goals of the criminal justice system of the United States.

The criminal justice system’s third goal is to express the values and morality of the nation on all important issues. For example, the laws of the nation against murder throughout the country make it clear that the people of United States believe that it is wrong to take life of another person. Thus, in addition to controlling crime and providing justice, criminal justice system plays a vital role in teaching people moral lessons. However, criminal justice system’s third goal arouses controversy when it’s about crimes like drug use, prosecution or other activities in which there aren’t any unwilling victims. Some people say that in a free state, people should be given the freedom to engage in such behavior like they are allowed to engage in other actions that are potentially harmful like gambling, eating unhealthy foods and so on. When it comes to these behaviors, the majority shouldn’t impose its own sense of moral values on the minority even if these behaviors are disliked by some people. Some critics are of the view that the attempt of the criminal justice system to outlaw these kinds of behaviors might result in more harm to society than good.


As implied by the name, the purpose of crime control model is to pursue the first goal of the criminal justice system: to prevent crime by punishing offenders and make society a safe place. In this model, most of the criminal suspects are assumed guilty, therefore, it emphasizes that the cases should be processed as efficiently and quickly as possible. Under the crime control model, criminal justice system’s operations take the image of a conveyor belt. Just like products are quickly packaged on conveyor builds, similar cases in the criminal justice system pass quickly from one stage to the next. Everyone on the conveyor belt of the criminal justice system has one task: make sure that those who have convicted a crime are punished appropriately as soon as possible.


The due process model sharply contradicts the crime control model. This model of criminal justice system is based on the principle that the citizens of state have some legal rights and cannot be deprived of property, liberty or life without appropriate legal safeguards and procedures. In the due process, both substantive and procedural aspects are involved. Procedural due process stipulates that there should be fairness in methods that are used for depriving a person of property, liberty or life. Substantive due process requires that if person’s property, liberty or life is being taken, then there should be valid justification.

The due process model of the criminal justice system demands fairness. An individual is entitled to an opportunity to be heard when their property, liberty or life is at stake. Laws must be equally applied to all people, without any discrimination on the basis of nationality, age, color or gender. The requirements of due process apply to government proceedings like trials, administrative hearings, parole hearings and other proceedings. For example, if a person is charged of a certain crime, then under due process, he/she has the right to be notified of the charges against him/her, a right to trial and the right to be heard.

There is a considerable tension between the crime control and due process model of the U.S. criminal justice system. The trend of the government getting tough with the law and elevating the punishments for offenses shows that the crime control model is favored more as compared to the contrasting due process model.

The clash between the crime control model and due process model became more evident after the attacks of 11th September, 2001, when jet planes were hijacked by extremists that led to deaths of over 3000 citizens at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and western Pennsylvania. The U.S.A Patriot Act was passed which authorized deportation and detention of immigrants. It also authorized seizure of medical and financial records and led to several domestic groups being designated as terrorist groups. Hundreds of immigrants from Middle East were detained for secret questioning and many of them were denied legal counsel. President Bush also authorized military tribunals to carry out trials of those immigrants who were accused of terrorism. In these military trials, those accused did not have any due process rights like those which normal criminal proceedings grant to the offenders, including the right to appeal, hearing or a jury trial. Some said that these measures were a violation of U.S. Constitution’s amendments while a few claimed that these steps were necessary to protect the United States of America from terrorists.