Politics is the art and science of running a government and guiding governmental policy. In the United States, politics often involves conflict and debate about policy, and criminal justice policy falls into this arena. The American political system and the criminal justice system involve the actions of many different groups, including the President, Congress, courts, bureaucracies, interest groups, elections, and the media. These groups also exist at the state and local levels.
It’s important to note that elected officials, such as the President and members of Congress, have a direct impact on the criminal justice system, and the policies they implement directly affect how justice is done. For example, they can decide how much money should be allocated to the criminal justice system and which laws should be passed or changed. These decisions can have a major impact on how the criminal justice system operates and the outcomes of criminal cases.
Bureaucracies are government agencies that are responsible for carrying out policies and programs. In the criminal justice system, bureaucracies include law enforcement agencies, correctional facilities, and courts. These agencies are responsible for enforcing the laws and carrying out the decisions made by elected officials.
Interest groups are organizations that advocate for specific policies or causes. In the criminal justice system, interest groups may advocate for changes in laws, more funding for certain programs, or increased support for victims of crime. They may also work to influence elected officials to take action on these issues.
Elections are an important part of the political process, allowing citizens to choose who will represent them in government. Elected officials, including those in the criminal justice system, must respond to the concerns of their constituents to remain in office.
Finally, the media plays an important role in shaping public opinion and influencing policy decisions. In the criminal justice system, the media may report on high-profile cases or advocate for certain policies, which can influence public opinion and the decisions made by elected officials.
The Politics of Selecting Decision Makers
In a democratic republic, which is a type of government that combines elements of democracy and republicanism (like the United States), the selection of criminal justice decision-makers generally occurs in one of two ways: they are either elected by the public or appointed by a public official.
When decision-makers are elected, it means that the public votes for them in an election. For example, the public may vote for a sheriff or a district attorney. In this case, the elected people are responsible for deciding how the criminal justice system operates and enforcing the law.
On the other hand, when decision-makers are appointed, it means that a public official, who is often elected themselves, chooses the decision-maker. For example, an elected mayor may choose to appoint a chief of police. In this case, the public official is responsible for choosing someone they believe is qualified to make decisions about the criminal justice system.
It’s important to note that both methods of selecting decision-makers are highly political. This means that the decision-making process cannot be understood without some understanding of the political process. In other words, the selection of decision-makers is influenced by politics and the individuals or groups involved in politics, such as interest groups and political parties. This can make the selection process complex and sometimes controversial.
The Politics of Law Making
Although the federal legal system and those of most states have a historical foundation in common law, criminal law is primarily created through the enactment of statutes these days. This means that legislative assemblies are responsible for making criminal laws and deciding which actions are prohibited and what penalties are appropriate for breaking the law. Politics plays a significant role in the laws that are passed, as they reflect the values and beliefs of the lawmakers who create them.
In recent decades, the criminal justice system has been characterized by a “get tough” approach. This was brought about by the “crack epidemic” in the early 1980s, leading to harsher punishments, longer prison sentences, fewer therapeutic programs, and higher corrections budgets. This trend may have reached its peak and may now swing back toward a more balanced approach. Many states are exploring alternative methods to incarceration, such as probation and community service, to reduce the number of people in prison.
The federal government is also considering early release for drug offenders sentenced under the “get tough” drug laws of the past two decades. This means offenders meeting certain criteria could be released from prison before serving their full sentence. By doing so, the government hopes to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system and provide rehabilitation services to those who need them.
Understanding the politics of law-making is crucial to understanding the criminal justice system. It is important to be aware of how laws are created, the values and beliefs that influence them, and the potential impact they can have on society.
The Politics of Policing
Police departments work hard to keep a distance from politics as much as possible. It is important for law enforcement to be seen as fair and to treat everyone equally. This means they should help the whole community without showing favoritism or being influenced by politics. The political environment in a community can greatly affect how the police department operates.
Elected officials, like mayors, can choose who leads the police department (police administrators). They can also remove these leaders if they want to. The way police enforce the law, the official rules within the department, and the informal customs can all be strongly influenced by the local political situation.
The structure of the local government can also affect how the police provide their services. For example, professional city managers, who are responsible for running the city, are less likely to interfere in police matters compared to mayors and city council members. This means how the local government is organized can change how the police work in the community.
The Politics of Prosecution
Police departments usually try to stay away from politics and are influenced by it in a more indirect way. However, prosecutors, who are responsible for bringing legal cases against people accused of crimes, are often elected officials, which makes their roles more connected to politics. At the national level in the United States, there is a political process for choosing U.S. attorneys, who are federal prosecutors.
The career paths of these lawyers are often connected to a specific political party. It is not uncommon for prosecutors at both the state and national levels to use their experience as a prosecutor to start a political career. This situation can lead to the unethical possibility of using legal cases against political opponents.
For example, some people believed that the impeachment process against then-President Donald Trump was a political action against him. Impeachment is a formal process to remove a president or other high-ranking official from office if they are accused of serious misconduct. In President Trump’s case, he faced two impeachment trials; one in 2019 for charges related to abuse of power and obstruction of Congress and another in 2021 for incitement of insurrection. Some argued that these impeachment proceedings were politically motivated rather than based on legal grounds.
The Politics of the Judiciary
Many people who write about the law and courts think judges are not influenced by political issues and partisan politics. However, in the modern United States, this idea is not entirely true. Judges in different levels of government are either chosen through elections or appointed by officials. This makes them connected to politics in some way.
Judges who are elected might worry about how the public will react to their decisions on issues that have a political background. For example, they might be concerned about appearing too lenient on crime or supporting or opposing the death penalty. These concerns can depend on the political environment in the area where the judge works. Judges’ political beliefs and connections can influence their decisions in court.
Conservative judges often support strict law enforcement and might be willing to limit some individual rights to maintain order and safety. On the other hand, liberal judges usually prioritize protecting individual rights, even if some think this might reduce public safety. One of the main tasks of appellate courts, which review decisions made by lower courts, is to find a balance between protecting the rights of the people and ensuring public safety from crime.
The political beliefs of the judges making these decisions can have a strong impact on the results of important legal cases. This shows that, in reality, judges and the judiciary are not completely separate from politics.
The Politics of Corrections
Like other parts of the criminal justice system, the area of corrections, which deals with the punishment and rehabilitation of criminals, is strongly politicized. Corrections can be influenced by politics in different ways, depending on the level of government.
At the local level, the management of jails is often connected to the role of the sheriff in many areas. Sheriffs are usually elected, and their political beliefs can affect how jails are run. This means that jail operations can be influenced by the politics of the individuals who are elected and reelected as sheriffs.
At the state level, departments of corrections, which are responsible for managing prisons, are also highly political. The people who lead these departments and the money they receive to operate are often determined by political decisions.
Another part of corrections influenced by politics is the role of parole boards. Parole boards are groups of people who decide whether prisoners can be released early from prison. In most areas, the governor, a political leader, chooses the members of these boards. If the parole board decides to release prisoners that later cause problems or look bad, the negative attention from the media and public might be directed at the governor.
Corrections is an area of the criminal justice system that is highly connected to politics at both local and state levels. The way jails and prisons are managed, as well as the functioning of parole boards, can all be influenced by political decisions and the beliefs of elected officials.
The Politicization of Justice
Politics plays a significant role in the criminal justice system, and this close relationship can lead to various serious problems. When political interests influence decision-making, it can result in rash choices, poorly thought-out policies, and badly written laws that negatively affect the fair and efficient administration of justice. Politicians who prioritize their own political gains can exploit people’s emotions, fears, and biases to improve their chances of being reappointed or reelected. Unfortunately, decisions based on emotions are often not rational, which can have severe consequences in the complex and high-stakes world of criminal justice.
One problem that arises from political influence in criminal justice is that laws may be created or altered based on political agendas rather than actual needs. For example, a politician may push for harsher penalties for certain crimes to appeal to their voter base, even if evidence suggests that such policies are ineffective in reducing crime rates. This can lead to an imbalance in the justice system, where some individuals face disproportionately severe consequences for their actions.
Another issue is that politicians may focus on short-term solutions rather than addressing the root causes of crime. For instance, they may propose increasing police presence in a community as a quick fix instead of investing in education, social services, and economic development, which can have a more significant long-term impact on crime reduction. This approach can create a cycle of dependency on law enforcement rather than fostering self-sufficiency and community resilience.
In addition, the politicization of criminal justice can contribute to a culture of fear and mistrust between the public and law enforcement. When politicians exploit people’s fears about crime and safety, they may unintentionally perpetuate stereotypes and stigmatize certain groups, leading to biased policing and unequal treatment under the law. This can further strain relationships between communities and the police, making it more challenging to address crime effectively and fairly.
Furthermore, political influence can also compromise the integrity of judicial processes. Elected judges and prosecutors may feel pressured to make decisions that align with the prevailing political climate rather than based on the merits of each case. This can result in unfair outcomes for defendants and undermine public trust in the legal system.
Crime Control versus Due Process
Herbert Packer (1964) introduced two different models that represent the values in the criminal justice system: the Crime Control Model and the Due Process Model. These models show the opposing political beliefs that greatly influence decision-making in criminal justice at all levels. The difference is not as simple as Democrat or Republican. Both models represent essential values in American life. People want to live in safe, orderly communities and control crime. At the same time, they value freedom and dislike oppressive governments that interfere with personal liberties. Americans are proud of their rights and cherish their privacy.
Packer (1964) explained that the Crime Control Model is based on the idea that suppressing criminal behavior is the most crucial function of the criminal process. A political philosophy supports this view, which states that if law enforcement fails to strictly control criminal conduct, public order will break down. An essential condition for human freedom will disappear.
When laws are not enforced, and people perceive a high failure rate in apprehending and convicting criminals, they tend to disregard legal controls. Supporters of the Crime Control Model believe that the police should have more power to investigate and prosecute criminals, including increased powers of search and seizure. In this model, the main focus of the criminal justice system should be to discover the truth and establish the facts.
On the other hand, the Due Process Model emphasizes protecting every citizen’s civil rights (Packer, 1964). This model suggests that the criminal justice system’s most important function is to ensure procedural due process or maintain fairness in all aspects of the criminal justice process. A significant policy implication of this view is to limit police powers to prevent individual citizens’ oppression. Supporters of this position believe that establishing guilt is not enough; the government must show guilt fairly and legally while respecting the accused’s rights.
In reality, the courts and other elements of the criminal justice system must find a balance between these two positions (Packer, 1964). The importance of each position is not static, as there is a constant tug of war between them. As the makeup of America’s high courts changes, so does the underlying philosophy that dominates the decisions of those courts. Liberal courts establish broad civil liberties, while conservative courts erode those liberties in the name of law and order.
The Juvenile Justice System
During the 1800s, there was a significant shift in how the United States approached juvenile delinquency (Sickmund, Sladky, & Kang, 2015). This shift was away from treating juveniles like adults. As early as 1825, the Society for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency began promoting the idea of separate facilities for juvenile offenders. Private facilities were created but were soon criticized for alleged abuses. This criticism led to many states establishing their own juvenile detention facilities.
Not only were detention facilities changing, but so was the entire system. In 1899, Illinois passed the Juvenile Court Act, creating America’s first juvenile court (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2017). The court was based on the British policy of parens patriae, meaning the government acted as a parent. This meant that the state had a responsibility to intervene when natural parents failed to discipline and protect their children. The focus of the juvenile court was the welfare of the child. The court aimed to rehabilitate delinquent youths through treatment rather than punishing them like adult offenders.
By 1910, 32 states had established juvenile courts, and most had probation services. By 1925, all but two states had established the foundations of a juvenile justice system. Juvenile courts handled cases involving accused individuals under 18 years old. These courts were not adversarial, meaning prosecutors were not responsible for bringing cases before the court. Juvenile courts were prone to consider extralegal factors when deciding how to deal with a particular case. The courts used intake procedures that allowed for the informal diversion of youthful offenders, where no formal judicial action was taken (Sickmund, Sladky, & Kang, 2015).
Juvenile proceedings were much less formal than adult trials because the court used the best interest of the child standard. The juvenile court had many dispositions available to help rehabilitate delinquent youths. The doctrine of proportionality did not apply, meaning the child could receive anything from a verbal warning to being locked up in a secure detention facility. Rehabilitation would continue until the child was cured or became an adult.
However, by the 1960s, many people became disillusioned with the juvenile courts’ ability to rehabilitate youths effectively. Despite this, the juvenile court’s underlying assumptions about the individualized treatment of delinquent youths were not widely challenged. The United States Supreme Court believed that children should be afforded many of the same constitutional safeguards as adult offenders.
As a result, the Supreme Court made several rulings in a short span of time that protected these rights. The formalization of the juvenile court resulted in delinquents being guaranteed the right to an attorney, protection against self-incrimination, and the right to receive notice of the charges. The standard of proof changed from a preponderance of the evidence to beyond a reasonable doubt in juvenile cases (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2017).
Deinstitutionalization was a significant movement in the historical development of the juvenile justice system in the United States. It aimed to reduce the reliance on large-scale institutions, such as detention centers and reform schools, and instead promote community-based alternatives for juvenile offenders. The movement began in the 1960s and gained momentum in the 1970s when critics argued that institutionalizing youth resulted in physical and emotional abuse, neglect, and ineffective rehabilitation.
As a result, many states closed large juvenile institutions and replaced them with smaller, community-based programs that offered various services, such as counseling, education, and vocational training. Deinstitutionalization represents a significant shift in the juvenile justice system’s philosophy from punishment to rehabilitation, emphasizing individualized treatment and community-based support.
The Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Act of 1968 was enacted to support state and local juvenile delinquency prevention programs. The act aimed to prevent young people from becoming involved in delinquent behaviors by funding community-based programs focused on youth development and diversion from the juvenile justice system. The act also established the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to provide leadership and coordination in the national effort to prevent and respond to juvenile delinquency.
In the 1980s, the public perceived that serious juvenile crime was rising and that the juvenile courts were too lenient on offenders. This led to many states passing more punitive laws. Some removed certain classes of offenders from the juvenile system and placed them in the adult system. Others revamped their juvenile courts to operate more like adult courts. As a result, offenders charged with certain offenses are excluded from juvenile court jurisdiction or face mandatory waivers to criminal court.
In the 1990s, every state modified the juvenile justice system, which varied widely. Most states made it easier to transfer juveniles from the juvenile justice system to the criminal justice system. They also gave criminal and juvenile courts expanded sentencing options. Most legislatures also modified or removed traditional juvenile court confidentiality provisions by making records and proceedings more open to the public (Sickmund, Sladky, Kang, 2015).
The evolution of the juvenile justice system in the United States has been marked by significant changes, as policymakers and practitioners have sought to balance the protection of society with the rehabilitation of youthful offenders. Today, many states have implemented various programs, such as restorative justice initiatives, diversion programs, and evidence-based treatment programs, to reduce recidivism rates among juvenile offenders and help them reintegrate into their communities (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2022).
The criminal justice system in the United States is influenced by politics at every level. Elected officials and interest groups play a significant role in shaping criminal justice policies, and the media influences public opinion, influencing politicians. The selection of decision-makers, law-making, policing, prosecution, judiciary, and corrections are all political processes that can have consequences for the fair and efficient administration of justice.
Two main models represent the values in the criminal justice system: the Crime Control Model and the Due Process Model. The Crime Control Model emphasizes suppressing criminal behavior and establishing the facts, while the Due Process Model prioritizes protecting every citizen’s civil rights and maintaining fairness. The criminal justice system must find a balance between these two positions, as they are both crucial for American life.
The politicization of criminal justice can lead to poorly thought-out policies and laws that negatively affect the administration of justice. Politicians may focus on short-term solutions rather than addressing the root causes of crime, perpetuate stereotypes and stigmatize certain groups, and compromise the integrity of judicial processes. Finding a balance between the Crime Control Model and the Due Process Model and ensuring that politics does not compromise the administration of justice is crucial for the fair and efficient functioning of the criminal justice system.
In the 1800s, the United States began to move away from treating juvenile delinquents like adults. Private facilities were established, but allegations of abuse led to the creation of state-run juvenile detention facilities. In 1899, Illinois passed the Juvenile Court Act, creating America’s first juvenile court. This court was based on the British policy of parens patriae, which focused on the welfare of the child and aimed to rehabilitate delinquent youths through treatment rather than punishment.
By 1910, 32 states had established juvenile courts, which handled cases involving accused individuals under 18 years old. These courts were not adversarial, and the focus was on the best interest of the child. The courts used intake procedures that allowed for the informal diversion of youthful offenders, where no formal judicial action was taken. Juvenile proceedings were less formal than adult trials, and many dispositions were available to help rehabilitate delinquent youths.
In the 1960s, many people became disillusioned with the juvenile court’s ability to rehabilitate youths effectively. The Supreme Court made several rulings protecting the rights of delinquents, including the right to an attorney, protection against self-incrimination, and the right to receive notice of the charges. However, in the 1980s, the public perceived that serious juvenile crime was rising and that the juvenile courts were too lenient on offenders, leading to more punitive laws.
In the 1990s, every state modified the juvenile justice system, making it easier to transfer juveniles from the juvenile justice system to the criminal justice system and giving criminal and juvenile courts expanded sentencing options. Today, many states have implemented programs to reduce recidivism rates among juvenile offenders and help them reintegrate into their communities, such as restorative justice initiatives, diversion programs, and evidence-based treatment programs.
National Conference of State Legislatures. (2022). Juvenile justice reform legislation database.
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (2017). Juvenile justice history.
Packer, H. L. (1964). Two models of the criminal process. University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 113(1), 1-68.
Sickmund, M., Sladky, T.J., & Kang, W. (2015). Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement Databook. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Best Interest of the Child, Crime Control Model, Deinstitutionalization, Doctrine of Proportionality, Due Process Model, Extralegal Factors, Informal Diversion, Juvenile Court Act of 1899, Juvenile Delinquency, Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Act of 1968, Parens Patriae, Parole Board, Partisan Politics, Policy, Politicized, Politics, Preponderance of the Evidence, Sheriff, Waiver
Last Modified: 07/13/2023
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