Understanding How the Criminal Justice System Works

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“Our constitutionally based criminal justice system places a high value on protecting the innocent. Among its central tenets is the idea that it is better to let a guilty person go free than to convict someone without evidence beyond a reasonable doubt”- Defense Attorney Robert Shapiro

The United States criminal justice system is not perfect; however, it is a fair system.

The United States Criminal Justice System Structure

The United States criminal justice system structure is made of three (3) separate government components that have distinct functions and roles to enforce federal, state, and local laws, hold the person accountable for violating the law through due process, and punishing the offender if found guilty of committing a crime.

Law Enforcement

The first component of the United State criminal justice system is law enforcement consisting of federal, state, and local agencies with powers of arrest. Law enforcement responsibility is to enforce written laws while protecting and serving. Uniformed law enforcement officers are the most visible sign of state and local government.

LOS ANGELES, CA. January 29, 2010 --- Graduating officers class of August 2009 march pass LAPD Chief Charlie Beck who presided over the graduation held LAPD Academy on January 29, 2010 in Los Angeles. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times.)
LOS ANGELES, CA. January 29, 2010 — Graduating officers class of August 2009 march pass LAPD Chief Charlie Beck who presided over the graduation held LAPD Academy on January 29, 2010 in Los Angeles. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times.)

The Courts      

The second component of the United States criminal justice system is the courts. The court system in the United States is a dual system. The U.S. court system consist of both federal and state courts. The court’s responsibility is to create due process by following established laws and legal procedures to determine guilt or innocence of a person charged with a crime. Charge referrers to a person accused of committing a crime. The accused person must answer for allegedly violating of written law/s.

Corrections

The third component of the United States criminal justice system is corrections. The corrections component consists of federal (Bureau of Prisons) state (Department of Corrections), county, and city jails. The corrections component is responsible for enforcing the court sentence of a person found guilty of a crime, and the punishment is a prison or jail sentence. Falling under the corrections component of the criminal justice system is parole and probation.

These three separate government components are the structure of the modern United States criminal justice system that is charged with the responsibility for seeking justice and maintaining an orderly society while adhering to individual rights and protections guaranteed in the United States Constitution.

The Three C’s

A simple way to remember the three separate components of the United States criminal justice system is by the acronym of the Three C’s. The Three C’s acronym is the cops, courts, and corrections.

The “C” in the acronym stands for “cop”. The word “cop” referrers to the first component of the criminal justice system, which is law enforcement. The nickname derived from the copper badges worn on the police uniform and the public started calling police officers “coppers”. The nicknamed of copper was shortened over the years to “cop”.

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About the Author

Mark Bond

Mark Bond has worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms instructor for more than 33 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in criminal justice, and M.Ed in educational leadership with Summa Cum Laude honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education (EdD) with a concentration in college teaching and learning. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college.

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