What is Criminal Justice?

By Michael Staib
What is Criminal Justice?

Criminal justice denotes the policies involving law enforcement, including all legal measures designed to promote proper implementation, through impartial treatment, as intended by society. Essentially, criminal justice, in its strictest sense, means nothing more than "criminal (penal) law, the law of criminal procedure," particularly all activities involving its "enforcement." (Schmalleger, Frank, "Criminal Justice Today, An Introductory Text for the 21st Century" 1998.) Criminal justice remains inseparable and almost synonymous with social justice because it epitomizes U.S. jurisprudence, our fundamental foundation of morality, reflected in America, through its sociological influence upon the courts, democratic values and people who determine those values.

Criminal Justice

In a nutshell, criminal justice relates to the concentration of law that concerns crime, controlling, minimizing, and mitigating its manifestation. Crime, as defined, denotes the act of committing a public wrong, or violating one's public commitment thereof, as deemed appropriate by society. Crime existed since the beginning of humanity, and laws serve to protect people from harm in material, democratic societies; otherwise, anarchy and civil disorder almost inevitably results. Hence, to prevent widespread violence and insurrections, governments institute laws that prohibit certain criminal conduct, or public offenses against society, as a means of protecting good law-abiding citizens against harm.

Constitutional Sources of Criminal Justice

In contemporary American society, our primary source of criminal law stems from the U.S. Constitution as promulgated by its Supremacy Clause under Article VI, Section 2, which renders it "the Supreme Law of the Land." The Constitution expands upon concepts regarding deprivation toward "life, liberty, and property," without Due Process of law, as incorporated into Amendment V, and reinforced by the 14th Amendment Due Process Clause. Essentially, we may not knowingly, willfully, intentionally, and/or deliberately jeopardize the lives of others without legal warrant, unless determined by a court through constitutional interpretation, to preserve the general welfare of the public.

Morality in Criminal Justice

However, criminal activity, as particularly manifested in democratic societies, sometimes extrapolate laws from spiritual sources, including the Bible, to determine criminal activity, and hence, promote authoritative justice, through secular ethical principles. For example, "Thou Shall not Kill, Steal, Commit Adultery, Lie," represent various laws of different capacities in American society. We may not commit perjury, lie under federal oath in a court of law, kill, steal, or intentionally harm another, as prohibited by law. Obviously, these universal ethical principles, which parallel religious laws, such as the Bible, extrapolated and incorporated for use in American society, provides justice into society. Likewise, consider universal ethical principles, such as the Golden Rule and utilitarianism. Enlightened moral philosophers, prophets, and spiritual leaders proposed universal principles which subsequently form American jurisprudence. For example, Jesus Christ advocated the Golden Rule: "Treat others as you expect them to treat you." The words speak for itself, which, in its simplicity, essentially means to reciprocate goodness for others, because you inevitably expect equal treatment from them. The philosopher Plato defined justice as a "right to speak the truth" and reimburse "any debt one may have contracted" (Plato's Thoughts On Morality). Plato's interpretation of justice, as defined, " to speak the truth" epitomizes American jurisprudence in every respect, symbolized by the Latin legal term, voir dire, which literally translates the above definition, almost verbatim. Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) championed the principle of utilitarianism, maximizing goodness for the greatest number of people. Also influenced by Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose libertarian perspective remains fundamental to the foundation of U.S. jurisprudence, Bentham asserted prominence during America's Revolutionary War, and likely catalyzed its democratic ideals. For example, during his intellectual emergence, Bentham emphasized the moral principles of utilitarianism involved in legislation within two distinguished publications, "A Fragment on Government" (1776) and "Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation" (1789). Interestingly, both years of these published papers, 1776 and 1789, maintain special historical significance; the former commemorates America's Independence, and latter represents our constitutional establishment. The General Welfare Clause and Constitutional Preamble seem to parallel utilitarian philosophy, considering the greatest collective interests and liberties of American citizens. Hence, we determine morality, often through law, religion, ethics and our own understanding of what we consider right or wrong.

Individual Rights vs. Legitimate Authority

The constant conflict between personal freedom and preserving social order represents an unprecedented challenge in contemporary democratic societies. In American society, this dichotomy juxtaposed between civil liberties and reverence for public order represents intense controversy. Why? Because society obviously necessitates a balance between both entities to preserve democracy. Presumptuous emphasis of individual rights inevitably predisposes anarchy, whereas intemperate authority leads inexorably to dictatorship. However, contemporary society presents a perplexing predicament, due to its ambivalent nature and tumultuous tendencies. Individual rights advocates reason that preserving the personal freedom of citizens asserts precedence over general societal interests, whereas public order advocates believe societal interests overshadow individual liberties. Additionally, many activists, liberal individual rights advocates and conservative public-order proponents fail to establish a moderate consensus concerning various issues. Partisanship, ideology and special interests designed to promote personal/political expedience likely hinder compromise. Consequently, this lack of consensus tends to trigger division, which thereby exacerbates crime and terrorism. Persons who feel intimidated by the approach assumed by public order proponents, and frustrated with individual rights advocates for not proposing a sufficiently assertive compromise, may engage in criminal activity to publicize their concerns. Similarly, individuals, perhaps victims of terrorism/crime more receptive to authoritative measures, may become enraged with the inadequate support for protection against such threats, and possibly retaliate as well. Furthermore, by not establishing compromise, vacillating between issues, a nation appears inevitably vulnerable, predisposing terrorism, because it demonstrates that it failed to learn the lessons of 9/11. Such perfunctory disregard, not asserting legitimate authority, or establishing any compromise regarding protective measures, resonates a feeble response, leading heinous perpetrators to believe that they may manipulate America at their disposal and get away with the most malevolent machinations, waging war against us, while escaping punishment. Hence, establishing a reasonable consensus maintains indispensable significance in preserving national stability and sovereignty.

Freedom and Order: Striking the Appropriate Balance

Obviously, we all possess certain inalienable rights, universal freedom, as championed by the U.S. and recognized in other democratic societies modeled after it. However, external confrontations, such as terrorism, and wars between nations, sometimes compromise freedom, compelling us to relinquish certain liberties for the general welfare of society. Therefore, we need to strike an appropriate balance between the rights of individuals and society.


Nevertheless, such balance remains nothing than a concerted, collaborative, nonpartisan effort to establish compromise. We must recognize the blessings of liberty bestowed by our constitutional doctrine in democratic societies. However, with that said, we remain a representative, republican government, and true democracy only flourishes when we consider the totality of interests or general welfare. Hence, we propose constitutional amendments that keep our fundamental liberties primarily intact, while simultaneously suspending certain freedoms, temporarily, to preserve the utilitarian welfare of society, in protection against crime and terrorism. Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution offers an appropriate system of balanced, separate powers, that function to provide freedom, while simultaneously asserts authority.

A Cooperative Historical Approach to Criminal Justice

If only our modern politicians and government leaders attempted to recall history, specifically, the strategies pursued by 26th President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt's corollary, epitomized by his aphorism, "Speak softy, but carry a big stick," he maintained diplomatic dexterity, while simultaneously exercising reasonable force when deemed necessary. Why not apply this same principle to our modern, domestic criminal justice system? Citizens possess personal freedom, but remain limited in extent, and obligated to relinquish certain fundamental freedoms for the sake of collective liberty. The collaborative efforts of contemporary politicians listening to each other, broadening their perspectives through historical analysis, discussing relevant issues with informed consent, while emphasizing active, nonpartisan diplomacy, may facilitate a more ideal criminal justice system for American jurisprudence, democratic nations and other governments modeled after it.

About the Author

Michael Staib earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in history, from Pace University in May 2008. Graduating with distinction from the Pforzheimer Honors College, he published an extensive scholarly essay showcased in Pace's Digital Commons repository. A regular freelancer, Staib also writes for Blogcritics. He plans to attend law school in Fall 2010.