Issues in the Criminal Justice System

By Cindy Hill
Issues, the Criminal Justice System
Cindy Hill

Any criminal justice system reflects its society and its times. Public sentiment and social trends are always in flux as to what is considered a crime and what methods of punishment are appropriate. Changing circumstances change the stresses on the system. Economic conditions also shape issues in the criminal justice system.

Prison Crowding

Prison overcrowding is one of America's most urgent criminal justice issues. The problem is frequently framed as one of insufficient jail space, for which the solution is to build more prison facilities. According to a 2008 study by the Pew Center on the States, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with one in 100 Americans under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes are a key factor in the high rate of incarceration.

Mental Illness

Mental health standards of the 1970s weighed toward de-institutionalizing people with mental illness. Large psychiatric facilities were closed in favor of outpatient, community-based care. Today, many people suffering from mental illness wind up in the criminal justice system. Courts and jails often lack appropriate sentencing and treatment options for mentally ill defendants, and legal standards often don't match the medical profession's prevailing views regarding mental health.

Alternative Drug Sentences

The costs of housing a growing prison population has led most corrections administrations to cut or eliminate drug-treatment and education programs. Since 2000, however, nationwide trends have emerged demonstrating a public commitment to drug treatment rather than incarceration. This includes drug courts with alternative sentencing options, community reparative justice boards, and court diversion programs.


Immigration raises three significant, controversial issues in criminal justice. The first is the time and resources necessary to deport immigrants -- documented and undocumented -- who have been convicted of crimes. The second is whether and to what extent local law enforcement resources should be used locating and removing undocumented immigrants. The third issue is the extent to which law enforcement emphasis should be on persons who transport and employ undocumented immigrants, rather than on the immigrants themselves.

Medical Marijuana

Some states have legalized the personal possession of small quantities of marijuana for medical uses. Proponents of medical marijuana say the drug helps alleviate the nausea associated with chemotherapy. Federal law does not recognize these state exceptions, and state laws still prohibit possession of larger quantities of marijuana as well as distribution, even to persons who may lawfully possess medical quantities. This scheme of enforcement creates confusion in the criminal justice system.

Sex Offenders

Laws across the country require convicted sex offenders to be publicly identified and have their addresses registered with the government. These registries have raised several issues. One is the concern that stringent requirements on where offenders can live will lead some sex offenders to avoid registering, making them impossible to track. Another is the nature of crimes that require registration. Some states have revised their registry statutes after residents and lawmakers concluded that certain offenders -- for example, teenagers convicted for having consensual sex with an underage girlfriend -- posed no danger to the community.

About the Author

A freelance writer since 1978 and attorney since 1981, Cindy Hill has won awards for articles on organic agriculture and wild foods, and has published widely in the areas of law, public policy, local foods and gardening. She holds a B.A. in political science from State University of New York and a Master of Environmental Law and a J.D. from Vermont Law School.