The wedding cake model theory of criminal justice was developed by Samuel Walker and provides an overview of how different types of cases move through the legal system. The top layers of the cake represent the small number of cases that receive the most attention from within the courts and from outside sources, such as the media. Wide layers at the bottom of the cake represent the bulk of cases — misdemeanors — that move through the system quickly and with little fanfare.
The wedding cake model theory divides the criminal justice system into into four layers: celebrated cases, serious felonies, lesser felonies and misdemeanors.
Layer 1: Celebrated Cases
The top layer of the wedding cake model theory of criminal justice includes the celebrated cases. These types of cases garner a great deal of media attention because the crimes are unusual or because the defendants are celebrities or high-ranking officials. The manner in which these types of cases are undertaken is not typical of the operation of the criminal justice system. Because they are such high-profile cases, there are factors that need to be taken into consideration that do not exist in more typical criminal cases. These include everything from cameras in the courtroom to crowd control. By their very nature, examples of celebrated cases are obvious: OJ Simpson, Michael Jackson, Bernie Madoff and so forth.
Layer 2: Serious Felonies
The second layer of the wedding cake model includes serious felonies. On this layer of the cake, the criminal justice system engages in its standard operating procedure. There are not the same external factors impacting the system as there are in celebrated cases. Serious felonies are cases involving those types of crimes in which a defendant is not likely to be released on bail. There is a lesser chance that the defendant will enter into a plea agreement before trial.
Layer 3: Lesser Felonies
On the third layer of the wedding cake model theory of criminal justice are lesser felonies. These types of cases tend to be non-violent. Within this grouping of cases are certain drug-related charges, financial crimes and the like. A good portion of these cases end in plea agreements.
Layer 4: Misdemeanors
The final layer of the wedding cake model includes misdemeanor cases. These are the least-serious types of crimes in the criminal justice system, excluding traffic infractions. These types of cases include petty or minor theft and disturbing the peace. Misdemeanors represent the largest category of cases in the criminal justice system. Many misdemeanor cases are resolved with plea agreements.
Significance of the Wedding Cake Model
The wedding cake model theory of criminal justice assists in better understanding the operation of the criminal justice system. How these cases fit into the overall justice system leads to a clearer understanding of the mechanics of the judiciary. Moreover, by making distinctions between different types of cases – particularly between celebrated cases and other types of criminal proceedings – an observer better understands the differences between the norm and the exceptions in the criminal justice system.