Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice

The U.S. criminal justice system is based on evolving philosophy regarding criminal behavior, rehabilitation and justice. This philosophy, in turn, is based on ethics, which creates the principles on which law and criminal justice practices are built and shaped.

History of Ethics in Criminal Justice

Ethics have been a key component of criminal justice throughout human history. Aristotle was the first Western philosopher to study ethics in a systematic manner. In his studies, he examined the ethics of moral judgment, which created the foundation of many Western criminal justice systems in the centuries that followed.

Ethics in criminal justice are continually being revisited and revised. One notable example is the 1989 revision of the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, the ethical code followed by members of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. This revision provided new guidelines for officers’ conduct during their off-duty hours and emphasized the importance of keeping personal feelings out of police work as well as the importance of discretion, integrity and confidentiality in every action an officer takes while on duty.

Top Five Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice

Police officers and other representatives of the criminal justice system face many different ethical issues in the course of their service. Five of the most common issues are:

  • determining an appropriate amount of force to use during arrests
  • protecting civilians’ rights while upholding the law
  • maintaining an ethical lifestyle outside of work
  • acting impartially when interacting with the public
  • avoiding profiling

An ethical dilemma is a situation in which the right course of action is not clear, or it is tempting to try to justify doing the wrong thing. Sometimes, ethical dilemmas present themselves as opportunities in which one person has the chance for financial or personal gain at others’ expense. In other cases, ethical dilemmas are opportunities for an officer or another criminal justice representative to take shortcuts or make their jobs easier while violating others’ rights or shortchanging them in some way.

Examples of Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice

It can be easier to understand ethical issues in criminal justice by looking at examples that illustrate them. A few examples of situations where ethical issues arise in criminal justice are:

  • An officer who knows an individual has a history of selling drugs considers planting evidence in the dealer’s car to support a charge against her. In this situation, the officer might think that planting drugs to help convict the known drug dealer is aiding the population by taking her off the streets, even if it means violating the drug dealer’s civil rights.
  • A judge faces pressure to sentence a public official found guilty of a crime to a lenient sentence because of the official’s position.
  • A police officer determines whether to let a drunk driver go with just a warning or to arrest him, knowing that if the driver is convicted of DUI, he will be unable to get to work and support his family. However, choosing not to arrest the driver is a legal violation and could potentially endanger the driver and others on the road.

Making the right choice can be difficult for a police officer or another public servant because, in many cases, the right choice isn’t clear. Making the ethical choice can often mean having to hurt or disappoint one person or group, and in these cases, the ethical choice is the choice that causes the least amount of harm or disappointment. Laws and conduct guidelines create a framework for ethical policing, but critical thinking and principles on public servants’ parts ensure that justice is served.

Read More: Ethical Dilemmas of Justice


  • Common ethical issues in criminal justice include ensuring impartiality, avoiding profiling, protecting citizens' rights, determining a necessary amount of force to use to restrain arrested suspects, and ensuring that public servants maintain a principled lifestyle outside of work.

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