Without a set of moral guidelines, a criminal justice system cannot accurately meet its population’s needs. The system’s job is to punish bad behavior and ensure that crime victims are appropriately compensated for their losses, whether that means providing restitution for financial damage or giving them the peace of mind that their attackers, abusers, deceivers and other criminals have been safely removed from society. Ethics are important in such a system because they provide both the accused and the victim with balanced application of justice.
Ethics are the principles that drive the criminal justice system. These principles include impartiality, integrity, respect for privacy and respect for all parties' civil rights.
Ethics Provide Answers to Complex Questions
What is bad behavior? What is appropriate compensation for crime victims, and what are appropriate punishments for the people who violate laws? These are the questions the criminal justice system continually strives to answer as it evolves to suit society's changing needs and mores. Ethics, the moral principles by which society lives, guide this evolution.
An Ethical Justice System Benefits Society
When citizens can expect their government to act in their best interest, they are more likely to support its policies and strive to be better citizens. In contrast, citizens who know their government and its representatives, such as police officers and judges, cannot be trusted to act in their best interest are less likely to report crimes and cooperate with criminal investigations.
A police officer’s code of ethics prohibits her from threatening suspects or using physical force to seek confessions and information about alleged crimes. Officers must also inform the people they arrest of their Miranda rights, such as the right to remain silent during interactions with law enforcement and the right to lawyer representation. By informing an arrested person of his civil rights, the officer enables the person to act in his own best interest.
Police officers are not the only professionals in the criminal justice system who have to abide by ethical guidelines. In every criminal case, the attorneys are expected to follow the rules of professional conduct; the jury is expected to fairly consider all of the facts provided to determine whether the defendant is guilty or innocent; and following the jury’s verdict, the judge is expected to make a fair ruling based on the facts presented, applicable laws and circumstances surrounding the case.
Why Are Ethical Standards Important in Criminal Justice?
Without ethical standards, it can be easy for law enforcement and the court to operate impartially. Think about it: if a defendant could pay a judge to rule a certain way on his case, the defendant could simply buy his way out of conviction. Similarly, a prosecuting attorney with an agenda against the defendant could tamper with evidence or tell witnesses how to testify, unfairly driving the trial to her desired ruling.
Police officers, judges and others in the criminal justice system must consider these ethical issues:
- whether their actions comply with the law
- whether they can legally and morally justify every choice they made to reach certain outcomes
- how their decisions affect others involved in a case and the population as a whole
- the precedents their decisions set
- whether their decisions undermine ethical or legal principles
What Role Does Ethics Play in Creating and Guiding Policy in the Criminal Justice System?
Judges consider the circumstances surrounding their cases when they rule on them. These circumstances are known as aggravating and mitigating factors. When there are aggravating factors present in a case, like the defendant’s lengthy criminal record or the victim’s vulnerability, the judge may impose a more severe sentence on the defendant. Similarly, a mitigating factor like the defendant’s genuine remorse for her actions or provocation to commit the offense can sway the judge toward a more lenient sentence. This is ethical consideration in action.
Ethical considerations that criminal justice policymakers must make include citizens’ rights to privacy, prisoners’ rights while incarcerated, and how to apply laws and justice procedures to the population without privileging or disadvantaging specific groups. A criminal justice system is meant to serve the people, not to punish them unjustly or only serve specific classes. Maintaining a set of ethics and referring to it frequently enables policymakers to create policies that serve the entire population and amend them as needed.