As in most countries, the United States criminal justice system consists of three components. Each part – law enforcement, the courts and corrections – deals with offenders at different stages in their criminal history. Each component is capable of functioning independently or in collaboration to prevent, prosecute and punish crime.
Component One: Law Enforcement
Law enforcement officials are responsible for upholding the law on the ground. One part of their job is to catch people who break the law, but a greater part is being a "presence" in the community – patrolling the streets and controlling crime. As such, law enforcement officials must possess a good understanding of both criminal law and citizens’ rights, to ensure they are not violating these rights when going about their duties.
Law enforcement is not just about policing. Patrol officers, sheriffs, detectives, federal agents, forensic investigators, game and parks rangers, and campus law enforcement personnel all fall under the banner, alongside numerous state and federal agencies that are responsible for enforcing the law.
Role of law enforcement:
- Responding to complaints from the public.
- Investigating crime.
- Collecting evidence.
- Interviewing witnesses.
- Arresting and detecting suspected offenders.
- Liaising with prosecutors in criminal investigations.
- Conducting patrols.
- Maintaining public order and safety.
- Preventing and controlling crime in the community.
Component Two: The Court System
The U.S. court system is a complex network of courts that employs thousands of individuals in roles such as judges, bailiffs and court clerks. Public prosecutors are responsible for initiating criminal proceedings against an individual, and it’s the job of a defense attorney to represent those charged with crimes in court. Jury members are a key part of the court system. Selected from the pool of registered voters in the court’s jurisdiction, juries are responsible for delivering a verdict on the defendant’s guilt or innocence for certain types of crime.
The court network itself is broken into municipal and trial courts, courts of appeal and the Supreme Court, which is the court of last resort. Each court hears a different type of case. Traffic violations, misdemeanors and other small, non-jury cases are typically heard in a municipal court in the presence of a single judge. Most criminal cases (serious misdemeanors and felonies) are resolved in state trial courts. A jury may be present in these cases depending on the charge.
Role of the court system:
- Determining the criminal responsibility of a defendant.
- Ensuring a fair trial takes place.
- Upholding court rules and procedures.
- Sentencing offenders for crimes committed (per state and federal guidelines).
- Seeking justice and discovering the truth.
Component Three: Corrections
Corrections deals with criminals who have been tried and found guilty of a crime. Its role is to separate offenders from society, carry out sentences given by the courts and make sure that convicted offenders serve their time. This takes place within a network of county and city jails where inmates serve sentences for misdemeanors, as well as state and federal prisons.
Often, offenders are given community service or electronic monitoring instead of jail time or are granted early release from prison. Professionals within the corrections system also work with these offenders on probation or parole, helping to rehabilitate them and supervising them in the community. The ultimate goal is to reintegrate ex-offenders into society – hopefully so they will never commit a crime again.
Role of corrections:
- Supervising criminals as they serve their sentences.
- Overseeing the day-to-day routines of inmates.
- Supervising offenders and former offenders in the community.
- Rehabilitating offenders through education and employment.
- Giving recommendations on sentencing and release (parole officers).
- Reporting the progress of detainees and probationers to the courts.
Jayne Thompson earned an LL.B. in Law and Business Administration from the University of Birmingham and an LL.M. in International Law from the University of East London. She practiced in various “Big Law” firms before launching a career as a commercial writer. Her work has appeared on numerous legal blogs including Quittance, Upcounsel and Medical Negligence Experts.