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What Is the Criminal Justice Funnel?

By Jayne Thompson - Updated December 27, 2018
Blue plastic funnel on a white background

Describing the criminal justice system as a funnel provides a useful visual aid for how crimes are investigated, charged and tried. The idea is that a criminal case starts at the wide top of the funnel with an investigation. Assuming there's enough evidence, the defendant will get charged, tried, released or convicted, and possibly granted an appeal. The image is a funnel because, while a lot of crimes get investigated, few will make it all the way to the end of the system.

Tip

The criminal justice funnel is a succinct way of describing the likelihood that a crime under investigation will result in an arrest, prosecution, conviction and incarceration. It's called a funnel because the number of cases dwindles as they pass through the system.

The Process of Criminal Justice

The criminal justice system is a series of steps. It begins with a criminal investigation and ends with the release of the defendant. The major steps involved in the system are:

  • Criminal investigation by the police to identify a suspect and support an arrest.
  • Arrest of the suspect and the filing of criminal charges.
  • Prosecution by the district attorney.
  • Arraignment, where the defendant appears in court and enters a guilty or not guilty plea.
  • Pretrial hearings to establish what evidence will be admissible in the trial; this may result in plea bargaining between the prosecution and the defense where the defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for a reduced charge or sentence.
  • Criminal trial before a judge or jury resulting in an acquittal or conviction.
  • Sentencing if the defendant is found guilty; this can range from fines and community service to rehabilitation orders, jail time or prison time.
  • Appealing the verdict or sentence where permitted.
  • Serving the punishment and obtaining a release.

Why Is It Described as a Criminal Justice Funnel?

It's described as a funnel because it is shaped like one – wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. Think about all the cases and complaints the police are investigating at any one time. The number is huge, but often the police cannot identify a suspect or come up with enough evidence to file criminal charges against someone. The number of cases making it to the prosecution stage dwindles as investigations drop out of the process.

Once in the court system, the number of cases that make it from one stage to the next are further reduced. Some cases get dismissed because they don't meet strict screening requirements. Some suspects are referred for rehabilitation or counseling outside the criminal justice system. Some will go all the way to trial and be found not guilty by a judge or a jury. By the time a defendant gets to the bottom of the funnel, only a fraction of the suspects originally investigated will actually serve time.

The Criminal Justice Funnel in Numbers

To put the criminal justice funnel in context, let's look at an example. Using a sampling of data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, researchers identified 92,455 cases of felony rape under investigation in 2006. A small percentage of those investigations, just 20,940 cases or 22.65 percent, resulted in an arrest. An even smaller number of defendants were convicted: 14,720. And of those convicted, just 10,540 offenders were sent to prison. These data represent a significant drop-off from investigation to sentence, and demonstrate precisely how the criminal justice funnel works.

Variations From Crime to Crime

When it comes to the criminal justice funnel, the type of crime matters. Researchers have shown that generally, there is a much higher chance of a murder leading to an arrest, an arrest leading to a conviction, and a conviction leading to imprisonment than for other types of crimes. The crime of aggravated assault, on the other hand, tends to show a much more dramatic drop-0ff from one level to the next.

About the Author

Jayne Thompson earned an LLB in Law and Business Administration from the University of Birmingham and an LLM 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. Find her at www.whiterosecopywriting.com.

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