Primary Goals of the Criminal Justice System

By Cindy Cook DeRuyter - Updated March 15, 2018
Allegory of  justice

The United States criminal justice system encompasses more than just local police forces and courthouses. It also includes federal and state government agencies and courts, as well as military and territorial police and courts. Together, these entities share the common goal of enforcing the country's laws. The justice system includes every aspect of a crime, including arrest, prosecution, court determinations, sentencing outcome, court appeals and corrections.

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The primary goals of the criminal justice system are: accurate identification of the person responsible, fair adjudication, retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation and restoration.

Law Enforcement in Action

The criminal justice system begins when the local police or other specialized agency becomes aware of a crime and investigates to determine what occurred and to identify a suspected offender. At this stage, the goal of the justice system is to uphold the rights of the victims, as well as the suspected offenders and witnesses.

Fair Adjudication Through the Court System

In the U.S., a person accused of committing a crime is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof is on the state or federal government prosecuting the crime, meaning the prosecutors must prove their case beyond a shadow of a doubt to the judge or jury that is charged with deciding the matter. Once convicted of a crime, the guilty party faces sentencing and penalties as determined by the judge, based on established legal standards, guidelines and limits. The convicted person may have an opportunity to appeal the decision to a higher court.

Retribution or Retaliatory Punishment

Our criminal justice system punishes offenders for many reasons, including simply because it’s the fair thing to do. The biblical concept of "an eye for an eye" expresses the concept of retribution. Simply put, when someone commits a crime, there are consequences for doing so. Retribution refers to those consequences, requiring the convicted person to pay a debt to society for the acts committed.

Deterring Future Crimes

The framework of laws that underlies the criminal justice system also is intended to deter future criminal acts. The idea is that making convicted criminals pay for their crimes will decrease recidivism – deter them from committing other crimes in the future – and serve as a warning to other would-be criminals that there are consequences associated with breaking the laws.

Rehabilitating Offenders

Another goal of the criminal justice system is to rehabilitate convicted criminals, helping them to reenter society as free persons after their sentences have been completed. Rehabilitation programs often include in-prison education and job skills training, mental and physical health programs, treatment for substance abuse and supervision under parole programs.

Making Victims “Whole”

Finally, our criminal justice system also seeks to achieve restoration through punishment. The aims of restorative justice are to help victims and their families heal after a crime has occurred, protect them from future harm and provide them with the sense that justice has been served.

About the Author

Cindy Cook DeRuyter is an attorney in private practice and a freelance writer. She earned her J.D. from Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, MN and her B.A. in Management and Communication from Concordia University in Mequon, WI. When she's not reading or writing, she enjoys spending time with her husband, their teenage son and their three dogs.

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