Ethical Dilemmas of Justice

Ethical dilemmas in criminal justice can be “big,” like the federal government’s need to justify widespread wiretapping and torture as strategies to win the war on terror. They also occur on a more micro level, such as in prisons, courthouses and police beats across the nation every day. Determining the right thing to do is an ongoing, integral part of the lives of police officers, prosecutors and others in the criminal justice system, requiring their continued reexamination of the context for the decisions they have to make.

The Role of Ethics in Criminal Justice

Ethics play an important role in criminal justice. Without ethics, law enforcement and the court system would have no foundation for the actions they take. Ethics give citizens a framework for the expectations they have of their government.

Maintaining ethical standards in the criminal justice system ensures that all people who pass through it, guilty or not, are treated with the same level of impartiality. It also ensures that all citizens’ civil rights and liberties are protected and that when it is necessary for the government to compromise these rights in some way, it is done for the people’s greater good. An example of a necessary violation of a civil right and liberty is the anti-terrorism Patriot Act, which permits increased surveillance and other measures to counter terrorism in the United States.

Read More: Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice

Ethical Dilemma Examples in Criminal Justice

Making the right choice is not always easy for a police officer or a prosecutor because sometimes, the case at hand is not clear-cut. Though the specific circumstances that pose ethical dilemmas are different for each of these roles, the dilemmas are quite similar at their core. Ethical dilemmas fit into one of the following three categories:

  • situations in which the right course of action is not clear
  • situations

    in which

    the course of action that appears to be right is difficult to implement * situations

    in which

    taking the wrong course of action is tempting

For a prosecutor, an ethical dilemma could be one of the following:

  • whether to pursue a charge based on incomplete or faulty evidence
  • how to respond to pressure to stop pursuing a charge despite strong evidence to support it
  • how to seek justice, rather than conviction, amid public pressure or personal feelings toward a defendant

For a police officer, an ethical dilemma could take the form of:

  • determining the amount of force necessary to restrain a suspect
  • discussing cases and realities of the job impartially when talking with the media and civilians
  • informing a suspect of his constitutional rights and respecting those rights even when they contradict the officer’s goals

Resolving Ethical Dilemmas in the Criminal Justice System

Recognizing an ethical dilemma is the first step toward resolving it. Resolving an ethical dilemma means finding a solution to the issue at hand. Before an ethical dilemma can reach resolution, the individual facing the dilemma must analyze the problem thoroughly by figuring out what the dilemma is, then determining the consequences of the potential actions, as well as the consequences of those consequences. The goal of an ethical analysis is to reach a conclusion that will minimize the harm to all involved while still remaining within the confines of the law.

After analyzing the situation and figuring out the exact nature of the ethical dilemma, the first place to start for a solution to an ethical problem is any code of conduct related to the role. For example, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police officers and judges all have codes of conduct and ethics they must follow. If a course of action is contrary to a requirement under these rules, then it should not be taken. It's important to note that actions may be legal and may also be ethical under these codes of conduct even if a layperson would find them immoral. For example, it is legal and ethical for a prosecutor to recommend sentencing that a layperson would find too harsh for the crime.


  • An ethical dilemma can delay the criminal justice process for a prolonged period of time, sometimes to the point of impeding it and preventing justice from being served.

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