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 isn’t an isolated decision for police and others in the criminal justice system. It is an ongoing, integral part of their lives that requires their continued reexamination of the context for the decisions they have to make.
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.
Ethics’ Role 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.
Ethical Dilemma Examples in Criminal Justice
Making the right choice is not always easy for a police officer, a prosecutor or a judge 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
the course of action that appears to be right is difficult to carry out* situations
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
Judges also regularly face ethical dilemmas. Their ethical dilemmas can include:
- determining the right sentence for a convicted defendant based on his criminal and personal background
- understanding whether a ruling will set a precedent, and how that precedent might impede future judicial decisions
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 you can resolve your ethical dilemma, you have to analyze it thoroughly.
Determine the consequences of the action you’re considering taking. Next, determine the consequences of those consequences. Thinking through an ethical dilemma requires you to follow a trail of cause and effect to its logical conclusion. In this analysis, think about who will be hurt by your decision and who stands to gain from it. Your goal should be to minimize the harm your decision causes as much as you can.
Keep the laws that govern the issue you’re facing at the forefront of your mind as you think through an ethical dilemma. The law remains constant while ethics drive how you interpret it. Ideally, understanding the ripple effects of each potential decision will lead you to enforce the law in a compassionate, just manner.