The criminal justice system represents the evolution of the collective social morality of our society expressed in laws implemented through democratic policy to balance competing rights and values with a belief in fairness. As in any society, there are pros and cons to our system of justice.
Since the dawn of society, humans have implemented systems of justice. Historically, most of these systems were religion-based, barbaric by current standards and rarely just. Today, the most efficient criminal justice systems address criminal deviance while attempting to maintain a high degree of fairness and impartiality, although every system has its flaws. Because the criminal justice system is in a continuous state of evolution, so too are the advantages and disadvantages of that system. Each advantage and disadvantage plays a fundamental role in the system's overarching endeavor to balance competing rights and values.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
If you are charged with a criminal offense, certain pros and cons of the criminal justice system will influence your experience in court. Your right to due process, and by extension your right to an attorney, is one of the benefits you will have as a criminal defendant. Those who do end up serving prison sentences may find that prisons are unfortunately more focused on punishment than rehabilitation.
Advantages of the Criminal Justice System
Law and Order
The existence of any society relies on citizens' ability to both define the parameters of acceptable social behavior and to ensure adherence to the social contract by establishing consequences that punish violations. The advantage of social law and order is therefore bound inextricably with the criminal justice system's purpose for existing at all.
Right to Due Process
Enshrined within the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is the right to due process. This basic right applies to all citizens who have been accused of a crime. Its purpose is to ensure that no citizen is subject to criminal consequences without due process of law.
Due process consists of the right of the accused to be informed of the nature of the charges against him, the presumption of innocence, entitlement to a trial by jury or judge, the right to be defended by an attorney, the right to call witnesses and cross-examine witnesses called by the state, and the right to appeal conviction, among other things.
Just as water is essential to life, an impartial judiciary is essential to justice. The judicial role is to hear both sides of a criminal case, review evidence produced by each party, listen to the testimony of witnesses, read the final verdict given by the jury if applicable, and deliver a fair sentence based on the circumstances of the case in the broader social context of the crime.
For the benefit of the court, both sides are to argue opposing positions and present supporting evidence for each. It is important to note that the defendant is not technically obligated to raise her own defense, as the burden of proof is always on the accuser.
Disadvantages of the Criminal Justice System
Retributive Prison System
Prior to the 1970s, rehabilitation was the main goal inside U.S. prisons. People believed prisoners could be reformed into productive, law-abiding citizens if they were given tools such as education, occupational credentials, connections and supportive programs to facilitate successful reintegration into society.
By the 1970s, however, criminal psychologists were convinced rehabilitation wasn't working, and they began pushing for an alternative approach, based on the work of sociologist Robert Martinson, who published a subsequent report concluding that when it comes to deterring criminals, "nothing works." Discouraged, sociologists shoved the responsibility of handling criminals onto politicians who in turn leveraged the "tough on crime" position favored by the public in their election campaigns. By 1990, retribution had fully replaced rehabilitation, which has resulted in mass incarceration.
Most of the impact of mass incarceration continues to be absorbed by the nation’s most vulnerable communities, and the demand for criminal justice reforms are growing in response to the burden.
In the vast majority of cases, a certain strategic advantage goes to the person with the most money, because money buys the best attorneys. Wealthy people can also invariably afford to post bail, an advantage seldom shared by their financially unstable counterparts. This is in addition to other options that wouldn't apply to economically disadvantaged defendants, such as the possibility of leveraging powerful connections to influence cases behind the scenes.
Overdependence on Plea Bargains
Because criminal courts prioritize efficiency, plea bargaining has become the most common means of resolving criminal cases in order to accommodate the burden.
Plea bargaining, which is managed by state and federal prosecutors, is the process of offering criminal defendants dramatically reduced charges in exchange for a guilty plea. Plea bargaining is favored because it is a less resource-intensive alternative to trial that consistently frees up the court docket. More than 90 percent of criminal cases are currently resolved by plea bargain.
Because in most cases, plea bargaining has the potential to benefit both sides mutually, many people regard plea bargaining as a benefit of the criminal justice system. The trouble arises from the fact that prosecutors often weaponize the threat of aggravated criminal charges in order to pressure defendants into taking a plea. For example, a drug dealer arrested with a pound of cocaine may be offered a single drug possession charge in exchange for a guilty plea. With few exceptions, a single drug conviction typically carries a relatively light penalty, and the defendant could probably expect to serve about two years in prison or less. If, however, the defendant insisted on taking the case to trial, the prosecutor could instead charge him with aggravated drug trafficking, which is a more serious offense and carries a much longer prison sentence upon conviction.
Critics of plea bargaining have pointed out that it gives prosecutors far too much power in determining the outcome of cases, to the point where the prosecutor's role effectively supersedes that of even the judge. Justice cannot possibly be guaranteed in a system which prioritizes bargaining power and efficiency over facts while treating actual guilt or innocence as nothing more than an academic question.
- Cornell Law School: Plea Bargains
- Urban Institute: Invisible Punishment: An Element of Social Exclusion
- United States Courts: Criminal Cases
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Psychological Impact of Incarceration
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Rehabilitation in the Punitive Era: The Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality in U.S. Prison Programs
- PrisonPolicy.org: The Debate on Rehabilitating Criminals: Is It True that Nothing Works?
- NY Books: Why Innocent People Plead Guilty