The U.S. Criminal Justice System



Law is a body of rules and regulations, recognized by a society, enacted by the legislature to govern and regulate how people behave and a breach thereof, would amount to an imposition of a penalty. Criminal Law defines crimes, outline procedures and give punishment in the event of breach. The Criminal Justice System is a system of law enforcement that apprehends, prosecutes, defends, sentences, punishes criminal offenders and also rehabilitate and offer correctional facilities to the offenders. It comprises of 3 main components that is, Law enforcement, Judiciary and correctional facilities. In this paper I shall scrutinize the criminal Justice system by discussing its components, how they relate with each other, areas they cooperate and where they do not and finally how checks and balances work in the said Criminal Justice system.

KEYWORDS: Rule of law, Criminal Justice System, Judiciary, Law Enforcement, Correctional Facilities.



The general purpose of this dissertation are; (1) To describe and identify the primary components of the criminal justice system; (2) to show the relations between the three components in execution of their duties; (3) to explain how the three components cooperate and their failure to non-cooperation; and (4) to show how the three tenets of the criminal justice system acts as checks and balances against each other. The theoretical propositions advanced in this dissertation regarding the four outlined steps are complemented with empirical analyses of the United States of America’s judiciary.


The first section of the research paper has highlighted a brief introduction to the criminal justice system with emphasis on the history and rationale for a criminal justice system. In the second segment I have paper has dissected the criminal justice system component and their relations. I have analyzed the cooperation among the three components in the third section. I have analyzed the mechanisms put in place to ensure that the main components serve as check and balances on themselves.


The Rule of law doctrine means that every person is subject to the law. It encompasses three principles opined by A.V Dicey that is, Equality before the Law, the law is best protected under a common law and No man shall be punished except for a distinct breach of law. From this principles we understand that the Law exists to protect people from harmful human behaviour, ensure there is order in the Society and that people live harmoniously amongst each other. This can be best served by a Criminal Justice System that is transparent, accountable and efficient. Locke ‘an position on Social Contract theory is that people give out some of their rights to the state, and in return the state has an obligation to protect the people’s rights from being infringed, denied or violated by other citizens or by the state itself. This concept which originated from the English constitutionalism was assimilated in the American Constitution “Every member of society has a right to be protected in the enjoyment of life, liberty and property”[1] this words were echoed by other state constitutions. It being the duty of the state to protect its citizens and to guarantee their rights and freedom through making of laws, it goes an extra mile to impose punishments in the event the said laws are broken. The rationale for imposing punishments on people is to offer restorative justice whereby the offender is given an opportunity to reconcile with the victim and the society at large. Another reason for punishing is Retribution, which is a form of vengeance where punishment should fit the crime. Moreover, deterrence and rehabilitation are also justifications for imposing punishment whereby the former seeks to prevent other potential offenders from committing such crimes while the latter assists the offenders to amend their ways, fit back and assume better roles in the society. The efficacy of the Criminal Justice System can be reflected in the words of former U.S.A (United States of America) legislator, Trey Gowdy “The reason I like the criminal Justice System is there are not Republican or Democrat victims or police officers or prosecutor. It’s about respect for the Rule of Law!”

Figure 3.3a. C3-S3. The Adult Criminal Justice Process. What is the sequence of events in the criminal justice system? Entry into the system. Prosecution and pretrial services. Refusal to indict. Grand jury. Unsolved. or not. arrested. Released. without prosecution. Released. without prosecution. Charges. dropped or. dismissed. Charges. dropped or. dismissed. Felonies. Reported. and. observed. crime. Information. Investi- gation. Initial. appear- ance. Prelim- inary. hearing. Charges. filed. Bail or. detention. hearing. Arrest. Crime. Information. Misdemeanors. Prosecu- tion as a. juvenile. Unsuccessful diversion. Diversion by law enforcement, prosecutor, or court. Police. juvenile unit. Waived to. criminal court. Intake. hearing. Formal juvenile. court processing. Juvenile. offenders. Informal processing. diversion. Nonpolice referrals. Released or diverted. Released or diverted.

Components of the Criminal Justice System and their relations

  • Judiciary

The Judiciary is one of the main arms of government which is concerned with the legal systems of a country and in which judicial power and authority is vested to hear and determine cases.  The Court system is divided into federal and state courts in which the former has authority to hear and decide cases between citizens of different states but not limited to cases on federal laws and complaints against U.S.A while the latter has regional jurisdiction to hear cases involving their citizens and laws of the state. It has several actors they include, the Judges and the Grand Jury, Prosecution and defence attorneys.

  • Judges and the Grand Jury

The position of a judge in a Criminal Justice system is to act as a symbol of justice by using various sources of laws such as Statutes, Judge-made laws to ensure that the system operates impartially, transparently and fairly. The power vested in a judge includes, presiding over trials, setting of bails, determining whether the prosecution has met the accepted legal standard while disclosing their evidence, accepting pleas and pre-trial motions to exclude evidence. In courts where the Grand Jury is involved in the trial their duty is to give a verdict of guilty or not guilty based on the facts presented in court with the guidance of the Judge.


A Prosecutor is the most integral person in all of the actors in the Criminal Justice System as they interact with all other actors in ensuring that justice is dispensed. The prosecutorial authority is vested in the U.S Attorney General who is the chief prosecutor of the U.S.A while the state Attorney General is the chief legal officer of the states. The role of the prosecutor includes to institute, conduct and discontinue any proceedings this is backed by the words of Justice Robert Jackson who stated that “The Prosecutor has more control over life, liberty and reputation than any other person in America.”

Defense Attorneys

A defense Attorney protects the rights and interests of the accused while in trial. In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to be assisted by counsel.[2] One of the role of a defense Attorney is to communicate formal offers to the prosecution on plea agreements[3] and they have an obligation to give competent legal advice to their clients.

Defendants, victims and witnesses

A defendant is a person who has been accused of committing a crime that is contrary to statutory laws or any other Law that is recognized. On the other hand, a victim is an individual who suffers direct or threatened physical, financial or emotional harm as a result of the commission of a crime. Equally, victims under federal or state laws act as independent participants. Witnesses are individuals who observe the occurrence of events and who are brought in court to give testimony to support or rebut the evidence adduced by either the prosecution or defence.

  1. Law enforcement officers

Law enforcement officers are tasked with the role to investigate crimes, maintain peace and order and detect crimes and apprehend suspected criminals.


  1. Correctional facilities

Correctional facilities are used to confine an offender who has been found to have done an act that is contrary to the law and which a punishment has been imposed on the same by a court of competent jurisdiction.


The Criminal Proceedings begin at the time of arrest where police apprehend persons who have been alleged to have committed a crime and the arrested person is brought before a court within a reasonable time where charges made against them are read out to them, their rights explained to them and setting of a preliminary hearing. The relationship between the prosecution and the Judges is seen at the bail setting which happens during the initial appearance. Here, the judge before making a major decision takes into consideration the recommendations and guidelines given by the prosecution on awarding of bails terms. During arraignment, the accused person is given a copy of the formal charges, advised on their rights and then they are given an opportunity to enter a plea. In this instance in entering of pleas, a relationship exists between the prosecution, defense attorneys and the judge whereby there is a shared decision making in terms of judges accepting guilty-plea agreements and defense attorney in considering the type of plea agreements that are offered by the prosecutor and whether they are favorable to their client. Another relationship that exist is when the prosecution and defence exchange information prior to trial which shall be used at trial by the adverse party. After the arraignment, the next step is a trial where the defendant is tried either by a bench trial or a jury. During trial and the defendant is found guilty the judge shall enter a sentence on the defendant. During the sentencing stage a certain relation exists between the actors which requires each actor to work together for common interests in that, in the case of the defense attorney he is supposed to consider the sentencing tendencies of the judges to assist in the fast disposition of cases.


Cooperation of the three components and how they fail to do so

The three tenets in the Criminal Justice System cooperate in so many ways to ensure a smooth running of the Justice system. The law enforcement officers work hand in hand with the prosecution in investigating crimes to ensure that sufficient evidence is presented in court and the evidence adduced is relevant to the case at hand. The Prosecution cooperate with the courts in issuance of bail terms in that they may recommend the terms of the bail as well as give their justifications as to why an accused person should be denied bail for instance, the accused person in past occurrences has a tendency of not observing bail terms or there is a high likelihood he or she will interfere with the investigations, witnesses on the other hand the courts will take into considerations or reasons given before issuing bail. Moreover, the courts supervise plea bargaining agreements between the prosecution and the defense. The rehabilitation centers and correctional facilities in cooperation with the courts ensure that the sentences handed down by the judges are adhered to and that each offender serves their term while in confinement.

Imposing crime control measures may make us feel safer but also may endanger our civil liberties. Seeking to keep these competing democratic values in a state of equilibrium is a constant struggle. This ongoing conflict between crime control and due process values takes place within the context of a justice system that is unique in the world.


Checks and Balances

The criminal justice system is designed in such a way that the system has in place its own self correction mechanisms to check against misuse of power and to ensure that in its mandate it adheres to the basic tenets of justification, rule of law, transparency and accountability. To achieve this it has;

Preliminary Hearings, this is a pre-trial stage whereby the judge sets out to discern if there is a probable cause in the case after which he will schedule the trial to commence. The judge will allow the prosecution an opportunity to present its case whose object will be to provide evidence to show that indeed there is reasonable cause for the case to proceed to trial stage. This [4]serves as a check towards the prosecutor against unwarranted prosecution.

Jury, the USA criminal justice system tailored in this important component. The jury listens to case proceedings and discern the fact on whether one is guilty or not per the evidence adduced and the presentation. The judge then proceeds to make a judgement and sentencing as per the inference of the jury, in some instances, the jury, may be directed by courts on what fact they should discern depending on the circumstances and nature of the case.

Appeals, lie to ensure that the party who is not satisfied by the courts decision can seek a court to review the decisions and check whether the right procedures are followed to ensure that justice is done. The court of appeal in most jurisdictions such as the USA has specific jurisdiction to hear appeals. It reviews cases to correct any legal error, juror misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel.


The importance of an efficient criminal justice system was echoed by the 44th president of USA Barack Obama, “We need to keep making our streets safer and our criminal justice system fairer – our homeland more secure, our world more peaceful and sustainable for the next generation.” From the foregoing, an efficient criminal justice system should ensure there is a harmonious relations between the three tenets; Law enforcement, Judiciary and correctional facilities.