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What is the Criminal Justice System?

Updated on March 30, 2012
Flow chart for process of going through the criminal justice system.
Flow chart for process of going through the criminal justice system. | Source

The criminal justice system is the set of laws and regulations that are established by the government to regulate the people's behavior. The criminal justice system is used by police to control crime and impose punishments and penalties for those who violate the laws.

Although there is a Federal government there is no single set criminal justice system in the United States, but rather a similar set of individualized systems. Each jurisdiction has there own set of laws and therefore their own criminal justice system.

For example each county, city, and state have their own system, as do the military and federal government. You will also find tribal systems as well. Knowing which jurisdiction you are under is important as each separate jurisdiction will have their own set of laws, agencies, and punishments.

Juvenile v.s. Adult system

Juvenile System
Adult System
More informal
Prosecuted for committing delinquent acts
Prosecuted for committing crimes
No right to public trial by jury
Right to a jury trial
Goal is to rehabilitate and serve minor's best interest
Goal is to punish

Systems within the Criminal Justice System

Each criminal justice system includes several major subsystems composed of one or more public institutions and their staff.

There are 2 main systems within the criminal justice system; the state and federal. Within the state there is another 2 subsystems; adult and juvenile. Each state has their own beliefs about each of these subsystems as well.

For example in the state of Wisconsin anyone 17 and older is considered an adult and will be put through the adult system. However in Washington the minimum age is based on the seriousness of the crime.

The State: Handles only those crimes that are committed within the state boundaries. Depending on age and state the offender will either go through the adult or juvenile system.

Federal: Handles crimes committed on federal property, crimes committed in more than one state, or in situations where local or state police ask for their assistance, as in instances of serial killers.

Components of the Criminal Justice System

Most criminal justice systems have 3 components, which are not to be confused with the three branches of government. These systems enforce the laws they do not make them.

  • Law Enforcement: Investigate crimes, gather information and protect evidence as well as take reports of these crimes. They arrest offenders, give testimony in court when needed, and conduct follow-up investigations if necessary.

Careers Available:

1.) Police Officers

2.) Detectives and Investigators

3.) Dispatchers and Duty Officers

4.) Criminal Profilers and Special Agents

  • Courts: Are run by judges whose role it is to make sure the laws get followed and oversee what happens in court. Judges decide punishments for offenders before trial as well as accept or reject plea agreements, and sentence convicted offenders.

Careers Available:

1.) Prosecutors and Attorneys

2.) Bailiffs

3.) Judges

4.) Process Servers

Difference in Correctional Facilities

Operated by the county
Operated by state or federal gov
Holds offenders before pretrial
Holds convicted offenders
Inmates sentenced to less than a year
Inmates sentenced to greater than 1 year
Nonviolent offenders, misdemeanors
Violent offenders, felonies, career criminals
Although many people believe jails and prisons are the same, there are several major differences between the two.
  • Corrections: Correctional officers supervise convicted offenders when they are in jail or prison. Social workers work with offenders on community service, probation, or parole. The main job of the officers is to make sure the facilities that hold these offenders are safe and secure. They oversee day to day custody of inmates, as well as the release process and notify any victims of changes in the offender's status when necessary.

Careers Available:

1.) Correctional Officers

2.) Probation and Community Officers

3.) Treatment Specialist

4.) Prison Psychologists

The criminal justice system is complex. It has been evolving over the years from it's beginnings of simple unstructured peacekeeping foot beats to today's large complex crime-fighting system. Many who work within the system find it challenging and those who are accused find the system confusing and intimidating.

The criminal justice system is made up of many parts, and counter parts. Each system works individually and will work together when necessary. This is a quick preview into the whole criminal justice system. The above points are provided as an outline of the very basics of what the criminal justice system entails.


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    • Alana Warren profile image

      Alana Warren 5 years ago from Derby

      I realise that I am based in the United Kingdom therefore our criminal justice systems differ somewhat. However I found this article informative and useful. May I pose the question as to what is the United States opinion towards the age of criminal responsibility?

    • Shesabutterfly profile image

      Cholee Clay 5 years ago from Wisconsin

      Thanks Alana Warren. That is a very difficult question to answer in a comment and I plan on writing a few more criminal justice hubs, however I can give a short answer.

      The age varies greatly throughout the world and in the U.S. it's no different. For the United States as each state has their own opinion on the age cut off for the juvenile system, it is the same for the age of criminal responsibility. My understanding is that between 6-12 is agreed upon by most states in the United States. However some states do not have a minimum at all. Hope that helps!

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Forensic archaeologists and forensic anthropologists would also fit into the law enforcement category. Science is becoming more involved in crime fighting. Excellent overview of criminal justice!

    • Shesabutterfly profile image

      Cholee Clay 5 years ago from Wisconsin

      Thanks for the additions Teresa Coppens! There are so many new jobs that are beginning to relate to criminal justice it's hard to post all of them. I definitely agree. Without science it would be much harder to solve some crimes.

    • Julianne Burkett profile image

      Julianne 4 years ago from Dallas, TX

      This is a great overview! Thank you so much. Loved the flow chart.

    • Shesabutterfly profile image

      Cholee Clay 4 years ago from Wisconsin

      Julianne-The flow chart makes for a great visual aid, especially for those not as informed on the system. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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