Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice in the United States

Criminal Justice and Due Process

According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, the application to the criminal justice system of the due process clauses of the Fifth Amendment and the fourteenth amendment raises several issues. Among them, which of the provisions of the bill of rights relating to police practices and criminal trials are applicable.

Drug Control: Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Reform

The Administration’s National Drug Control Strategy promotes public safety by strengthening coordination among law enforcement professionals and supporting initiatives that work to break the cycle of drug use, crime, incarceration, and re-arrest.

Facilitating Coordination among Law Enforcement: High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program (HIDTA)

Drug trafficking organizations and associated criminal groups pose a persistent and dangerous threat to communities across the United States. Facilitating cooperation among Federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies helps foster intelligence sharing and support the execution of effective enforcement operations aimed at dismantling these organizations. Through the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (learn more about the HIDTA here) program, ONDCP brings together law enforcement agencies by providing support and resources to Federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies operating in areas determined to be critical drug-trafficking regions of the United States.

ONDCP’S 28 HIDTA’s, which include five Southwest Border Regions, operate in approximately 18.3 percent of all counties in the United States and 65.5 percent of the U.S. population. HIDTA-designated counties are located in 49 states as well as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia, and the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon. The program currently funds 752 initiatives throughout the nation including:

  • Enforcement initiatives comprising multi-agency investigative, interdiction, and prosecution activities;
  • Intelligence and information-sharing initiatives;
  • Support for programs that provide assistance beyond the core enforcement and intelligence and information-sharing initiatives; and
  • Drug use prevention and drug treatment initiatives.

Reforming the Criminal Justice System

Decades of research have shown that drugs and crime are inextricably linked. Data also show that over half of state and Federal inmates used drugs during the month preceding their offense and nearly one-third of state prisoners and one-quarter of Federal prisoners used drugs at the time of their offense. This connection is why the Administration is dedicated to stopping the revolving door of the criminal and juvenile justice systems by addressing not only the offenders’ criminal activities, but, equally important, their underlying substance abuse problems.

Through the National Drug Control Strategy, ONDCP encourages the implementation of a wide array of evidence-based interventions to address the needs of the offender, while ensuring the safety of the community. Learn more about ONDCP’s efforts to break the cycle of drug use and crime, alternatives to incarceration, drug and veteran courts, and support for those in-custody or reentering society after incarceration.

Criminal Justice Reform: Breaking the Cycle of Drug Use and Crime

The United States’ criminal justice system faces significant challenges.  Over the past twenty-five years, the U.S. prison and jail population reached an all-time high and the number of people on probation and parole doubled.  In 2009, nearly seven million individuals were under supervision of the state and Federal criminal justice systems.  Nearly two million of these individuals were incarcerated for their crimes, while the remaining five million were on probation or parole being supervised in the community.

While both the Federal and state correctional systems must address this issue, states generally bear the costs related to this population, and correctional spending has dramatically kept pace with the rising corrections population.  Between 1988 and 2009, state corrections spending increased from $12 billion to $52 billion per year. Despite these significant expenditures, far too many offenders return to drug use and crime upon their reentry into society.

In 2009, parole and other conditional release violators accounted for 33.1 percent of all prison admissions, 35.2 percent of state admissions, and 8.2 percent of Federal admissions.  Twenty-four percent of parolees ending supervision in 2009 (approximately 132,000 of 553,000) returned to prison as a result of violating their terms of supervision, and 9 percent of adults ending parole returned to prison as a result of a new conviction.

Among state prisoners who were dependent on or abusing drugs, 53 percent had at least three prior sentences to probation or incarceration, compared to 32 percent of other inmates. Drug dependent or abusing state prisoners (48 percent) were also more likely than other inmates (37 percent) to have been on probation or parole supervision at the time of their arrest.  The 2010 ADAM II Survey found that anywhere from 52 percent (Washington, DC) to 80 percent or more (Chicago and Sacramento) of male arrestees tested positive for the presence of at least one drug at the time of their arrest.

The Administration’s National Drug Control Strategy supports comprehensive change within the criminal justice system.   ONDCP encourages the implementation of a continuum of evidence-based interventions to address the needs of the offender, while ensuring the safety of the community.   The goal is to integrate these approaches throughout the justice process (arrest, jail and pre-trial to sentencing, incarceration and release) with the key objective of matching the intensity of the intervention to the offender’s needs and criminal behavior.  The Administration is focusing efforts and resources on key activities and policy issues that will advance an effective and efficient criminal justice system.

Learn more about the Administration’s efforts to improve the criminal justice system’s approach to drug-involved offenders:

  • Alternatives to Incarceration
  • Drug and Veteran Courts

As an additional resource, the The National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws (NAMSDL) is a resource for those seeking information on comprehensive and effective state drug and alcohol laws, policies, regulations and programs.

Inequality of the Criminal Justice Contact

In the United States, almost 8 million individuals have served time in state or federal prison, 20 million individuals have a felony conviction, and roughly one-third of the total population will be arrested by age 23. Contact with the criminal justice system is ubiquitous. But contact with the criminal justice system is also broadly disparate. Criminal justice contact—including police stops, arrests, convictions, and incarceration—is concentrated among racial/ethnic minorities, those with low educational attainment, young men, and individuals living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The prevalence and unequal distribution of criminal justice contact, in conjunction with the consequences of criminal justice contact across the life course and across generations, has important implications for social inequality in the United States.

There are important consequences of criminal justice contact for individuals, families, and communities. Criminal justice contact creates, maintains, and exacerbates existing social inequality in the United States.

Stages of Criminal Justice Contact

A large literature considers the consequences of confinement for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals. But the criminal justice system also includes policing, surveillance, arrests, and criminal justice processing, and it is likely that these types of criminal justice contact also have implications for inequality throughout the life course. The criminal justice system is perhaps best described as a series of systems and institutional practices, often with little linkage between them, and few incentives for one stage to collaborate with other stages. For example, police and prosecutors are rarely forced to consider the implications of their practices for the correctional system. Moreover, some stages of the system are more visible; for for example, plea-bargaining typically takes place behind closed doors while sentencing/adjudication decisions are often public.

Specific questions may include the following:

  • What are the consequences of police contact for health and wellbeing, and how do these consequences vary across population subgroups?
  • How does variation in indigent defense and attorney quality contribute to inequalities resulting from criminal justice contact?
  • How does criminal justice processing vary across counties and states?
  • What is the role of bail bonds in the criminal justice system, and how might bail bonds structure inequalities resulting from criminal justice contact?
  • How do legal debts (court costs, attorney fees, or supervision fees) affect family or community reintegration upon release?
  • To what extent are inequalities that result from doing time attenuated or exacerbated by the conditions of confinement?
  • How do the effects of incarceration vary by patterns of incarceration spells and sentence lengths (for example, short prison/jail spells vs. more lengthy sentences)?

Spillover Consequences of Criminal Justice Contact

Recent research highlights that incarcerated individuals are connected to families and communities prior to their incarceration and after their incarceration. This research also demonstrates that incarceration has collateral consequences for the wellbeing of these families and communities. However, it is less well known how other stages of criminal justice contact—including policing, surveillance, arrests, and criminal justice processing—has consequences beyond the individual. It is also less well known how these other stages of criminal justice contact have implications across generations and what these intergenerational consequences mean for social inequality.

Specific questions may include the following:

  • How do neighborhood-level police stops affect neighborhood-level health and wellbeing?
    What are the implications of pre-trial detention for the family members of those awaiting trial?
  • How does variation in visiting policies across facilities matter for inequalities in wellbeing among the incarcerated and their family members?
  • How are conditions of confinement associated with reintegration into families and communities upon release?
  • How does variation in community supervision experiences contribute to family wellbeing post-release?

Incentives and Disincentives for Policy Change

These related issues move beyond an accounting of the individual and spillover consequences of criminal justice contact and instead address policies and practices that meet criminal justice and public safety goals while reducing inequality. Although there is currently widespread agreement across the political spectrum about the need to reduce the nation’s incarceration rate, there is relatively little agreement on what policies to pursue in order to do so. Additionally, the most popular policies often exclude large portions of the convicted or incarcerated (for example, those convicted of violent or non-drug-related crimes or recidivists). Specific policies and their consequences for the incarceration rate, inequality in contact with the criminal justice system, and the implications for public safety are critical at this historical moment.

Specific questions may include the following:

  • How might the ‘paradox of over-policing and under-policing’ in neighborhoods with high incarceration rates be addressed to increase public safety and legitimacy while also decreasing incarceration?
  • How does criminal justice processing vary across counties and states, and how does this structure inequality?
  • What are the costs and benefits of policy changes (e.g., AB 109 [or Realignment] in California) for incarcerated individuals and their family members?
  • What are the consequences for reform and the reduction of inequality by targeting reforms at certain classes of the convicted or incarcerated?
  • What policies offer the most promise for reducing inequality and increasing public safety in high-crime communities?
  • How might fines and fees associated with criminal justice contact be reduced to maximum effect?
  • How are the incentives facing police, prosecutors, judges, and prisons related to inequality?
  • Do policies that incentivize coordination between criminal justice actors (police, prosecutors, judges, correctional officials) have the potential to reduce inequality?
  • What the most important determinants of criminal justice policy reform diffusion and how might these be leveraged to aid policymakers?

Components of the Criminal Justice System

Components of the Criminal Justice System include:

Racial and Ethnic Disparities Exist in the Criminal Justice System


See Also

  • Restorative Justice
  • Office of Justice Programs
  • Restorative Justice Programs
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics
  • Criminal Justice System
  • Criminal Justice Information System
  • Criminal Justice Data Communications Network

Further Reading

  • Adams, P. (2004). Restorative justice, responsive, regulation, and democratic governance. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 31(1), 3–5.
  • Alexander, R., Jr. (1997). Juvenile delinquency and social work practice. In C. A. McNeece & A. Roberts (Eds.), Social work policy and practices in the justice system (pp. 181–197). Chicago, IL: Nelson–Hall.
  • Alexander, R., Jr. (2004). The United States Supreme Court and civil commitment of sex offenders. Prison Journal, 84, 361–378.
  • Alexander, R. Jr. (2005a). The relationship of prisoners, poverty measures, and social welfare allocations in Ohio. Journal of Policy Journal, 4, (2), 69–82.
  • Alexander, R., Jr. (2005b). Racism, African Americans, and social justice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Alexander, R., Jr. (2006). Restorative justice: Misunderstood and misapplied. Journal of Policy Practice, 5(1), 67–81.
  • Alexander, R., Jr. (2007). A wrongful conviction from Georgia. Journal of the Institute of Justice and International Studies, 7, 75–89.
  • Alexander, R., Jr. (2010). Beyond micro: A macro perspective of human behavior and the social environment. Newbury, CA: Sage.
  • Alexander, R., Jr., Butler, L., & Sias, P. (1993). Woman offenders incarcerated at the Ohio penitentiary for men and the Ohio reformatory for women from 1913–1923. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 20(3), 61–79.
  • Allard, P., & Young, M. (2002). Prosecuting juveniles in adult court: Perspectives for policymakers and practitioners. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.
  • Allen, H. E., Latessa, E. J., & Ponder, B. S. (2013). Corrections in America: An introduction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Apuzzo, M. (2006, November 15). Federal judge decries disparity in cocaine sentencing. Columbus Dispatch, p. A7.
  • Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).
  • Beck, E., & Britto, S. (2006). Using feminist methods and restorative justice to interview capital offenders’ family members. Afflilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, 21(1), 59–70.
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics (2006a). Probation and parole statistics.
  • Burford, G., & Adams, P. (2004). Restorative justice, responsive regulation and social work. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 31(1), 7–26.
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). (2012). Crime in the United States 2011.
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). (2013a). Officers feloniously killed.
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). (2013b). Crimes in the United States, 2012.
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). (2013c). 2012 National incident-reporting system.
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). (2013d). 2012 hate crime statistics.
  • Flatow, N. (2013, December 19) Obama uses pardon power to release prisoners sentenced under draconian drug laws.
  • Glaze, L. E, & Herberman, E. J. (2013). Correctional populations in the United States, 2012. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • Gumz, E. J. (2004). American social work, corrections and restorative justice: An appraisal. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 48(4), 449–460.
  • Holtquist, S. E. (1999). Nurturing the seeds of restorative justice. Journal of Community Practice, 6(2), 63–77.
  • Hundley, W. (2007, November). Cities’ residency restrictions don’t move registered sex offenders. Dallas Morning News,
  • The Innocence Project. (2007). The faces of exonerations.
  • Jaffee v. Redmond et al., 518 U.S. 1 (1996).
  • Lee, J. (2010). President Obama signs the Fair Sentencing Act.
  • Lennon, T. M. (2005). Statistics on social work education in the United States: 2003. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.
  • Lynch, T. (2003, Fall). The case against plea bargaining. Regulation, 26, 24–27.
  • Mauer, M. (2003). Lessons of the get tough movement in the United States. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.
  • Mauer, M. (2006). Race to incarcerate. New York, NY: New Press.
  • Pager, D. (2003). The mark of a criminal record. American Journal of Sociology, 108, 937–975.
  • Restorative Justice Online. (2005). Restorative justice sites listed alphabetically.
  • Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).
  • Sandholtz, N., Langton, L., & Planty, M. (2013). Hate crime victimization, 2003–2011. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • Snell, T. L. (2013). Capital punishment, 2011—Statistical tables. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • Snyder, H. N. (2012). Arrest in the United States, 1990–2010. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • State v. Barnhardt, 2006 Ohio 4531; 2006 Ohio App. LEXIS 4495.
  • Stinebrickner-Kauffman, T. (2004). Counting matters: Prison inmates, population bases, and “one person, one vote.” Virginia Journal Social Policy and Law, 11, 229–305.
  • Umbreit, M., Coates, R. B., & Vos, B. (2004). Restorative justice versus community justice: Clarifying a muddle or generating confusion? Contemporary Justice Review, 7(1), 81–89.
  • U.S. Department of Justice. (2004). Crime in the United States, 2003. Washington, DC: Author.
  • van Wormer, K. (2003). Restorative justice: A model for social work practice with families. Families in Society, 84(3), 441–448.
  • van Wormer, K. (2006). The case for restorative justice: A crucial adjunct to the social work curriculum. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 26(3/4), 57–69.



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One response to “Criminal Justice”

  1. International Avatar

    The main three components are: law enforcement, judiciary, and corrections. Law enforcement officers, represented by the police, arrest offenders. The judiciary tries these offenders and determines whether they are guilty or not guilty. For those offenders who are adjudicated guilty, corrections manage them by probation, incarceration, and parole. Corrections may be further divided into institution based (that is, prison or reformatories) and community based (that is, probation, parole, home confinement, and residential program).

    It is not so clear that a component of the criminal justice system is the legislative arena, which includes state legislatures and Congress.

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