“America imprisons 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the world’s average. About one in every 31 adults in this country is in jail or on supervised release. Either we are the most evil people on earth or we are doing something very wrong.” (Webb, 2009, p. 4) This paper will look at basic criminal law, the reasons for lives of crime, a brief outline of the modern criminal justice system, and its future.
Criminal LawCriminal law seeks to protect the public from harm by inflicting punishment upon those who have already done harm and by threatening with punishment those who are tempted to do harm. Most people accept that there are consequences for criminal conduct. The consequences are generally unpleasant and take away from the law breaker either his liberty or his property.
One purpose of criminal law is to respond to harmful acts committed by individuals. However, each type of law provides different responses. A person who acts in a way that is considered harmful to society in general may be prosecuted by the government in a criminal case. If the individual is convicted (found guilty) of the crime, he or she will be punished under criminal law by a fine, imprisonment, or death.
Once someone is found guilty of a crime, either a felony or a misdemeanor, punishment is imposed. The reasons for punishing law breakers are varied, and in some instances the reason may vary with the crime. Each reason has its own purpose, with the principal reasons being: Deterrence, Incapacitation, Retribution, and Rehabilitation. (Davenport, 2009)DeterrenceImposing a penalty for a criminal act is also intended to deter that person from repeating the act. If the penalty is significant enough, the law breaker will think twice before doing it again.
Also, “when the penalties are well known and there is public dissemination of penalties for a particular crime, it is expected that others who might contemplate the crime would be deterred from engaging in the prohibited activity.” (Clarkson, 2005, p. 38) When there is a trial, sentencing, and punishment imposed, there is often a lot of publicity. This publicity is part of the deterrent factor in imposing a criminal penalty. Deterrence is frequently an argument used to support the death penalty.
IncapacitationJail or prison terms generally lengthen with the seriousness of the crime. The longer sentences serve as both revenge and deterrence, and also can serve another purpose. The longer a person is in custody, the less opportunity that person has to commit new crimes. This is particularly true of repeat offenders, which is why there has been a movement toward laws known as three strikes which impose long prison terms or even life sentences on individuals with multiple convictions.
When an offender has not been deterred by prior penalties, protection of potential victims from that offender becomes an important consideration. Long jail or prison terms for individuals with multiple DUI’s are becoming common as a protection for society. At some point it is in society’s best interest to protect itself by certifying that a dangerous person is unable to harm others and incapacitation through custody serves that interest. (Farrington, 2003)Retribution”A crime is considered an act that not only injures the specific victim, but also harms society at large.” (Davenport, 2009, p. 12) A person’s harmful acts may outrage the society as a whole. This gives rise to a desire for revenge, and punishing the criminal tends to satisfy that need.
Additionally, having a person punished by society provides some measure of revenge for the specific victim of the act. If society provides an adequate punishment, the need for an individual to seek revenge personally is diminished and provides incentive to seek retribution through law enforcement. (Davenport, 2009)RehabilitationThere is also a value that every human life has meaning and worth, that there is a spark of good in everyone, even those who have chosen to break the laws of society. With that thought in mind, places that were previously known as jail or prison have become Departments of Correction.
Some rehabilitation may come from within a person who is incarcerated. Criminals who are imprisoned may evaluate their actions and reshape their behavior so that when their liberty is restored they are able to readjust to the boundaries of the law. Often programs are offered to offenders to assist in dealing with certain problems. “Participation in programs such as drug and alcohol counseling or domestic violence education serves to potentially rehabilitate an individual. Involvement in such programs is often a condition of either continued freedom or reduction of jail time.” (Davenport, 2009, p. 41)Justification for criminal punishment is not mutually exclusive. A particular punishment may advance several goals at the same time. A term of imprisonment, for example, may serve to incapacitate the offender, deter others in society from committing similar acts, and, at the same time, provide an opportunity for rehabilitative treatment of the offender.
On the other hand, the goals of punishment may at times conflict. Retribution and deterrence call for the infliction of unpleasant experiences upon the criminal, including harsh prison treatment; but the prison environment may not be conducive to, or may even defeat, rehabilitation. Some offenders may even “learn” to become better criminals while incarcerated.
Criminal CareersWhy do criminals pursue careers in crime? To understand the life of a career criminal we must first look at some Historical Backgrounds and Criminal Career Patterns.
Historical BackgroundsThere are many theories as to why criminal activity occurs. The classical school theory has five basic concepts. One; everyone has free will. This means that a person chooses to do right or wrong. It also states that the two main determinates of human behavior are pleasure and pain. This theory also states that crime is immoral because of the bond that the act puts between the individual and their society. Also, that punishment is a necessary evil that can keep violators from repeating the crimes and sets examples for others.
Finally they believe crime prevention helps to offset the gains of criminal behavior. (Davenport, 2009)Criminal Career PatternsThere appear to be ten widely accepted conclusions about the development of offending (Farrington, 2003):1 The age of onset of offending is most typically between ages 8 and 14, earlier with self-report data and later with official records, while the age of desistance from offending is typically between 20 and 29 (though a small subset of offenders continue well into adulthood).
2 The prevalence of offending peaks in the late teenage years: between ages 15 and 19.
3 An early age of onset predicts a relatively long criminal career duration and the commission of relatively more offenses.
4 There is marked continuity in offending and antisocial behavior from childhood to the teenage years and adulthood. In other words, there is relative stability of the ordering of people on some measure of antisocial behavior over time, and people who commit relatively many offenses during one age range have a high probability of also committing relatively many offenses during a later age range.
5 A small fraction of the population (“chronic offenders”) commit a large fraction of all crimes; chronic offenders tend to have an early onset, a high individual offending frequency, and a long criminal career.
6 Offending is more versatile than specialized; violent offenders in particular appear to offend frequently in other kinds of offenses.
7 The types of acts defined as offenses are elements of a larger syndrome of antisocial behavior that includes heavy drinking, reckless driving, promiscuous sex, and so forth.
8 It appears that, as people enter adulthood, they change from group to lone offending. In fact, most offenses up to the late teenage years are committed with others, whereas most offenses from age 20 onward are committed alone.
9 The reasons given for offending up to the late teenage years are quite variable, including excitement/enjoyment, boredom, and/or emotional or utilitarian reasons. From age 20 onward, utilitarian motives become increasingly dominant.
10 Different types of offenses tend to be first committed at distinctively different ages. This sort of progression is such that shoplifting tends to be committed before burglary, burglary before robbery, and so forth. In general, diversification increases up to age 20; but after age 20, diversification decreases and specialization increases.
Analysis of criminal careers has great value. Understanding why or how offenders get involved in a life of crime can lead to policies and procedures that can prevent criminal careers from developing. I have asked offenders in the prison I work in why they did their crime. Most answered that they needed money, some were gang related, and others done out of fits of rage. Most of them thought they would not get caught while some others just did not care or showed no remorse – those are the scary ones.
The Criminal Justice SystemThe criminal justice system has three component subsystems, they are: Police, Courts, and Corrections (Schmalleger, 2007).
PoliceThe first step in the criminal justice system is the police officers or federal agents. When a crime is committed the police investigate the crime scene and if the suspect is still present they arrest the person. The police officer must always read the suspect his/her rights before questioning. During the questioning the suspect has the right to refuse to answer any questions at anytime during the questioning and ask for a lawyer. If the suspect is not at the scene of a crime, after an investigation the police will make a report and a judge or magistrate will issue a warrant for the suspects’ arrest. After an arrest the suspect is booked. This is a process where he/she has a picture taken, finger printed, and personal information is recorded (Schmalleger, 2007).
CourtsThe prosecutor’s office becomes involved after an arrest. The information that is collected at the scene of the crime is turned over to the prosecutions’ office so they can determine if enough evidence exists for a conviction. It is not a good idea for a prosecutor to be involved in the beginning of an investigation because the defense counsel does not have the opportunity till after they are either hired by the defendant or appointed one to them.
The defense attorney is not involved in a criminal case until he/she is appointed or hired by the defendant. They cannot be involved prior to an indictment or arrest. At a preliminary hearing the defense attorney will hear the evidence presented and then determine if the evidence presented by the prosecution is strong enough for a plea bargain or a trial (Schmalleger, 2007).
A judge or magistrate’s function begins with issuing a warrant if one is needed. A warrant is needed only if the criminal has not already been arrested. After a criminal defendant has been arrested, he/she is brought before a judge for a first appearance. This is when the judge will inform the defendant of the charges brought against him/her, read the defendant his/her rights again, and sometimes provide the defendant the opportunity to make bail. The next step for the criminal defendant is the preliminary hearing. During the preliminary hearing a judge will determine if there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and if there is enough evidence to show the defendant committed the crime. This is when the prosecution presents the evidence to the judge and the defendant has the right to hire an attorney or if he/she cannot afford one the court will appoint the defendant a defense attorney (Schmalleger, 2007).
The “first appearance for a criminal defendant before the court that has the authority to conduct a trial”, is called an arraignment (Schmalleger, 2007, p. 18). In this process the judge will hear the information (charges) and read it to the defendant, and again his/her rights are read to him/her by the judge. This is when the criminal defendant will enter a plea of either; not guilty, guilty, or no contest (Schmalleger, 2007).
CorrectionsOffenders are then turned over to the correctional authorities, from the court system after the accused has been found guilty. Depending on the sentence, offenders will serve their time either in a jail or a prison. Jail is where you are held until you are sentenced. Jails are maintained by municipalities or counties, and are generally used for incarceration sentences of less than one year. In most states, jail is for pre-trial detention for those who cannot raise bail (if bail is available), and also for post-conviction detention of those convicted on misdemeanor charges, which are defined as those convictions carrying a sentence of a year or less. Jails are generally run by counties, and every county’s system will be different.
Prisons are maintained by states or the federal government, and are used for sentences longer than one year. Prison is for post-conviction only, and is exclusively for felony convictions, that is, those charges with a sentence of a year or more. Prisons are operated by a state’s department of corrections (or equivalent agency), and tend to be more standardized; manning them are corrections officers from a statewide pool.
The FutureLocal, state, and federal spending on corrections adds up to about $68 billion a year. Our overcrowded, ill managed prison systems are places of violence, physical abuse, and hate, making them breeding grounds that perpetuate and magnify the same types of behavior that they are intended to prevent. (Webb, 2009) One way that we can reverse this trend is through privatization. Corporations can bring more effective management and turn a tax drain into a profitable business. This can be done by employing the inmates as labor and giving them job skills at the same time.
Another way we can reduce costs and prison overcrowding is by legalization and decriminalization of certain drugs. Drug offenders, most of them passive users or minor dealers, are swamping our prisons. According to data supplied to Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, those imprisoned for drug offenses rose from 10% of the inmate population to approximately 33% between 1984 and 2002.
Experts estimate that this increase accounts for about half of the dramatic escalation in the total number imprisoned over that period. Justice statistics also show that 47.5% of all the drug arrests in our country in 2007 were for marijuana offenses. Additionally, nearly 60% of the people in state prisons serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence or of any significant selling activity. We need to save prisons and jails for the more violent offenders. It is time to change the law.
As a Correctional Officer, I have witnessed firsthand the results of the modern legal system. While there is clearly a lot of progress to be made there is also many educational and vocational programs available to offenders. The largest obstacle to their reform, however, is that the offender has to want to change. He must develop a conscious and be aware of the harm he has inflicted upon others. More importantly, he must have a desire to live productively, peacefully, and within the laws of society.
Clarkson, C. (2005). Understanding Criminal Law. London: Sweet & Maxwell Ltd.
Conklin, J. (2009). Criminology. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.
Davenport, A. (2009). Basic Criminal Law: The Constitution, Procedure, and Crimes. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Press.
Farrington, D. (2003). Evidence-based Crime Prevention. New York: Routledge PressSchmalleger, F. (2007). Criminal Justice Today. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall Publishing.
Webb, J. (2009, March 29). What’s Wrong With Our Prisons? Parade, 4-5.