The field of Criminal Justice is particularly relevant today in the United States and around the world, and has major social and economic concerns directly tied to it. Within the realm of criminal justice are concerns with the prison-industrial complex, police brutality, racism, discrimination, drugs, government spending, civil rights and big money.
In the U.S., the criminal justice system is designed to maintain social order, first and foremost. This means protecting citizens, preventing crimes, and containing those who threaten the freedom and safety of other citizens. There are many moving parts to this system, starting with law enforcement (police) and ending with correctional facilities.
When the police detect suspicious or dangerous activity, they take action against the potential threat(s) in order to keep the public safe. Police use what is called escalating force, which means the more of a threat the offending person becomes in the eyes of the officer, the more force the officer must use to eliminate the threat. Unfortunately, the system (like any other) is imperfect, and sometimes police use excessive force on the alleged offender.
Excessive force by the police along with what some consider to be discrimination in the courts (one in three black Americans claim to have experienced discrimination in the past year) have become major reasons for the increase of people fighting for criminal justice reform. Criminal justice reform isn’t just being fought for by those who believe police have a tendency to treat certain groups of people more harshly than others; reforming the system also involves deeper, structural issues.
For instance, the prevalence of drugs in poor communities in the U.S. (largely occupied by minority groups) has fed into what many call the prison-industrial complex. Due to the lack of jobs and economic stimulation in poor communities, some poor individuals begin selling illegal drugs. The depression that often comes with living in poverty fuels the drug trade since drugs are one way people cope with these feelings. The cycle of selling and using drugs in poor communities has led to a severe amount of arrests and incarcerations of minority men and women.
According to the White House, about seven million U.S. citizens were under supervision of the Federal and state criminal justice systems in 2009. The U.S. government has put forth a number of criminal justice reform initiatives in recent years to decrease the number of incarcerations, which would save taxpayers significant amounts. Drug Market Intervention (DMI), for instance, intends to strike at the heart of the drug market before it reaches the youth, while the Justice Reinvestment program takes money that would normally be pumped into correctional facilities and reinvests in it social programs such as rehabilitation and substance abuse treatments.
Another dimension of criminal justice reform involves those extremely wealthy individuals who commit “white collar offenses,” which are often far more harmful crimes than some of those that may lead to the incarceration of poor individuals. The U.S. has seen many of these white collar crimes in recent years (money laundering, fraud, cybercrime, etc.), yet many of these offenders are able to escape imprisonment or other punishment as a result of being able to afford the best attorneys and mediation services, and use their wealth in other influential ways.
The U.S. criminal justice system is imperfect, but citizens are fighting every day to improve the system to make it more fair and less costly for all.