How Does the U.S. Justice System Work?

The U.S. justice system encompasses much more than most people think. Extending far beyond police, judges and jails, the arms of the criminal justice system reach out to other areas of our lives, whether we know it or not.

From the moment someone reports a crime to the police, they have become part of the criminal justice system. Even someone who merely witnesses a crime is part of the U.S. justice system.

Never been involved in a crime? You are still part of the system if you vote. Every candidate has stances on policymaking on crime, after all. What if there are no crime initiatives on the ballot? That does not mean later on your candidate will not be involved in policymaking for some branch of the system or another. Even if you don’t vote but you do pay taxes, you are part of the system simply because you help fund it with your tax payments. Not a taxpayer? Simply refraining from committing crimes is a form of crime prevention, and thus makes you a part of the criminal justice system.

The criminal justice system, from end to end

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has created a handy and colorful flowchart of the U.S. justice system.  It shows the progression of events after a crime has been reported. Although the system can be complex, there are five basic stages after a crime has occurred:

  • Entry into the system
  • Prosecution and pretrial services
  • Adjudication
  • Sentencing and sanctions
  • Corrections

Of course at every stage there are loops in the flowchart, where charges can get dismissed or dropped, diversions by the prosecutor can occur, or other side paths resulting in a shortening of the criminal’s journey through the system.

These are today’s most talked-about issues with the current U.S. justice system

There is debate at every level over whether our justice system is working.  Mandatory minimum sentences, total incarceration, solitary confinement and overcrowding play important roles in discussions taking place in Congress.

In addition, lawmakers and other citizens are concerned about these facts:

  • Since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by 800 percent
  • Spending on the federal prison system has increased by 1,700 percent
  • Federal prisons are operating at 132 percent capacity
  • American youth who commit non-criminal misbehavior crimes are prosecuted much more intensely than their equivalents in other countries.
  • Almost half of all federal prisoners are in prison for nonviolent drug crimes

In the words of Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, these topics require much, much more thought and study than they have already been given.

Learn about the LSUA BS in Criminal Justice online program.


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