Criminal Justice System

Have you ever wondered how the criminal justice process works? What are its components? Does it operate as it is meant to? 

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Table of contents

    This explanation will address these questions, outlining:

    • The definition of the criminal justice system
    • Why it's important to have knowledge of the criminal justice system
    • The role and philosophy of the criminal justice system
    • The functions of each agency in the criminal justice system
    • The problems of the criminal justice system

    Criminal justice system definition

    A working definition of the criminal justice system would be as under:

    The Criminal Justice System (CJS) refers to a set of government institutions and systems that aim to apprehend, prosecute, punish, and rehabilitate criminal offenders.

    In the UK, the CJS includes agencies such as the police, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), a criminal courts system (including a wide range of courts) and the prison/probation systems.

    Crime and Deviance and its subsets have further information for you to look at.

    Why is it important to have knowledge of the criminal justice system?

    Even for those of us who have never had personal contact with the criminal justice system in any form, it is essential that we have knowledge of its meaning, functions, and operations.

    This is not only because it is one of the most powerful institutions in society, enforcing the laws, rules, and norms we live by, but because the CJS is flawed and capable of malfunction, bias, and harm like any other social institution. As sociologists, we must study the criminal justice system and its impacts on society through a critical lens.

    The role and philosophy of the criminal justice system

    There are a number of sociological perspectives on the philosophy, guiding principles and the role of the criminal justice system.

    Functionalist and subcultural theorists on the criminal justice system

    These thinkers argue that the role of the police and courts is to catch and punish mainly male, working-class offenders - the group which commits most crimes.

    In doing so, they protect the rest of the law-abiding population.

    Functionalist and subcultural theorists claim that the police represent the criminal justice system overall and act as a means of formal social control, enforcing the collective values and interests of society.

    Social action theorists on the criminal justice system

    For proponents of social action theory, the role of the police and the criminal justice system at large is to label some groups as more criminal or deviant than others. Essentially, this scapegoats such groups.

    In targeting and arresting only particular groups, the CJS ignores other equally criminal subsections of society.

    Social action theorists assert that the working class therefore only appears to be more criminal; inherently, this is not the truth.

    Marxist theorists on the criminal justice system

    The traditional Marxist view is that the CJS reflects the interests of the ruling class and seeks to defend them - corporate and state crimes are often ignored and the role of the police is to target those who are less powerful.

    In the rare instances when wealthy and powerful groups are indicted for crimes, they tend to receive more lenient treatment.

    Contemporary Marxists add that along with the working class, ethnic minority groups are also targeted unfairly.

    Criminal Justice System, Image of envelope with 100 dollar bills on it, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Marxists believe that the CJS protects the interests of the wealthy.

    Agencies and functions of the criminal justice system

    The criminal justice system comprises a range of agencies, all of which handle different functions of the process, from apprehending offenders to rehabilitating them. These include:

    • Police

    • Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)

    • Courts

    • Prison

    • Probation systems

    Let's go over each of these institutions in turn.

    The role of the police in the criminal justice system

    The police are responsible for enforcing the laws established by legislative bodies such as Parliament.

    They also conduct criminal investigations, collect evidence, detain and question the suspects involved and finally send the evidence to Crown Prosecution Service.

    There are two lenses through which we can study the relationship of the police with society.

    The consensual approach to the police

    • The police represent and protect the interests of the law-abiding public.

    • They are recruited from and enforce laws through close links with their local communities.

    The conflict approach to the police

    • This approach argues that the police are an occupying force, imposed on working-class and ethnic minority communities (Scraton, 1985).

    • They exist to reflect the interests of the powerful groups in society.

    The role of the CPS in the criminal justice system

    The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) rules whether a criminal case is likely to get a conviction in court.

    Crown Prosecutors connect with the police force and advise them in investigations, e.g. by informing them of the type of evidence required. After assessing the evidence, the CPS decides whether to prosecute the offender and what to charge them with.

    Lastly, they prepare and present the case in court, aiming to prosecute the suspect.

    The role of the courts in the criminal justice system

    The courts are where cases against suspected offenders are presented, debated, and ultimately decided.

    Less serious offences are judged in Magistrates Courts and serious crimes go to the Crown Court.

    • Magistrates Courts - These are presided by magistrates, volunteers drawn from the local community, and are more likely to be representative. All cases are initially brought to this court.

    • Crown Court - This is a formal court with a judge and jury. The initial hearing will have taken place at a magistrates' court but, if the crime is deemed serious enough, the full hearing takes place before a Crown Court judge.

    The role of prisons in the criminal justice system

    Imprisonment is the most common form of punishment in the world. Given that keeping people in prison is so expensive, and that the prison population is so large, it makes sense to ask what its purpose is.

    Prisons have generally been seen as having four key goals, with varying degrees of importance based on location and time period.

    • To protect the public - prisons keep dangerous, violent, and antisocial individuals away from society.

    • To punish criminal behaviour - keeping people imprisoned takes away their freedom in retaliation for breaking the law.

    • To reform offenders - spending time in prison and partaking in educational programmes is meant to help criminals reflect, learn new skills, and change their ways.

    • To deter people from crime - the threat of being sent to prison should ensure that most people never break the law.

    For more about the purpose of punishing criminals, have a look at Criminal Punishment.

    The role of probation systems in the criminal justice system

    This is an essential part of the criminal justice system as it keeps an eye on people even if they never officially went to prison or left it.

    Probation officers supervise offenders who are serving their sentence in the community, are released from prison, or are on licence.

    They counsel and help offenders before trial, during, and after any prison or community sentence. They can also recommend rehabilitative programmes.

    Problems of the criminal justice system

    The CJS is deeply embedded in our culture and everyday life and norms and has the power to fundamentally impact and change the lives of both individuals and society at large. Naturally, this means there are also problems that we must study.

    The CJS has been roundly condemned by several sociologists for abusing this power and perpetuating control, bias and prejudice.

    Foucault: Surveillance

    Michel Foucault wrote about how the nature of punitive institutions (such as prisons) links to wider concepts such as power, politics, and social control.

    He argues that the modern prison has its origins in a building called the Panopticon, which was designed to allow prisoners to be surveyed at all times but without being able to tell when they were being watched.

    This creates a culture of surveillance that has spread to all sections of society such as schools and workplaces. People behave as if they are being watched and self-correct their own behaviour to conform.

    According to Foucault, with the advent of technologies such as CCTV, we are all becoming 'prisoners of society'.

    Criminal Justice System, Image of CCTV cameras, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Foucault argued that we live in a 'surveillance society'.

    Garland: Mass incarceration

    David Garland asserts that the US and the UK are approaching an era of mass incarceration.

    The number of prisons has increased significantly since the 1970s. There are nearly 2 million state and federal prisoners in the US1. Garland (2001) states that once figures start to reach these proportions: ceases to be the incarceration of individual offenders and becomes the systematic imprisonment of whole groups of the population."2

    The reason for this exponential rise in mass incarceration is the growing politicisation of crime control. Garland argues that since the 1950s, the state is much less concerned with the original purpose of imprisonment - the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners. Now, its primary focus is convincing the public that it is taking a tough approach toward crime, which has become politically advantageous.

    S. Cohen: Control beyond the CJS

    In recent years, there has been considerable growth in the range of community-based criminal justice strategies, such as curfews and community service orders. Simultaneously, the numbers in custody have been rising steadily, especially among young people.

    This has led Stanley Cohen to argue that the rise in community controls has simply cast the net of control over a larger group of people.

    Cohen believes that the increased range of sanctions available nowadays simply enables control to penetrate even deeper into society through different avenues.

    Racism in the CJS

    Coretta Phillips and Benjamin Bowling suggest that the processes that the CJS operate on disadvantage ethnic minority groups. For instance, criminal cases against ethnic minorities are dropped more often than those against white people because the evidence is mainly based on racist stereotyping.

    It is important to note that there have been many allegations of oppressive policing of minority ethnic communities since the 1970s. These include mass stop and search operations and armed raids. The police are also accused of failing to respond effectively to racist attacks.

    Furthermore, evidence of institutional racism has been found in the Macpherson Report (1999), while the Lammy Report (2017) found that 25% of those in custody were from minority groups3.

    The Macpherson Inquiry resulted from the case of Stephen Lawrence, a young Black British man who was murdered in a racist attack in 1993. The investigation into Stephen's murder was unsuccessful despite substantial evidence and no one was charged.

    After heavy criticism, the Macpherson Report found that this was due to institutional racism in every rank of the criminal justice system.

    Gender bias in the CJS

    According to official statistics, men are prosecuted and therefore responsible for three-quarters of all criminal offences4. Women made up less than 5% of prisoners in the UK in 20205.

    Some sociologists argue that this is partly due to the criminal justice system being overprotective of women, underestimating their criminality and treating them more leniently. This is known as the chivalry thesis.

    However, others such as Pat Catlin also add that the CJS perpetuates patriarchal attitudes and double standards against women, punishing those who don't conform to accepted notions of femininity, sexuality, and motherhood more harshly.

    A good example of this is if a man and woman are accomplices for the same crime, but the woman is given a longer time in prison. This is because it may be considered 'worse' that a woman has committed such a crime.

    Criminal Justice System - Key takeaways

    • The Criminal Justice System (CJS) refers to a set of government institutions and systems whose purpose is to apprehend, prosecute, punish, and rehabilitate criminal offenders.
    • Different theorists have varying views on the philosophy and purpose of the CJS.
    • Agencies within the criminal justice system include the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts, prison, and probation service.
    • Sociologists have criticised the CJS for creating a surveillance society, perpetuating mass incarceration, and controlling increasingly wider parts of society.
    • The criminal justice system has serious issues with institutional racism and the disproportionate targeting of ethnic minorities. Sociologists also argue that the CJS is biased against women, both underestimating and unfairly punishing them.


    1. Sawyer, W., & Wagner, P. (2022). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022. Prison Policy Inititave.
    2. Garland, D. (2001). Introduction: the meaning of mass imprisonment. In D. Garland (Ed.), Mass imprisonment: Social causes and consequences (pp. 1-3). SAGE Publications Ltd.
    3. Lammy, D. (2017). The Lammy Review: an Independent Review into the Treatment of, and Outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System.
    4. Ministry of Justice. (2020). Women and the Criminal Justice System, 2019. GOV.UK.
    5. House of Commons Justice Committee (2022). Women in Prison - First Report of Session 2022–23. House of Commons.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Criminal Justice System

    What is the criminal justice system? 

    The Criminal Justice System (CJS) refers to a set of government institutions and systems whose purpose is to apprehend, prosecute, punish, and rehabilitate criminal offenders.

    What are the 4 systems of criminal justice? 

    The criminal justice system can be classified into 4 components: the police, the prosecution (the Crown Prosecution Service), the courts, and the prison/probation systems.

    What is the purpose of the criminal justice system? 

    The purpose of the criminal justice system is to prosecute crime and to apprehend, punish and/or rehabilitate offenders.

    What is the concept of the criminal justice system? 

    There are a number of sociological perspectives on the concept of the criminal justice system, including functionalism and subcultural theory, social action theory, and Marxism. Each perspective has different ideas about the principles and role of the criminal justice system.

    What are the three major components of the criminal justice system?

    These can broadly be classified into the police and crown prosecution service; the court system; and the prison and probation systems.

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