Crime and Justice Policy

There is no monolithic system of criminal justice in the United States, nor is there a general consensus regarding crime and justice policy. American criminal justice represents many differing jurisdictions—federal, state, and local, for example—and thus a singular understanding of criminal justice is not only inaccurate but may be undesirable in a democratic society.


American criminal justice is made up of four component parts: police, prosecution, courts, and corrections. Taken together, these represent what is commonly viewed as the criminal justice system. However, each component masks considerable variety. For example, there are more than sixteen thousand police agencies in the country ( Cole, Smith, and DeJong 2013 ). The central purposes of these agencies are similar on the operational level, but they differ in the emphasis of functions they serve depending partly on the nature of the community. They also differ markedly in other ways, such as size, scope, budget, and legal authority. All police organizations have mandates from their respective communities regarding purpose and direction, yet even where there is some similarity across police agencies concerning purpose and direction, there is much disagreement on how best to accomplish their mandates. As such, how policing is accomplished across the country is largely dependent on local and community standards.

A similar conclusion can be reached concerning the operations of prosecutors' offices, court systems, and jails and prisons. Much of what we see in criminal justice supports local norms and expectations regarding criminal justice practices, but these practices may also confuse and frustrate people. Take, for example, police arrest procedures. Such procedures are fairly standard across police agencies, guided, in part, by both legislation and judicial review. Since the mid-twentieth century, judicial review has meant that certain standards and procedures are followed by police when they arrest someone; yet we know these practices are not always uniform. Policing in one part of the country may be markedly different from that in another part of the country.

For example, how police enforce the law is not the same nor is it consistent across the country. In one community the enforcement of laws pertaining to public order (e.g., public drunkenness, minor drug usage, and prostitution) may be very strict, yet in other communities the same offenses are not viewed as serious, and as such, enforcement by police is limited with these types of offenses. In New York City, the police department for decades did not address the enforcement of many public order offenses until Chief Michael Bratton started enforcing public order offenses in the early 1990s, leading to many arrests of low-level offenders. This created a controversy for some, because it directly challenged the ways of doing police business and was seen as counterproductive and controversial by others.

Franklin Zimring ( 2011

The courts have accepted variety in police organizations and how they accomplish their mandates, but police also share minimum federal and state standards covering what is legal and what is not legal when, for example, they decide to arrest a perpetrator. The problem occurs when local practices contravene those standards and the law. The dynamic tension between the rule of law and actual criminal justice practice is a recurring dimension of American criminal justice and crime policy ( Walker 1998 ).


In a democratic society, efforts to manage crime are partly a reflection of attempts to rein in the competing interests that reside at all levels of government ( Stojkovic, Kalinich, Klofas 2014 ). The tension between and among various levels of government in the arena of crime control policy is not always over the legality of actions, but may include differences in law. The federal government has expectations and offers guidance to the states in criminal justice practices—policing, prosecution, sentencing, incarceration, to mention a few—but there is not unanimity regarding “best practices.” The states are not necessarily left to fend for themselves, but their efforts are often difficult to direct because there may be disagreement on either best practices or the values, interests, and laws supporting such practices.

An example is the enforcement of laws regulating the smoking of marijuana. In 2012, two states—Colorado and Washington—decided to legalize the personal use of marijuana for persons over twenty-one years of age. Legalization and decriminalization are different concepts: the former removes laws defining possession of a specified amount of marijuana as an illegal act, while the latter eliminates criminal punishment for such activities.

Colorado's and Washington's new marijuana laws raise thorny issues for the federal government and its drug enforcement apparatus. Since the late 1980s, the federal government has followed an aggressive law enforcement strategy in its effort to control the distribution and sale of marijuana. Possession issues became more complicated when state laws in Colorado and Washington contravened federal laws.

How did the federal government respond? So far, the federal government has taken a nonconfrontational approach toward these two states. In August 2013, the Justice Department decided to provide leeway for state experiments in marijuana legislation. Other states have adopted decriminalization policies or policies authorizing the medical use of marijuana. President Barack Obama declined to take a stand on the role of the federal government in the enforcement of federal drug laws, partly because he recognized the delicate balance that must exist between the federal government and state governments when developing a coherent crime and justice policy for marijuana possession and usage.


While laws pertaining to marijuana possession and use may test the relationship between the federal government and state governments, most local criminal justice activities are not in conflict with federal law. Throughout much of American history, criminal justice actions have focused on crimes that are committed at the local level and do not involve the presence or intervention of the federal government. Nonetheless, during the latter part of the twentieth century, federal involvement in the activities of local criminal justice agencies increased ( Walker 1998 ). Beginning in the late 1980s, a trend toward the “federalization” of criminal justice policies and practices emerged, along with the further involvement of criminal justice agencies at all levels of government with the aim of solving some of society's most pressing problems ( Welch 2011 ), including drug use and violence. This unprecedented expansion of the scope and size of the criminal justice system was advanced by both federal politicians and local political leaders as a way to address crime.

In the late twentieth century, the machinery of criminal justice grew dramatically at all levels of government, not just federal. Some argue that there was a tendency to seek criminal justice solutions to social problems; others argue that certain social problems had become unacceptably criminal in nature. Drug use is a glaring example. The “war on drugs” was declared shortly after President Richard Nixon ( 1913–1994 ) gave a speech in 1971 on drug abuse control. Subsequently, the country witnessed a massive “militarization” of the police ( Kraska and Cubellis 2010 ), as well as new and elaborate court processes, revised laws that mandated minimum prison sentences, an expansion of jails and prisons, and the rise of a “prison industrial complex” ( Schlosser 1998


In the early twenty-first century, under mounting budgetary pressure, states began to question the efficacy and effectiveness of criminal justice practices and policies. Most notable during this period were concerns among legislators and others over the financial and human costs of mass incarceration. Many mayors and police chiefs pointed with pride to dramatic reductions in violent crime, while critics drew attention to police ineffectiveness and the growing costs of police budgets, prosecutorial actions (especially in death penalty cases), and the actual justice that was meted out to offenders, many of whom were poor and required either drug interventions or mental health screenings.

After the economic meltdown in 2008, states were reeling in debt, and criminal justice activities were at the forefront of questions about how better to spend public dollars to protect society and reduce the never-ending cycle of criminal recidivism. In California, the state supreme court mandated that the state release more than thirty thousand prisoners in a two-year period between 2011 and 2013. The state was also required to manage its prisons such that prisoner health and safety could be minimally maintained ( Brown v. Plata, 131 S. Ct 1910 [2011]; Misczynski 2012 ).

The ruling in Brown v. Plata had an immediate impact on California's criminal justice policy and practices: the number of prison-bound offenses has shrunk from almost one thousand to seventy, the parole population (those released early from their sentences) has shrunk to fewer than twenty thousand persons (there were more than 120,000 parolees only a few years earlier), and most importantly, criminal justice activities have become more localized ( Lofstrom, Petersilia, and Raphael 2012 ). Almost all criminal actions, unless violent (including sexually violent), are now addressed at the county level, and corrections in California has become a local rather than state matter. The impact of this decision within California and in other states remains unclear. However, past policies no longer serve as a ready fallback position.


There is no clear answer to what the future holds regarding crime and justice policy, but what is known is that crime is largely a local matter, requiring the responses of local citizens to manage their own crime problems. Federal interventions by Congress and the executive branch to address largely local crime issues have, for the most part, had limited success. Effective criminal justice policy can be reviewed and guided by federal officials, but it must be directed and managed by those who are closest to the community—ordinary citizens working with local elected officials and criminal justice professionals.

SEE ALSO Criminal Law ; Policy Process .


Cole, George F., Christopher E. Smith, and Christina DeJong. The American System of Criminal Justice. 14th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage, 2014.

Kraska, Peter B., and Louis J. Cubellis. “Militarization of Mayberry and Beyond: Makings Sense of American Paramilitary Policing.” In The Administration and Management of Criminal Justice Organizations: A Book of Readings, edited by Stan Stojkovic, David Kalinich, and John Klofas. 5th ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2010.

Lofstrom, Magnus, Joan Petersilia, and Steven Raphael. Evaluating the Effects of California's Corrections Realignment on Public Safety. San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California, 2012. .

Misczynski, Dean. Corrections Realignment: One Year Later. San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California, 2012. .

Schlosser, Eric. “The Prison Industrial Complex.” Atlantic Monthly, December 1998.

Stojkovic, Stan, David Kalinich, and John Klofas. Criminal Justice Organizations: Administration and Management. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage, 2014.

Walker, Samuel. Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal

Justice. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Welch, Michael. Corrections: A Critical Approach. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Zimring, Franklin E. The City that Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Stan Stojkovie
Helen Bader School of Social Welfare University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee