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Justice System and Punishment

Justice System and Punishment

Author: Paul Hannan

Identify the functions of the criminal justice system in the United States.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain Images from; Public Domain

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Welcome to this episode of Sociology Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on the justice system and punishment. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop, rewind, or even fast forward to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.

So today, I'm going to give you an introduction to the justice system and punishment in the United States of America. First, just so we kind of can define what we're looking at, the criminal justice system is just the organizations that respond to alleged violations of the law, and there's really three main groups that are part of the criminal justice system in America-- the police, the courts, and prisons.

Let me walk you through an example, and we'll kind of go through some of the major tenants of the criminal justice system in the United States. So there's me. I see it's a don't walk sign, but I decide to go anyway. I'm in a hurry. And, oh, no, a cop comes, and they're going to give me a ticket for jaywalking.

When you break the law, you become a part of the justice system, or allegedly break the law. And there's this thing called due process, though, and it's based primarily on the Bill of Rights. And due process is that the justice system has to follow the law. They can't work outside the law to prove you guilty. And there's really three main things that they kind of have to do that we like to think about. And that's fair notice, a hearing, and a jury or judge.

So fair notice is that you will be informed of your infringement or possible infringement, then you have the right to a hearing to formally get those charges, and then you have a right to having a judge or jury decide whether you're guilty or not.

Let's pretend here I am. Now, again, normally, if you're jaywalking, you don't necessarily go in front of a judge. It's just a ticket. But you know, we're going to expand this example a little bit here. So I'm in front of the judge. I'm going to do process. And there's a kind of a way you can kind of sidestep this a little bit, and that is with a plea bargain.

Now surprisingly, a lot of cases end up going to plea bargain. And plea bargains are just a negotiation where the defendant pleads guilty in return for a lesser charge. So a plea bargain is when the, in this case in would be me, I would be meeting with the attorney that's the prosecuting attorney, and we would make a deal where I would agree to a lesser charge, but I would say that I'm guilty, so then we don't have to go through a long court case. It really speeds up the process. The prosecuting lawyer's happy because it clears off time for him to do other things, to deal with other cases, and I'm happy because, even I'm pleading guilty, it's a lesser charge than the one they originally charged me with.

Now we're going to look at punishment. There are really four different reasons why a society chooses to punish. Now the punishment can be as small as a fine, or the death penalty, or going to jail. All those types of punishments, they all have fall under these four major reasons for punishment. So the first one is retribution. And that's where we make the person that committed the crime suffer as much as the victims. You can think of the biblical reference of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. So if you committed a crime the punishment has to be as severe. You have to suffer as much. Advocates of the death penalty are one place where they really like this retribution idea, because you ended a life permanently, so we're going to end your life permanently.

Now another reason for punishment is deterrence. In this case, we're discouraging crime through the use of punishment. So for example, if you saw me maybe walk crossing the street and getting this ticket and you saw that my ticket was for, I don't know, $1,000, you would be less likely to then break the law because you saw me break the law.

Now a third reason for punishment is rehabilitation. Now in rehabilitation, you are reforming the offender to prevent future offenses. The last form of punishment is societal protection. So we are protecting society by removing the person that committed that crime from society.

So today's takeaway message-- the criminal justice system is just the organizations that respond to the alleged breakings of laws. And the criminal system, though, has to follow the law while they're doing that. And so they have to follow due process. They have to give you fair notice. There has to be a hearing. There has to be a judge or jury to find you innocent or guilty. You can agree to a plea bargain, where you make an agreement with the prosecuting attorney and you say you're going to plead guilty in return for a lesser charge.

There are four types of punishment or for reasons, maybe, for punishment. The first one is retribution, so you want to make them suffer as much as the victims. Deterrence, where you discourage crime through the use of punishment. Rehabilitation, where you're trying to reform the offender so that they don't offend again. And societal protection, we're removing that person from society. Well, that's it for this lesson. Good work, and hopefully you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon. Peace.

Notes on "Justice System and Punishment"

Terms to Know

Criminal justice system

 The organizations that are part of society response to alleged law breaking. 

Due process 

The justice system must follow the law (fair notice, a hearing, a judge or jury). 

Plea bargaining 

An agreement where the offender agrees to a guilt plea for a lesser charge. 


Using punishment to punish the offend as much as the victim(s) suffered.


Using punishment as a way to stop other from committing crimes.


Attempting to reform the offender so he/she does not re-offend. 

Societal protection 

Protecting society by removing the offender.


Terms to Know
Criminal Justice System

An institutionalized system comprised of police, courts, and law that is designed to control and mitigate the effects of deviance in society.


A function of punishment that makes the offender an example for the rest of society.

Due Process

The idea that the entire justice system must follow the laws laid out in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Plea Bargaining

An agreement where the accused pleads guilty to a charge in exchange for a lesser sentence.


A function of punishment that seeks to make the offender better and removed of their troubles.


A function of punishment that makes the offender suffer in proportion to the suffering they inflicted.

Societal Protection

A way to control deviance and protect society by locking up offenders or sentencing them to the death penalty.