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Justice System and Punishment

Justice System and Punishment

Author: Zach Lamb

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

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello, how are you doing? Welcome to sociological studies. As always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. In this lesson, we're going to give an overview of the criminal justice system that will lay the groundwork for future, more sociological studies of the function of criminal justice and deviance in society. While the criminal justice system is comprised of the police, the courts, and the Constitution of the Bill of Rights, it's an institutionalized way to control and mitigate the effects of deviance in society.

The criminal justice system can function and stay internally consistent because of this very simple idea of due process. Due process is just simply that the courts, police, and the entire justice system must follow the laws laid out in the Bill of Rights. So being read your rights, this is an example of due process.

If you've ever seen the show cops, which I'm sure you have, when they read you your rights-- if you don't have an attorney, one will be appointed to you. This is part of due process. Due process has other parts, such as you need a fair notice for your crimes. So when you're being accused of a crime, part of due process is that you're fairly notified exactly what you're being charged with. And then from there, you can go in front of a judge and have a hearing where we can state your case with counsel. This is part of due process as well.

And finally then, you can have a jury or a jury trial that objectively looks at the facts of your case. And this is the final part of you due process. It's often cumbersome and expensive for the criminal justice system to go out through with the final part of due process, that of the jury trial. So in an effort to save resources, what will often happen is a plea bargain, which is where the accused will plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence. This avoids having to spend limited resources on a jury trial.

So if you get a drunk driving or something like that, the courts don't want you clogging up court time so they can't get to that high profile murder case. So the prosecutor will make you would a plea bargain. And so plea bargaining is an essential part of the justice system.

The criminal justice system also punishes offenders. They do that for several reasons. I have here four functions of punishment that the criminal justice system is in place to do. First is retribution. You want to make the offender suffer in the same degree or as much as possible relative to the suffering they inflicted on society. So there are different degrees of punishment to fit different degrees of crime.

The valuation of a degree of a crime deciding what crime to punish more severely is itself a very social process and it reflects the social values of the society. So some societies might punish crimes differently. But we don't have space to get into that right now.

Second, deterrent. We want to make the offender an example to the rest of us. So this is the most sociologically interesting facet of punishment. In itself, a topic of another tutorial.

Rehabilitation is third. We want to make the offender better. This often doesn't happen though. The prison system itself is a hostile environment that doesn't necessarily rehab the offender in the way that the criminal justice system would like. As such, we have a high rate of recidivism, which is when you offend again after your initial offense.

And fourth, societal protection, such as long term imprisonment where you're locked away for a temporary bit or execution. This societal protection facet is itself another tutorial we will discuss because it has sociologically interesting aspects. Also another example of societal protection and rehabilitation, if you've seen the movie Clockwork Orange or if you have read the book Clockwork Orange, you recall how the offender was subjected to a very unique form of rehabilitation in the end where he was brainwashed to be better.

Lobotomy is another example. We don't do these things, but they illustrate this idea of social protection through rehabilitation. Thank you for tuning into this brief overview of the criminal justice system. Have a great rest of your day.

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.