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Brief Summary

Introducing Criminal Justice

At the most basic level, criminal justice is defined as society's response to crime. However, our understanding of criminal justice differs depending on the theoretical perspectives that we choose to apply to it.  This chapter assesses several theoretical lenses through which we can view criminal justice, including as system, profession, bureaucracy, moral agent, and academic discipline.    

Defining Crime

The definition of crime and deviance is socially constructed, as evidenced by changes over time and place in what society believes should be criminalized. A key task for all societies is determining what behaviors are serious enough to be defined as crimes, with laws being passed to prohibit those behaviors. The only certainty about crime is that its definition, enforcement, and corresponding punishments are far from universal.       

The Extent of Crime

Through various official and unofficial means, we attempt to measure the extent of crime in society.  Since most people break the law at some time in their lives, measurement is no easy task.   We must rely on various official and unofficial data sources to form a picture of crime in the United States, each of which has distinct advantages and disadvantages.  The data indicate that, at the time of this writing, crime in the United States has declined significantly since the mid-1990s.

The Five Stages of the Criminal Justice System

No discussion of criminal justice would be complete without an overview of the five main stages and various sequences of the criminal justice system.  Once crime has been defined and codified, law enforcement agencies react through arrest and investigation, leading to a suspect's entry into the system.  Through various pretrial sequences, there are a variety of paths that lead to a suspect's release or adjudication. If adjudicated, defendants can either be acquitted or move further through the system to the sentencing and corrections phases.  The chart of criminal justice sequences presented in this chapter is a valuable tool that highlights the discretion inherent in the system.



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