What Is the Criminal Justice System? - Definition, Components & Problems

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  • 0:02 Definition
  • 1:11 Law Enforcement
  • 2:08 Courts
  • 4:02 Corrections
  • 4:48 Problems
  • 5:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Learn what constitutes the criminal justice system. Explore the definition and the components of the criminal justice system. Review several problems in the criminal justice system today.


Like on the popular television program Law and Order, the criminal justice system includes police who investigate crimes and attorneys who prosecute crimes. However, the criminal justice system is more complex than just this small glimpse on television.

The criminal justice system is essentially a maze of agencies and processes that seek to control crime, minimize crime, and impose penalties for the commission of crimes. There are various levels of the criminal justice system presently operating in the United States, including the local level, state level, and federal level. Each level has its own police department. All of these agencies are police, but each are on a different governmental level in pursuit of the same objective.

Moreover, each level has its own court system. For example, the local level has a municipal court to hear low-level violations, while the state and federal courts determine state and federal court matters, respectively. Various critical components comprise the criminal justice system. These include law enforcement, courts, and corrections.

Law Enforcement

First, there is the law enforcement component. The police are the initial contact with the actual criminal activity. Police functions include taking statements, gathering evidence, performing investigations, arresting offenders, and providing testimony in court. In addition, when police initially take a suspect into custody, the police must read the Miranda rights to the suspect. The Miranda rights are basic rights one has, which include one's right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, and the right against self-incrimination.

Let's use an example to help understand this process more clearly. Imagine that A is a suspect for drug dealing. A is detained and subsequently arrested by the police. The police read A the Miranda rights and then question A. Thereafter, the police search A's home and discover drug paraphernalia. The police continue to investigate A's conduct.


Moving on, the next component in the criminal justice system is the court system. After formal charges are filed, a legal case against the criminal offender will commence. The court system includes prosecutors who file charges against offenders, defense attorneys who support offenders, and judges who preside over the cases.

Prosecution is where the accused are faced with the consequences for their crime. Lawyers who handle these cases are referred to as prosecutors. Prosecutors represent the states where they work and they file charges against criminal offenders. Charges are the formal laws that an offender has broken when committing a crime.

Furthermore, there are defense attorneys. Defense attorneys are attorneys who represent the offenders. Defense attorneys play a critical role in the criminal justice system because these attorneys provide a defense for the offender and ensure that the offender's rights are protected. Defense attorneys can be appointed to offenders who cannot afford to hire one.

Sentencing occurs at the court level. Sentencing is the phase of a case where a criminal offender receives the penalty for committing a crime. For example, an offender could receive a sentence of five years of jail time and a $5,000 fine. Moreover, in certain states, an offender could receive the death penalty as a sentence.

Now, let's get back to our example. A is charged with drug dealing and must go to court. A cannot afford an attorney, so a defense attorney is appointed to represent him in court. A's trial ensues, and the prosecutor presents a case against A. Once the prosecutor is done presenting evidence, including bags of drugs, police witnesses, and other witnesses, the defense attorney puts on his case. Once the defense attorney is done, the jury decides the case. The jury decides that A is guilty of drug dealing. The judge imposes a sentence of ten years imprisonment.

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