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The criminal justice system is the network of regulations, techniques, procedures, and institutions that a society uses to maintain enforce the rules that are most important to maintaining social order and preserving shared social values. The criminal justice system begins with a set of laws or a “criminal code,” which defines various types of criminal behaviors and provides parameters for the punishment of those behaviors. Not all laws are criminal, and breaking non-criminal laws will not result in the severe punishment that may accompany a serious crime. Generally, the criminal code includes only those laws that prohibit acts that are considered particularly injurious to the life or well-being of the individual or threatening to society or that proscribe behavior that is considered taboo, For instance, murder is a criminalized to some extent in every criminal justice system.

The purpose of the criminal justice system is to use the power of the government to enforce the laws and punish wrongdoers, thereby protecting society. It has at least three separate components: law enforcement, the courts, and the penal system. Law enforcement officers, who include police officers, sheriffs, and FBI agents, among others, work to prevent crimes and, when they cannot be prevented, to investigate crimes and identify and apprehend criminals. The courts and their agents and officers assess the evidence against those suspected of crime in order to determine guilt or innocence, and, in the case of guilt, to determine the appropriate punishment. The penal or correctional system is in charge of administering a convicted criminal’s punishment, which can range from probation and community service to imprisonment to execution, depending on the severity of the crime committed.

Ancient and Historical Precursors to Modern Criminal Law:

Code of Ur-Nammu: The Code of Ur-Nammu is the oldest set of laws that survives today in written form. The Code of Ur-Nammu was drafted in the Sumerian language sometime during the twenty-first century B.C. It prohibits murder and robbery, both of which are punishable by death. It also includes a list of injuries to person and property, including knocking out another man’s tooth or cutting off his foot, along with a price to be paid to the injured party in silver or shekels. Under the Code of Ur-Nammu, the law is not “an eye for an eye,” but rather “one-half a mina of silver” for an eye.

Code of Hammurabi: The Code of Hammurabi was written around 1790 B.C. in the Akkadian language and was enacted and enforced by the King of Babylon. Although not as old as the Code of Ur-Nammu, it is much better preserved, and almost the entire code survives intact. Like the Sumerian law, it includes a list of potential offenses and fines. However, it states that a man who chops off another man’s hands will have his own hands cut off, and a man who knocks out another’s eye will have his own eye knocked out. Here, the penalties are meant as punishments, and the punishments are generally the infliction of equivalent injuries upon the wrongdoer.

The Ten Commandments: In Exodus, God wrote the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets and gave them to Moses on Mt. Sinai to impart to the Israelites. The Commandments proscribe some behavior that is not particularly relevant to the modern criminal justice system, such as worshipping graven images. However, the commandments against killing, stealing, and lying form the foundation for criminal law in much of Western civilization. .

Commentary on the Ten Commandments: This analysis and commentary on the biblical text of the Ten Commandments and of the events immediately preceding and following Moses’ receipt of them provides both a Jewish and a Christian point of view.

Modern Criminal Law

Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968: The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 was one of the major “crime bills” of the latter half of the twentieth century. Through this Act, Congress created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (later replaced by the Office of Justice Programs, a division of the Department of Justice). The purpose of the LEAA was to provide grants to states to conduct research in criminology and criminal justice, explore alternate means of punishing and rehabilitating youthful offenders, and develop resources to fight organized crime. The legislation also prohibited interstate trade in handguns and set specific rules for conducting wiretaps for the purpose of gathering evidence related to a crime or potential crime. This mega-bill was largely inspired by the growing concern over guns and crime in the years immediately following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996: The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, or AEDPA, placed new restrictions on the ability of incarcerated criminals to challenge their convictions through the filing of habeas corpus petitions.

Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998: The introduction of the computer and the internet has given rise to criminal activity and forms of theft that were not imaginable in the times of Hammurabi. Identity theft is a quintessentially modern crime. Congress recognized the rise of this form of theft and the havoc that it could cause, both for the victims and for their financial institutions, and passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998.

Bill of Rights: The Bill of Rights consists of the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution which set out many of the privileges and liberties that Americans have come to consider their inalienable “civil rights.” Many of the protections in the Bill of Rights ensure that an accused criminal receives due process both during the criminal investigations and afterwards and a fair, unbiased trial. The Amendments most relevant to the conduct of criminal investigations and trials include the Fourth Amendment, which protects individuals from unusual searches and seizures of their homes and possessions; the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees an accused due process and equal rights protections; and the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees an accused notice of the charges against him, the right to an attorney, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to a speedy, public trial before a jury.

Law Enforcement

The Federal Bureau of Investigation: The agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or FBI are federal law enforcement whose jurisdiction is primarily domestic, that is within the boundaries of the United States, although they may become involved in incidents overseas when the victim is American, particularly if the crime or accident occurred in the course of a voyage that began in a U.S. port. They generally investigate only suspected violations of federal law, including drug and racketeering laws, and will become involved in crimes like kidnappings and thefts only if the crime becomes “interstate in nature,” e.g., if the victim or the victim’s property is taken “across state lines.”

Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives: Agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, also known simply as ATF, are law enforcement officers with a limited purview. They are authorized to investigate crimes involving firearms, bombs, arson, as well as the theft, diversion, or illegal resale of alcohol and tobacco. Thus, ATF agents play a central role in preventing and investigating domestic terrorism and controlling the activities of organized crime.

United States Department of Justice: The Department of Justice is a governmental agency and cabinet department in the U.S. White House, charged with the fair enforcement and administration of federal law and the even-handed investigation of criminal violations. The head of the Department of Justice is the Attorney General, who is considered the chief law enforcement officer of the land. The Department of Justice has a dedicated Criminal Division charged with overseeing the implementation and enforcement of federal criminal statutes.

Office of Justice Programs: The Office of Justice Programs is a sub-agency within the Department of Justice that focuses on crime prevention rather than law enforcement and crime investigation. It purpose is to assist law enforcement officers and agencies at the state and local level to develop more effective methods of crime prevention and victim and offender education by providing research and development grants.

Metropolitan Police Service--Scotland Yard: The Metropolitan Police Service, commonly referred to as Scotland Yard, is the law enforcement authority responsible for policing the Greater London area.

Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Units, LEIU:: The purpose of the Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Units or LEIU is the creation of high and uniform standards for the exchange of intelligence between different law enforcement agencies.

New York City Police Department: The New York City Police Department is the largest police force in the country with responsibility for the safety and protection of the over eight million people who live in America’s largest city. The New York City Transit Police and Housing Police are units within the NYPD.

Forensic Science in Criminal Investigation

Crime Scene Investigator Network: This site is a clearinghouse for information related to crime scene investigation, including guidelines for crime scene response and evidence collection, tutorials on crime scene photography, and links to articles related to forensics and forensics training.

American Academy of Forensic Scientists: The American Academy of Forensic Scientists is a professional and academic society for practitioners of forensics from all specialties. AAFS publishes the Journal of Forensic Sciences, the archives of which are available for public viewing on the Academy’s web site.

American Society of Crime Lab Directors: The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD) is a nonprofit organization formed by crime lab directors to foster excellence and innovation in forensic science.

Forensic Science Society, United Kingdom: The Forensic Science Society is a professional society for forensic scientists based in Britain with membership open to those in the United Kingdom and from abroad.

National Library of Medicine: Visible Proofs, Forensic Views of the Body: The National Library of Medicine, a branch of the National Institute of Health, has launched on its website an online exhibition devoted to the history of forensic science entitled “Visible Proofs, Forensic Views of the Body.”

Courts

The United States Supreme Court: The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. The Supreme Court hears relatively few cases and only a fraction of them are criminal cases. However, even though very few of those charged with and convicted of crimes will ever make it to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court is responsible for interpreting the constitutional provisions that determine the fundamental fairness of criminal proceedings and so its influence is deeply felt in any criminal case, no matter how “low” the court or whether the case is in federal or state court.

The Federal Judiciary:  The Federal Judiciary Website provides links to all federal courts in the country, including the Supreme Court, the Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal, and the trial-level Federal District Courts.

Federal Judicial Center: The Federal Judicial Center is an agency created by Congress to research the operations of the federal courts with the aim of improving their functioning. The Federal Judicial Center also creates educational and training materials for federal judges and other agents and employees of the federal courts.

The Correctional System

Federal Bureau of Prisons: The Federal Bureau of Prisons is an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice that administers and oversees the institutions in the federal prison system.

United States Sentencing Commission: The United States Sentencing Commission is composed of several legal practitioners and judges who together review and vote on proposed and revised guidelines for the sentencing of criminals convicted of federal crimes.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines: The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are proposed, drafted, revised, and voted on by the United States Sentencing Commission. The Guidelines propose ranges of incarceration lengths for various crimes and provide guidance for increasing a sentence based on aggravating factors and decreasing it when mitigating factors are present. The intent of the guidelines was to introduce consistency, uniformity, and fairness into the imposition of criminal sentences and to reduce the possibility that judicial discretion or bias could result in widely different terms of imprisonment for basically identical crimes.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Correctional Health: The CDC provides information about health condition inside correctional institutions, as well as the incidence of physical and mental illness in prison populations.

U.S. Parole Commission: The U.S. Parole Commission, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, is responsible for reviewing applications for parole from incarcerated convicts and deciding whether to grant or deny.

Southern Center for Human Rights: The ultimate penalty that the American criminal justice system can impose is execution. Although the Supreme Court has held that capital punishment does not violate the Eight Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the debate regarding whether executions are constitutional and moral rages on. The Southern Center for Human Rights is a public interest legal services organization that is opposed to the death penalty and represents defendants who are facing the death penalty and appellants and habeas petitioners who are seeking to have their sentence of death overturned.

International Criminal Justice

Interpol: “Interpol” is short for International Police Organization, and it is the largest international law enforcement authority, with the participation of 187 nations. The purpose of Interpol is to facilitate cooperation and sharing of resources and intelligence between law enforcement entities in different countries for the more effective prevention, investigation, and resolution of international crimes.

The International Criminal Court: The International Criminal Court is a permanent tribunal set up for the purpose of prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide. Unlike the International Court of Justice, the ICC is not an organ of the United Nations. It is an independent body created through a treaty known as the Rome Statute. Only signatories to the treaty fall under the ICC’s jurisdiction. Thus, if a country has refused to sign, neither it nor its citizens can be tried and sentenced by the ICC.

The World Factbook of Criminal Justice Systems: The World Factbook of Criminal Justice Systems is a resource compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and agency of the Department of Justice. The current edition provides in-depth descriptions of the justice systems of 45 foreign countries, including Australia, France, Germany, Denmark, China, Bulgaria, India, Japan, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, and Venuzuela.

("Legal information found on this page does not constitute legal advice.")

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