Criminal justice is an inherently ethical profession. The judiciary ostensibly crafts laws that reflect the ethical sensibilities and social norms of the society, which are often embedded in the American Constitution. The role of the criminal justice system is to ensure that local, state, and federal laws are applied and enforced in a manner consistent with constitutional and regional codes. Issues like the equal protection clause are also ethical matters. The core objective of the criminal justice system is built on ethical responsibility: the ethical responsibility of the system to its main stakeholders, which is the American people.
However, there are also ancillary ethical issues associated with criminal justice that are not codified. Such issues are often linked with ambiguities and philosophical complexities. Applying criminal justice ethics entails sensitivity and awareness to prevailing political and social climates. Among the most pressing ethical issues in criminal justice include those related to race and socio-economic class. In addition to these primary concerns, criminal justice officials contend with the ethics of the bureaucracy, its methodology, and the workplace environment. The media has a great impact on the execution and operations of criminal justice and therefore, ethical issues with the media do arise. Policing remains one of the most critical areas of ethics in criminal justice with concerns related to racial profiling, corruption, and brutalities continuing to plague policing. Moreover, the differential treatment of white- versus blue-collar crimes is an issue, as are specific types of law such as drug laws. Ethics related to privatization of prisons is also a pertinent issue in criminal justice. Criminal justice policy is a continually evolving field that must be taken into account ethical discussions and diverse philosophical approaches.
Ethics in law enforcement remains one of the most pressing matters in criminal justice system, and will for some time given the complexities of the issues and their diverse manifestations. Law enforcement officials have an ethical obligation to their profession in upholding the law, seeing that taxpayer resources are devoted toward prevention of crime and pursuing individuals or organizations that are suspects or party to crime. Police also have ethical obligations to victims, in protecting their rights and needs and ensuring confidentiality in some situations. Suspects are brought to trial in a manner consistent with the law, but often police take advantage of loopholes or administrative policies that condone ethically questionable actions. For example, police officers have been empowered in some states to apprehend persons suspected of being an illegal immigrant. The policy is contentious, because it legitimizes the use of racial profiling and erases the judicial application of probable cause clauses that require law enforcement officials to have a reasonable suspicion that a law is being broken before a stop and especially an arrest. On the one hand, law enforcement argues that their job is made easier by the ability to apprehend suspects based on their appearance. On the other hand, the act is a blatant form of racial profiling.
Racial profiling has been a major issue in law enforcement in the United States, which has a long history of racial segregation and double standards for whites and non-whites. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (2012), racial profiling refers to "airline, police, and government enforcement that targets racial or ethnic minorities, like traffic stops for 'Driving While Black.'" The issue of racial profiling impacts other ethical problems, too, such as police brutality.
The Rodney King case is one example of how police brutality also plays a major role in criminal justice ethics as they link with issues related to racial profiling. Police brutality and other types of police misconduct are serious ethical infractions in law enforcement (Krugman, 2012). The practice of brutality, use of force, and even torture have been condoned on the basis that they promote public safety as they entrench the power of law enforcement. However, brutality ends up serving the opposite function, which is to make law enforcement seem less legitimate in the eyes of the public. The public does nt trust law enforcement that uses spurious ethical methods of practice, which is one of the main reasons why the criminal justice system should not overstep its boundaries in order to maintain power. A tremendous amount of power is vested in the criminal justice system, as the public entrusts their safety. Moreover, the criminal justice system has an obligation to ensure that the rights innocent people are not infringed upon by unethical practices such as use of force.
Sociological theories such as labeling theory and self-fulfilling prophecy theory shows how law enforcement officials can be biased in their application of the law and in daily practice, leading to racial profiling. African-American males do continue to be over-represented in prison populations, while they are under-represented in positions of meaningful political, social, and economic power. As Block & Obioha (2012) point out, the war on drugs is one of the most widespread criminal justice campaigns to legitimize institutionalized racism in the United States. The war on drugs targets black men disproportionately to any other demographic cohort in the country. Generations of lack of access to the legitimate "white" marketplace has driven and fueled an underground economy. The crack cocaine vs. powdered cocaine sentencing disparities that arose in the 1980s were perfect examples of how the law is applied differently depending on race and class. Law enforcement has an ethical obligation to ensure the safety of communities, but also must work within broader ethical frameworks of reducing or eliminating racial and social disparities. Police are in the position of power to alter economic social, and political disparities and it should be a part of their ethical code to do so (Block & Obioha, 2012).
Socio-economic class issues often transcend race. The ability to pay for a lawyer has a strong bearing on judicial outcomes in criminal trials. Therefore, it becomes important for criminal justice officials to recognize ways that justice can be truly for all citizens rather than only for the wealthy. Socio-economic class issues that affect the administration of criminal justice include the differences between white collar and blue collar crimes. White collar crimes are by definition committed by people in positions of power who have the wealth necessary to manipulate the criminal justice system by having access to teams of skilled lawyers who can influence everything from the location of the courtroom, to which judges are presiding, to the nature of the jury selection procedure. This is true for crimes that are not white-collar crimes like embezzlement but also to crimes such as drug possession. As a result, it is more likely that a person with wealth and social privilege will receive reduced sentencing or not guilty verdicts than for a person who is relying on help from the public defender service.
In Criminal Justice Ethics, author Cyndi Banks (2012) refers to the ethics that surround not just the war on drugs but also the war on terrorism. The war on terrorism has given rise to a range of ethical infractions including racial profiling and also invasions of privacy. This is where conflicting obligations to serve different ethical duties will arise. As Wooley (2012) points out, lawyers often have conflicting ethical obligations, such as to their clients (social justice) and to the truth (ethical justice). In the same way, law enforcement officials and criminal justice policy makers contend with conflicting ethical obligations. Detaining prisoners with no due process of law in Guantanamo Bay is an ethical conundrum, because the policy that is protecting Guantanamo Bay as an institution presumes that the ethical infractions incurred in the unlawful incarcerations are done in the interest of public safety. Public safety is indeed one of the ethical obligations of criminal justice officials. Criminal justice policy makers have often used the public safety argument to conduct unethical practices such as torture too (Banks, 2012).
The prison system is an arena in which many interwoven aspects of ethics play themselves out. Recent privatization schemes have raised questions about their ethical validity. With government budgets being cut, it has become economically feasible to contract prison services to private companies, and have private companies run prisons. The ethical issues that arise are tremendous, due to the lack of genuine accountability for the private sector to the criminal justice system. Privately run prisons have their own policies, staff, and regulations. The ethical codes of the private companies might conflict with the ethics of the criminal justice system.
Another problem with ethics in criminal justice stems from sentencing laws. Incarceration has been used indiscriminately in drug-related offences, leading to an epidemic of inmates. If drug-related offences were considered humanitarian issues rather than criminal justice issues, then the entire criminal justice system could free up resources that could be diverted into genuine public safety, which is the real ethical obligation of criminal justice officials. How prisons are run poses ethical problems for the criminal justice system. In addition to the hierarchy that is established between corrections officers and inmates, officers often find themselves in…