In the realm of criminal justice, ethics are an especially important and yet difficult area to control. “Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy concerned with the study of questions of right and wrong and how we ought to live” (Banks, 2013, p. 2). Because ethics deal with the abstract idea of right and wrong, and moral judgment, it is a very difficult area to define and control. Still, establishing and policing the area of ethics in the criminal justice system is very important to maintaining a functioning criminal justice system.
Due to its high profile, and well publicized nature, issues and concerns regarding ethics most often brings to mind indiscretions within the police department. “In addition to the Rodney King case, there have been many other instances in which law enforcement officers have been found in ethically compromising or illegal positions. Every major city police force in the United States has experienced some form of unethical or illegal behavior within its ranks” (Byers, 2002). When looking over the history of ethics reviews, there are examples of police brutality, false confessions, discrimination, evidence mishandling, theft, and drug issues. A recent survey of 3,235 officers from 30 police agencies showed that while grave issues of misconduct was mostly not tolerated, lesser issues would be overlooked within the department (Byers, 2002). Society is looking for its policing agency to be conscious, and not tolerate even smaller transgressions, which often lead to bigger ones.
Ethical issues within the judicial and correctional branches of the criminal justice system, although perhaps not always as easily identified or remedied, are also of a concern. Prosecutors and defense attorneys have the power to decide which cases to try, which evidence to present and whether to disclose all evidence to the court, and how seriously to represent their client. One example of an ethics violation is in the case of death row inmate Derrick Jamison. On February 28th, 2005 all charges were dismissed against him because of improper representation during the trial, where many of the prosecution’s documents were not correctly filed or provided to the defense. There were many points in the trial where correct evidence documentation could have been used to create a proper defense (Banks, 2013). Correctional officers also hold the lives of their charges in their hands, and therefore deal with ethical questions every day. “Correctional administrators reported 8,763 allegations of sexual victimization in prisons, jails, and other adult correctional facilities in 2011…. Nearly half (49%) involved staff sexual misconduct (any sexual act directed toward an inmate by staff) or sexual harassment (demeaning verbal statements of a sexual nature) directed toward inmates” (Beck, 2014). Outside of sexual misconduct in prisons, there is also incorrect documentation and observance by probation officers and other issues to be accounted for. Ethical indiscretions can cause serious issues like false convictions, mishandling of criminals on probation, and inmate mistreatment, which threaten the fabric of the justice system, as well as the trust and safety of society as a whole.
All ethical issues within the criminal justice system disrupt the proper dispensing of justice. There are four common types of ethical dilemmas: Truth vs. Loyalty, Individual vs. Group, Immediate vs. Future, and Justice vs. Compassion (Crowder, 2013). All of these dilemmas can be seen in the various examples given, and all can greatly impact the success of our criminal justice system. If a prosecutor chooses loyalty to a certain political group over the discovery of the truth, an innocent may be incarcerated and a criminal remain free. If an officer chooses to stay silent to support his fellow officers in their brutality cover-up, rather than stand on his own and come forward, then a victim may not get justice. Proper treatment of the accused, proper handling of evidence, the right to a fair trial, and proper treatment of inmates are all important parts of keeping the criminal justice system running smoothly. It also keeps the correct people in jail, and society safe. In order for the criminal justice system to work and protect all as fairly as possible, all professional parties involved should be held to ethical standards. Because ethics and morals can be vary a little depending on who you talk to, it is important for scholars to study and create guidelines that are universally accepted and adhered to.
Human beings are fallible creatures with free will, which makes the continued discussion and awareness of ethics issues in the criminal justice system so important. It is vital for each branch to have an understanding of the ethical dilemmas that face their members, and for scholars to continue to study what instances may spur individuals to become guilty of such misbehavior (Byers, 2002). Because society places such a great trust with the policing, judicial, and correctional officers within this system, it is important for them to be held to a high standard of ethics.
Banks, C. (2013). Criminal justice ethics: Theory and practice (3rd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Retrieved from http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/46945_CH_1.pdf
Beck, A. J., Rantala, R. R., & Rexroat, J.. January 23, 2014. Sexual victimization reported by adult correctional authorities, 2009-11. U. S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4882
Byers, B.. (December 2002). Ethics and criminal justice: Some observations on police misconduct. Crime & Justice International, 18(68). Retrieved from http://www.cjimagazine.com/archives
Turvey, B. E., & Crowder, S. (2013) Ethical justice: Applied issues for criminal justice students and professionals. Waltham, MA: Academic Press.