The moral requirements of criminal justice

Morals of Criminal Justice

Examine the moral requirements of criminal justice. In your analysis examine the issues of authority, power, and discretion. In addition, examine the role of individual behavior and how it reflects on institutional morality and how the code of conduct impacts individual behavior. Defend your answer with research.

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In criminal justice, ethics and morals determine the standard of fairness by enabling professionals to; i) develop the reasoning abilities and analytical skills needed for the execution of their duties, ii) recognize the moral principles and ethical consequences of an action, iii) adequately make decisions involving due process, force, and discretion, iv) make adequate decisions regarding deterrence and rehabilitation, and v) effectively engage in criminal justice research (Williams & Arrigo, 2011). Criminal justice professionals face numerous moral dilemmas in the execution of discretion, power and authority.

Legislators have the discretionary power to criminalize behavior and have to use moral/ethical definitions as a basis for determining what is legal, and what is not. Police officers have considerable discretionary power to arrest and investigate individuals. They have moral grounds for deciding which individuals to target or investigate. Prosecutors and judges posses significant power to decide how to prosecute a case; ethics and morality comes into play in the determination of charges, the administration of the rules of evidence, and even in sentencing. All decisions have to be made on the basis of the values of fairness, benefits to societal obligations, and rights. Authority should never be used in the promotion of personal values or in the avoidance of accountability for wrong doing. Correctional officers have discretionary power over the lives of the prisoners under them. They have to recognize that the decisions they make affect the health and life of the people under them, and have, hence, to observe ethical standards in all their decision-making and correctional undertakings.

In an attempt to govern the behavior of members and ensure that they maintain integrity in the execution of their duties, institutions often develop codes of conduct describing their commitment to ethical practices and public accountability. These codes address professional and personal conduct, as well as correction-related ethics. They outline the moral principles behind members’ obligations and duties, and are hence a fundamental reference tool when one is faced with an ethical dilemma.

An institutional code of conduct influences the behavior of individual members because it outlines the institution’s policies, behaviors and mission, and guides the actions of individuals to be in line with these. Institutional morality begins with individual behavior because individual behavior “not only reflects the personal character of the acting agent, but also the character of the institution of which the individual is a part” (Williams & Arrigo, 2011, p. 16). People would normally regard an institution as ‘immoral’ or ‘failed’ based only on their interaction with a number of its members, and not necessarily the whole lot. To this end, it is the behavior of individual members that either makes or breaks an institution’s reputation.

The criminal justice system’s reputation with regard to morality is far from perfect. One significant example is the 2006 case where police in Atlanta shot and killed 96-year-old Kathryn Johnston who had mistaken them for thugs, and fired in self-defense. Investigations later revealed that the officers had falsified paperwork to obtain the no-knock warrant they had used to access Mrs. Johnston’s residence. The officers then carelessly attempted to cover up their actions by planting marijuana at the scene to implicate their victim (Williams & Arrigo, 2011).

Examine the role of morality and its relationship to life. In this discussion, examine the relationship between ethics and laws and the possible conflicts that exist.

The rationale of the criminal justice system is to ensure the well-being of the community by punishing offenders and secluding those that are out to disrupt societal peace. From a Biblical standpoint, punishment is only moral if it matches the seriousness of the offence committed, in which case morality is anchored on the principle of retribution. The justice system qualifies this principle, such that the key aim of punishment is to bring about order in the community, rather than inflict suffering and pain on offenders (Williams & Arrigo, 2011). To this end, it incorporates societal well-being, right relationships, and justice, and advances punishment for two major reasons; i) to make reparation to victims of crime, and ii) to reintegrate offenders into the society.

However, the justice system is often unable to achieve the aforementioned objectives because of the conflict that exists between ethics and law. Law and ethics are distinct categories; law collectively refers to the regulations, statutes, and legislation enacted by state and federal governments to govern the people within those jurisdictions. Laws aren’t meant to essentially assimilate ethical values, though they may at times include elements of ethical standards. In other words, laws are not infallible and can indeed be immoral at times. For instance, both law and morality prohibit the act of “killing an innocent human being” (Williams & Arrigo, 2011, p. 5). In this case, a person is obliged to obey the law, even if they do not hold the ethical belief expounded in it. It is this distinction that, in my opinion, brings about conflict between law and ethics.

The slavery-promoting laws that existed in the U.S. prior to the civil war were clearly in violation of the principles that drive morality; yet they were legal and had to be obeyed (Williams & Arrigo, 2011). These kinds of conflicts often give rise to protests such as those witnessed in the U.S. when civil society groups revolted against the racially discriminatory slavery laws, demanding that all citizens be treated equally.

What is the relationship between value and ethics? What does it mean to say that a value can be instrumental or intrinsic? Police officers and prosecutors value discretion. Is this value a means to an end or an end in itself within the criminal justice system?

Every individual has a different set of values governing their behavior, attitudes, and decisions. Values refer to “those things, qualities, or ideals to which we assign importance” (Williams & Arrigo, 2011, p. 32). The development of values in an individual is influenced by their life experiences and such individual factors as educational level, peer group, surroundings, to mention but a few. Values have a hand in ethical decision-making (Williams & Arrigo, 2011). The convictions an individual holds about right/wrong and good/bad are largely determined by the values they possess.

A value can be said to be instrumental or intrinsic if it can be classified as both intrinsic and instrumental. The logic is that anything intrinsic can be instrumental; the contrary, however, is not true. The law, for instance, can be regarded as an instrumental or intrinsic value; it is instrumental as a moral motivator, a moral example, and a moral advisor; and intrinsic in the sense that it, in itself, instantiates some moral value (Williams & Arrigo, 2011).

The discretionary power granted to police officers and prosecutors by law is an instrumental value (means to an end). This discretionary power is literally useless per se; it only becomes useful if used to investigate, target, and arrest the right people; drop, or pursue the right charges; and take the right cases to the grand jury. This is to mean that discretionary power is only used to acquire something that is more valuable, which in this case is justice for victims of crime (Williams & Arrigo, 2011).

Examine the concept of free will as a behavior. In this examination, compare the other explanations for biological, psychological and sociological behavior. As a researcher, which of the concepts do you subscribe to and why?

Free will is a concept of the humanistic approach of psychology which postulates that humans have a choice in the way they act, and are free to choose their behavior (Williams & Arrigo, 2011). To this end, unless a person is insane or underage, they can freely choose whether or not to commit a crime, and can consequently be held personally liable. The concept of free will gives people the chance to exercise personal agency in the choices they make.

Determinists have, however, criticized the concept of free will on the grounds that humans have no control over their actions, and that it is the environment, or rather the natural world that drives people to act in a certain way (Williams & Arrigo, 2011). To this end, a person who commits a crime does so not because he/she chooses to, but because of the effect of their biological, social, and psychological environments. The psychological environment, in this case, refers to what an individual has been made to believe all their life (Williams & Arrigo, 2011). The social environment covers the sociological aspect of an individual’s surrounding, in which case one who has been brought up in a neighborhood that considers violence pretty normal is highly likely to indulge in violent crime (Williams & Arrigo, 2011). From a biological standpoint, genetic factors determine an individual’s behaviors, such that one inherits criminal behavior from their parents or family line (Williams & Arrigo, 2011).

I strongly subscribe to the concept of free will; in my opinion, the uniqueness of human beings cannot be overstated. Humans are able to think for themselves, and determine whether or not something is right. For this reason, I strongly believe that every human being has the ability to control their actions. I would not want to imagine the kind of society we would have if people were allowed to, for instance, argue that they committed a crime because, judging from the trend, members of their family have been programmed to do so. Such an argument is, in my opinion, outrageous.


Williams, C.R. & Arrigo, B.A. (2011). Ethics, Crime, and Criminal Justice (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

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