Role of the Media in the Criminal Justice System

The media has always had a profound effect on how the public perceives and understands the criminal justice system. To a large extent, the media shapes the workings of the system. Aside from the massive interest that the general public has with crime and criminals, people want to know how those crimes are discovered and dealt with by the system (Marsh and Melville, 2009). The role of the media is without doubt important as it primarily acts as the ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ of the public. It can be a powerful and constructive means that contributes to remedial action in the conduct of public business.

However, like all facets of society, there should be limits as the media’s role cannot be equated to that of government. The media, therefore, serves to educate the public on the justice system. The media also plays a role in shaping public attitudes towards the criminal justice system as few events make bigger headlines for the TV news as say, a violent offender who has returned to the community (Clunies, 1995). At times, as is inevitably bound to happen, such reports create an adversarial relationship between the media and the criminal justice system.

Many first time jurors have confessed that television and newspapers were their main source of information about jury service. The actual experience is reported to be markedly different from the popular media depictions. According to Muncie & Wilson (2004), there has been little research on the extent to which the media influences the public’s opinion about the police. The little research, however, seems to suggest that police officers’ expectations of the force are molded on the earliest television programmes that featured police.

The show ‘Starsky and Hutch’ portrayed being a policeman as a career full of excitement, glamour and car chases. Further, most police officers currently serving describe the ‘Bill’ as a programme that best illustrates the bureaucratic demands made on the police. Since media content is shaped by various economic and marketing parameters, news stories about crime are being adjusted to meet viewer demands. This continues to happen even during times when crime levels are exhibiting a downward trend. The media can skew the public’s opinion and help shape debate on such issues as longer sentences, treating juveniles like adults etc.

On a more positive note, the media has helped focus attention on issues such as cases of innocent people who have wrongly been convicted, police brutality and public support for DNA testing to reduce chances of wrongful conviction. Generally, what we think we know affects the policies that we come up with. What we know, however, is not always accurate and history is littered with numerous examples. Myths develop because they offer identities i. e. good versus evil. They aid comprehension by creating order in a situation where people are bombarded with a lot of information.

They are further entrenched as they help to form common bonds and reinforce a sense of community. Ultimately, the media and the government are responsible for creating and perpetuating false perceptions. Social scientists are influenced by their perception of reality, ideology and values. According to Pollock (2008), individual perceptions almost always influence the research process. She goes on to assert that if the hypothesis construction and methodology are tainted by special interest groups or people with political agendas, emerging results from such research always warrants questions.

Recently, a common myth that has been perpetuated by the media concerned the looting and violence in New Orleans that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Following the floods, the media reported widespread looting in New Orleans even going further to state that police were involved. Experts, however, argued that there was no hard evidence to suggest widespread looting whilst acknowledging a few isolated incidents. It was also widely reported that there were many rapes and murders that occurred at the Superdome where thousands sought refuge.

Later, news stories vindicated this by stating that stacked up bodies in the dome were cases of exaggeration and that there was only one known homicide case and another for attempted rape. Major components of the criminal justice system Law enforcement is one of the major components of the criminal justice system. It is comprised of the police who are not only involved in arresting homicide perpetrators but they respond to any violent situations that precede a deadly incident (Lattimore, 1999). The role of the police force over the years has changed from being reactive to proactive.

Numerous efforts have contributed to these positive changes but none has had more of an impact than the community oriented policing project. This has led people to realize that through their interventions, disorder in the community is reduced as a result of more offenders being apprehended. This change has expanded the role, responsibility and legal mandate of the police force. Police not only investigate crimes but they also deter them through patrol activities. Local police maintain law and order besides additional duties such as controlling traffic, crowds and settling minor disputes between citizens.

In the U. S. , we find both State and Federal law enforcers. State law enforcement is generally ‘state’ police and those designated to patrolling highways. Fire marshals are also part of the law enforcement machinery. Enactment of numerous legislation over the past three decades has expanded the size and scope of federal law enforcement. Agencies with police powers include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and The Drug Enforcement Authority (DEA). Courts are another component of the criminal justice system.

Criminal cases get their initial hearing at any of the courts for instance in a three tiered system which has local, regional and higher appellate courts. Criminal courts comprise judges and judicial magistrates. Appeals against their order or judgment are taken to the High court. Criminal courts function under the administrative control of the High court (Van Puymbroeck, 2001). The U. S. has a dual court system i. e. two independent judicial systems these being at the federal and state level. The federal system comprises district courts, circuit courts of appeals and the U. S. Supreme court.

At state level, trial courts are found at local and state levels. Intermediate courts of appeal and state supreme courts are also found here. Courts, in conjunction with judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys have the weighty responsibility of determining innocence or guilt (Gaines & Miller, 2008). Institutional corrections are another component of the criminal justice system. They are basically any facility in which the state and the local government house accused or convicted offenders. There are many forms of correctional facilities with the most common being jails, reformatories, prisons and penitentiaries.

Others include houses of correction, correctional farms, workhouses and industrial training schools. With the concept of rehabilitation gaining more mileage in society, institutions and facilities housing the criminally insane or those that confine, treat and rehabilitate drug addicts and alcoholics have also been included. Lastly, community based corrections programs ensure that most offenders are punished within their communities as they do not pose a danger to themselves or others. Offenders are given responsibilities which mean that they can keep supporting themselves and their families.

These programs ensure that victims in the community are compensated through restitution or community service. According to Alarid, Cromwell & Del Carmen (2007), these programs do not expose defenders to the culture of violence that exists in jails and prisons. The criminal justice system is indeed a system. This is because it is highly ordered by virtue of being methodical and well organized. It is also made up of interdependent components that form the unified whole. These components are the agencies of government that are charged with enforcing law, adjudicating criminals and correcting their conduct.

The criminal justice system is so massive that in the U. S. alone, it is well acknowledged that it employs over two million people who are spread across law enforcement agencies, prosecutorial agencies, correctional institutions, and probation and parole departments. The system is responsible for processing, treating and caring for millions of people each year. Justification of its system status is also due to the fact that it is a complex of methods or rules that govern behavior. Once society has identified a certain behavior as being undesirable, it seeks to correct it in an individual.

The court process for example, is very elaborate in nature. Starting with when an accused person is caught in an offence, to being taken to court, charged and finally sentenced. It is a very meticulous process that aims for certain set objectives. If found guilty, one can be incarcerated, fined or set free. As discussed earlier, incarceration can take several forms. Most criminal cases, however, end when charges are dismissed or the accused enters a guilty plea. To ensure a fair trial where an accused cannot complain of otherwise, is to ensure that a case naturally goes through all the stages of the criminal justice process.

This is important so as to understand how the perceptions and interactions of many decision makers determine the fates of people drawn into the system. Viable community based alternatives to prison Probation is one of the viable alternatives to prison. It is a conditional release offered to an offender by a judicial authority on condition that he/she can be integrated back into the community without committing new crimes or violating the terms of his release. This is not a new concept to the criminal justice system as earlier legal systems allowed an accused conditional freedom if they proved that they deserved a chance (Clunies, 1995).

Here, probation officers have the responsibility of advising the courts on circumstances that promote sentences other than prison as well as those that call for prison rather than community based sentences. There is also minimum supervision for offenders who do not pose a significant threat to the public. This mostly involves misdemeanors and offenders generally contact their probation officers at least once a month. Medium supervision is reserved for offenders who, whilst posing no significant threat, have committed serious crimes in the past.

They are required to physically see their probation officer at least once a month. The officer is also tasked with checking on the offender at their work place or place of residence regularly. Lastly, intensive supervision is afforded to offenders with a history of violent behavior. They are the most scrutinized to ensure that the community is not subjected to the damage they cause. Probations generally result in the probationer successfully completing their sentences but technical violations can arise if the offender commits a new crime or violates the terms of probation. Diversion programs are another option to prison.

These are either educational or informational programs, or counseling and self help programs. Educational programs are aimed mostly at first offenders. They can be directed towards juveniles who have dropped out of school by focusing on their educational needs. Adults can also be enabled to obtain a GED certificate. Informational programs target people involved in offences such as drunk driving and they strive to educate on the dangers that this poses. An example of this is how socialite Paris Hilton was committed to jail in the summer of 2007 for violating conditions of her parole.

She had failed to enroll for an alcohol education course. Counseling programs can involve the participation of family members as they are tailored to meet specific needs. They divert people thereby freeing up spaces in traditional control facilities like jails. They also increase the society’s capacity to punish by casting the net wider so as to catch more offenders. Community service benefits the offender as well as the community itself. By being involved in clean up activities, the offender is providing a service to his community and benefiting himself too.

This is because he gets a chance to atone for his misdeeds as well as taking responsibility whilst physically avoiding incarceration or paying fines. Community service activities are numerous and can range from clean up of government offices to working in facilities such as libraries, schools and emergency rooms (Mays & Winfree, 2008). These programs have again enjoyed tremendous success as first and foremost, prison crowding is checked and with it the lack of money to expand correctional facilities. The work assigned is tailored to ensure that it is meaningful in terms of prisoner rehabilitation.

House arrest coupled with electronic monitoring is a concept that incorporates both old and new ways of meting out punishment. It involves placing an electronic tag on the offender so as to establish his/her whereabouts at any given time. A probation officer is tasked with ensuring that the offender is always accounted for. House arrest, although relatively new, has been a success. It saves on jail and prison bed space thus saving on rising prison costs. It also avoids the stigma that is associated with going to jail. Many people find that fitting back into the community after serving a lengthy jail term difficult.

This is preferable to prison as reintegration ceases to be an issue. One can also receive tailor made programs to help them out in the confines of their own home. Finally, other intermediate sentencing alternatives include fines for, say, traffic fines. Asset forfeiture is carried out in the war against organized crime as it takes the profit motive out of crime. Restitution is another form of economic sanction that can be used together with probation. Economic sanctions save on money, bed space and are also a source of revenue for the government. Tenets of Community and restorative justice models.

Community service programs have been in existence in the U. S. from as early as 1966 in California with local initiatives set up for female traffic offenders. Initially, legislators believed that these programs would address the issue of over crowded prisons with non violent offenders not having to be incarcerated. Community service provided offenders with a chance to make restitution to their victims in lieu of imprisonment. These programs have been very popular with the public as it is the community that suffers psychological injury from the fear of crime as well as intangible rising costs such as insurance.

Community service is a reparative action that links the nature of the service to the offence whilst reducing the burden on the criminal justice system. They offer a viable and less costly alternative to incarceration. Their utility is in their variety as they range from interventions that result in offenders being removed from the system even before the adjudication process that results in prison sentences has began. Restorative justice is an emerging trend in juvenile justice. This philosophy is based on among other values, that offender, victims and the community should be included in the response to the crime.

Another basic principle behind this model is that accountability is based on the offenders understanding the harm caused by their actions, accepting responsibility and making amends (Godwin, 1998). The government and local authorities should complement each others efforts in crime response. Accountability is key to the success of the restorative justice model as society is usually at a crossroads on whom to blame especially where juvenile crime is concerned. The individual responsibility of the concerned person cannot be ignored.

Schools, communities and families should all ensure that offenders make amends for losses occasioned by their delinquency. This is markedly different from incarceration where all that matters is that the offender is kept away from society. This model requires offenders to redress the victims and the community in general for the harm caused through provision of community services, monetary restitution etc. For it to be fully beneficial, it should have a component that educates young people on the impact of their actions on others.

Community and restorative justice models differ from the traditional punitive models as the latter views crime as an act against the state whilst the more modern model sees crime as being personal and also as a violation of the community. In the traditional model, crime is viewed as an individual act with individual responsibility but in the emerging model, it has both an individual and social dimension. Victims are also on the periphery in comparison to restorative justice which sees the victim as being central to resolving the crime.

Other stark contrasts include punishment and retribution being the sole objective of the old ways. In the emerging models of justice, accountability entails assuming responsibility and making amends. Finally, reconciliation and restoration are achieved in restorative justice through pain and mediation. Traditionally, crime deterrence is achieved by inflicting pain through punishment (Torbet, Gable, Hurst & Montgomery, 1996). These approaches have received more support and acceptance mainly because they are cost effective and they have no stigma attached to them.

These programs also work with offenders in their ‘natural’ environment rather than in an artificial setting that is a prison facility. Reintegration back into the community does not arise as rehabilitation happens in the full glare of the community (Cole & Smith, 2006). Restorative justice has numerous benefits to various sectors of society. For offenders, it uses age and appropriate development dynamics to change a young person’s way of thinking. It encourages the family/community of the offending party to support their young person whilst avoiding excessive and long term incarceration.

To the offender’s community, it enables them to participate actively in the decision making and the planning process. The offending family’s impact is also looked into. To the wider community, it provides an opportunity for a diverse range of relationships to form while at the same time promoting healing and restoring harmony. The benefits to the justice system are also worth mentioning as it provides alternative sentencing and improved victim satisfaction with the justice process. It also strengthens the community’s belief in the justice system. Lastly, these new emerging models recognize and respond to cultural diversity.

This is because they encourage the involvement of family members and other significant members of the offender’s community. This is achieved by taking advantage of resources that are already available within the family and the community. In conclusion, the restorative justice model focuses beyond retribution to reconciliation. Being a victim centered approach, it offers an opportunity to the victim to find healing and find answers to such questions as why the crime was committed, how the offender can be made accountable and how to enable the community to overcome its fear of crime.

This enables the victim to come to terms with the harm suffered thus empowering him/her to begin the healing process. This model has been a definite success as offenders restored in this way have a lower chance of re-offending and it leaves community members satisfied.


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