The Idea of "The Criminal Justice System"
The phrase “the criminal justice system” is ubiquitous in discussions of criminal law, policy, and punishment in the United States — so ubiquitous that almost no one thinks to question the phrase. However, this way of describing and thinking about police, courts, jails, and prisons, as a holistic “system,” dates only to the 1960s. This essay contextualizes the idea of “the criminal justice system” within the rise of systems theories more generally within intellectual history and the history of science. The essay first recounts that more general history of systems thinking and then reconstructs how it converged, in 1967, with the career of a young systems engineer working for President Johnson’s Crime Commission, whose contributions to the 1967 report The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society launched the modern and now pervasive idea of “the criminal justice system.” Throughout, the essay reflects upon the assumptions and premises that go along with thinking about any complex phenomenon as a “system” and asks whether, in the age of mass incarceration, it is perhaps time to discard the idea, or at least to reflect more carefully upon its uses and limitations. For instance, one pernicious consequence of “criminal justice system” thinking may to be distort appellate judges’ interpretations of Fourth Amendment doctrine, because they imagine their rulings to be hydraulically connected in a “system” with crime rates.