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Ethics of Criminal Justice

Ethics, or rules of principles, are composed of natural law, religious, constitutional, professional, and philosophical principles. Although these principles are easily understood, natural law may need further clarification. Natural law is the sanction that regulates the behaviors of people on the basis of universal traits and common experiences (Souryal, 2010). This law is comparable to common law, civil law, and religious law. Natural law guides natural rights, or human entitlement, such as life, liberty, and freedom. The ethical implication of natural law is to maintain dignity equally, regardless of whether practitioners agree. Criminal justice practitioners should follow the common standards of natural law, including treating people with dignity, governing with reason, not challenging equality of the people, governing people with ethical behaviors that lead to societal contentment, maintaining peace in accordance with the goals of justice, and depending on natural law when formal rules are unavailable. Understanding the concept of natural law allows police to follow the hierarchical order of virtues: human, American, and professional. Human virtues are the highest level and are represented by a dedication to natural law, the service of justice in the interest of society, and the fairness exhibited despite contradicting procedures or pressures. American virtues are the second highest level and are composed of a commitment to the Constitution of the United States, including the ideas of liberty, equality, justice, due process, rationality, protection, and accountability. In the criminal justice profession, American virtues are equally important to human virtues. The final virtue is professional and is the lowest ranking because it indicates that a person is part of a profession, which does not necessarily make someone ethical (Souryal, 2003). The hierarchy of virtues is helpful when dealing with issues and provides a basis for ethical behavior in criminal justice.

Ethics is a defining characteristic of the police profession as it consists of the behaviors and attitudes of police officers while acting under the law. It is important to understand the relationship between the law, morals, and ethics. As Fleckstein (2001) notes, laws are intended to treat everyone the same, whereas morality is personal and may be applied differently. Ethics are meant to complement and reinforce the law, not to undermine it. Laws are ever changing, whereas ethics are constant. Laws are logical, reactive instruments of social control, whereas ethics are regulatory and based on reasoning. Finally, the success of laws is based on procedures and enforcement of rules, whereas the success of ethics is based on knowledge, reason, and kindness. An excellent example of the merger between law and ethics is provided by the U.S. Constitution. It is a guide that provides the truths of social contract for citizens and government. Although the constitutional provisions do not include all moral issues, they are important when discussing ethics in criminal justice because they provide a starting point and state what is just and unjust (Rawls, 1971). Ethics should be carried out by lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, and police officers according to proper practice of the profession. These individuals must have enough knowledge to discern between the ends of justice and the means of justice. The ends of justice refer to the moral responsibility of officers to uphold civic duties, whereas the means of justice refer to one’s concern for rejecting popular justice. To what extent does a morally good end justify illegal or unethical means? Is overstepping authority to achieve what one perceives as a higher good justified? Answers are difficult because one questions if the decision maker has all of the facts, is able to predict possible ends before choosing means, and is aware of all higher goods, and, finally, if the decision maker is acting in good faith (Souryal, 2003).

If ethics is a defining characteristic of the law enforcement profession, it is important to observe how unethical behavior may occur. Police organizations are primarily bureaucratic, formal, and impersonal, which could generate frustrated employees. In addition, mismanagement and discrimination during hiring and promotion are issues that create conflict in agencies. When the officers are unhappy, subcultures within the agency may form and follow beliefs, values, and methods that counter those of the primary culture. The goal of such micro-subcultures is survival in what is viewed as the larger, more unfair culture of the agency. These subcultures may abuse authority; this can cause resentment among other officers, which could lead to informal coping mechanisms that may eventually lead to unethical behavior. It is often stated by members of police subcultures that the public owes the police something, when in reality the officers are in place to serve the needs of the public. The values of subcultures may often lead to unprofessional or even criminal acts that are justified as legitimate procedure. Examples of actions that are wrong, although justified (by members) within the subculture, include lying to suspects or victims, misuse of authority, perjury as a means to defend a partner, or brutality. Subcultures create obvious professional and ethical problems for an agency. The main ethical objections to occupational subcultures are as follows:

  • • They violate the ethics of public service and allow for community doubt.
  • • They undermine the relationship between justice practitioners and clients.
  • • They allow goals to go unachieved.
  • • They are conducive to corruption, which could destroy the integrity of an agency.
  • • They are based on ignorance, bias, and egoism.

Subcultures can tarnish the reputation of an otherwise outstanding agency, including employees who are honest, ethical officers and have no part in the subculture. The awareness of subcultures and the scrutiny that police agencies are under encourage progress in eliminating such groups and maintaining a positive environment (Souryal, 2014). Such steps are a testament to police leaders and managers for instilling positive values while educating employees.

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