Decision making in criminal justice involves more than the learning of rules and the application of them to specific cases. Decisions are based on discretion, that is, the individual exercise of judgment to make choices about alternative courses of action. Discretion, or making decisions without formal rules, is common in criminal justice. Discretion comes into play whenever police make choices about whether to arrest, investigate, search, question, or use force. Similarly, prosecutors exercise individual judgment in deciding whether to charge a person with a crime and whether to plea‐bargain. Judges also use discretion when setting bail, accepting or rejecting plea bargains, ruling on pretrial motions, and sentencing. Parole board members exercise discretion when deciding whether and when to release inmates from prison.
- Maintaining order. Criminal law provides predictability, letting people know what to expect from others. Without criminal law, there would be chaos and uncertainty.
- Resolving disputes. The law makes it possible to resolve conflicts and disputes between quarreling citizens. It provides a peaceful, orderly way to handle grievances.
- Protecting individuals and property. Criminal law protects citizens from criminals who would inflict physical harm on others or take their worldly goods. Because of the importance of property in capitalist America, many criminal laws are intended to punish those who steal.
- Providing for smooth functioning of society. Criminal law enables the government to collect taxes, control pollution, and accomplish other socially beneficial tasks.
- Safeguarding civil liberties. Criminal law protects individual rights.
Criminal justice is a process, involving a series of steps beginning with a criminal investigation and ending with the release of a convicted offender from correctional supervision. Rules and decision making are at the center of this process.