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    Legal and Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice

    Legal and Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice Part I

    This module will refresh your recollection on legal and ethical issues in Criminal Justice.  As you will recall, from MCJ625, the major sources of criminal justice ethics, including natural and constitutional law, professional codes of ethics, and their characteristics are critical to understanding issues of constitutionalism, public service, and professionalism.  In this field professionals are constantly confronted with scenarios that require critical analysis from a legal and ethical perspective.

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    Revisiting Criminal Justice Ethics

    As you will recall from when you took MCJ625 Legal and Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice, the discipline of ethics encompasses a wide range of human behaviors, actions, and statements, as well as the evaluation of their consequences. While other humanistic disciplines may concern themselves with moral issues, only ethics makes value judgments concerning the “goodness” or “badness” of such issues. It must also be emphasized that, as a science of valuation, ethical studies establish moral theories regardless of whether the individuals concerned approve or disapprove or whether public opinion agrees or disagrees.

    Ethical theories are usually stated in general, abstract, or ideal terms. They introduce general principles that can explain a wide variety of cases, determine the validity of moral principles, and further knowledge in other disciplines. Basic to understanding ethics is the rule of reasonableness—the principle that, unlike law, can be proven only by the criterion of reasonableness.

    For an ethical principle to be valid, it must meet three basic standards: (1) consistency within itself and the absence of contradiction, (2) the inclusion of all relevant facts, and (3) fitting the human experience.

    Ethical theories are divided into two major categories: normative ethics and metaethics. Theories of normative ethics determine which moral standards to follow and which actions are considered morally right or wrong. The field of normative ethics is divided into two subcategories: deontological theory puts the emphasis of moral valuation on the action itself, while teleological theory focuses on the consequences. Metaethics, on the other hand, is the study of the methods, language, logical structure, and reasoning used in arriving at or in justifying moral judgment.

    There are three different views on the origin of ethics: (1) the metaphysical/eternal law view, (2) the religious view, and (3) the social/legalistic view. The metaphysical/eternal law view believes in the supernatural and considers the function of the “soul” to be the source of good. The religious view argues that ethical principles began with the creation of human beings. The social/legalistic view holds that ethics is the product of social and legal experiences. The origin of ethics in this view is found in the cultural environment that envelops man’s existence.

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    Legal and Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice Part II

    Understanding Criminal Justice Ethics

    Regardless of the large body of literature on ethics, the origins of criminal justice ethics mainly can be found in five sources: (1) natural law, (2) religious testaments, (3) constitutional provisions, (4) professional codes of ethics, and (5) philosophical theories.

    Natural law can be defined as the sanctions that regulate the behavior of individuals and groups on the basis of common universal traits and experiences. Natural law transcends legislative or legal provisions of government. In the field of criminal justice, natural law focuses on the abolition of slavery, torture, illegal detention, and the preservation of human dignity. Understanding natural law theory serves to establish a hierarchical order of virtues: professional virtues, American virtues, and human virtues.

    Religious testaments have a significant role in the ethical development of individuals and the stability of society. In explaining the function of religion, numerous authors offer their views on the subject. In general, they view the chief function of religion as providing society with a sense of morality and responsibility. Regardless of how secular ethics has been, religious beliefs continue to shape ethical behavior.

    U.S. Constitutional provisions represent the highest law of the land. They establish a social contract between the governors and the governed. Constitutional provisions are central to the ethics of criminal justice because they define what is “just” and what is “unjust.” This position may be too narrow a view and may be considered either ethical definism or constitutional absolutism. On the other hand, if one takes the position that what is just or unjust can be determined by principles independent of, and antecedent to, the institution of government, one would certainly be expressing a higher level of ethical awareness and manifesting broader intellectual judgment.

    Associated with the concept of constitutional ethics are the principles of legitimacy, ethical discretion, and incorruptibility. The idea of legitimacy means that “an unjust law is not a law at all.” The prevailing view is that a law that does not embody reason, or is not conducive to common good, should be rescinded, amended, or simply disregarded. Incorruptibility is a state of ethical awareness that directs one’s life in accordance with standards of integrity, self-respect, and excellence.

    Codes of ethics are institutional guidelines used to reinforce ethical conduct by practitioners. They serve two major purposes. First, they provide moral guidelines for criminal justice practitioners. Second, they define the professional behavior of the workplace. All codes of ethics seek to cultivate two virtues: ethics of public service and ethics of professionalism. Dedicated public servants put public good above private gain, professional practices above self-interest, and cherish the values of reasoning, honesty, and self-discipline.

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