I believe that there are many values that the criminal justice system should hold sacred. The main one being: to seek justice. It seems an obvious choice and yet our history highlights numerous scenarios that depict how our criminal justice system, in many cases, does not exhibit justice, or at least not equally for all. Every single actor within the criminal justice system, from a court bailiff, to a judge, to an attorney, to a police officer, should remind themselves daily that they may be employed by “City X Police Department” or “Prison X” but that they work for justice. I also believe that actors within the criminal justice system should hold higher standards of ethics and be beyond reproach in areas such as honesty, integrity and honor. Along with justice, these should be their prima facie goals. My beliefs appear to lie in those of virtue-based ethics—justice, honesty, integrity, and honor are all key virtues that I believe, if upheld, cannot steer one wrong.
There are many ethical theories of behavior, but knowing ethical theories and actually acting ethical are two very different things. We must learn to be ethical and practice virtues of justice, honesty, etc. on a daily basis until they become a part of our being as much as the breaths we take—we do not think about inhaling and filling our lungs with oxygen so that we may live, we simply do it automatically, without second thought—this is how we should be with virtue as well. A lofty goal, perhaps, and one I feel as imperfect beings, with passionate emotions and self-preservation instincts, may be unobtainable even throughout an entire lifetime. However, if we strive toward this goal, even if the goal is never obtained, simply striving for it will make us better persons.
Out of all the ethical theories, in relation to criminal justice I feel that the peacemaking view may be the most promising for our future. While I have some reservations about its long-term ability to deter crime (if used without punitive measures as well), there is something that rings true about caring for individuals who have offended. Many of them have the deviant and antisocial personalities that they do because of perceptions they have toward society in general; they believe that nobody cares for them and that others think they are better than them. They expect to be punished, but not to be cared for. Perhaps caring, as opposed to punishing, could affect a change within the offender for the better which would lower recidivism. In certain circumstances, utilitarian and deontological views have their place, especially deontology.
What we know about normative ethics, metaethics, and applied ethics within the criminal justice arena is that, while they offer some important and helpful insights, they are not wholly capable of providing clear cut answers to many moral dilemmas—in fact, often they contradict each other. The study of ethics is a branch of philosophy; philosophy is by its very nature complex and questions more than it answers unequivocally. This does not lend much to the stringent legalities comprising every occupation within the criminal justice field. It can assist with the thinking process on moral dilemmas and offer guidance, but cannot provide answers. Several occupations within the CJA (criminal justice apparatus) have created their own code of ethics, such as the American Bar Association (ABA), so that there are definitive answers to certain moral questions. Attorney’s can refer to the ABA standards; police officers can refer to their sworn oath and any ethical codes of conduct employed by their particular department.
We have seen that in some cases, some ethical theories validate immoral actions. I keep asking myself, how can this be? How can we call something an “ethical” theory if it promotes unethical acts? For example, the most blatant affront is by the personal egoist theory. I question why this is even proposed as an ethical theory. It is more or less simply a selfish self-preservation tactic as opposed to any guideline toward any resemblance of morality. To propose it as an option under ethical theories, in my opinion, is a disservice to the study of ethics and I believe it sends the wrong message to allow it to be a “choice” amongst ethical reasoning for anyone’s actions.
I believe our current criminal justice system is built around a deontological perspective. Each actor has a duty to perform that is explicitly defined and each actor is expected to perform their duties unquestionably even in the face of ethical dilemmas. The contradiction this causes, in some cases, between doing one’s duty and acting ethically, is a direct result of the fact that our criminal justice system itself is not 100% virtuous. But should that not be our goal? We all know that something legal is not necessarily something moral. Well . . . shouldn’t it be? I believe in order to evolve as human beings, our criminal justice system needs to evolve as well. Laws that are not moral or do not promote morality should be revisited. There should never be a contradiction between criminal justice actors needing to behave unethically in order to fulfill their duties. I am not foolish enough to believe that a change toward a virtue-based legal system can happen abruptly, or easily, or even without decades of effort by thousands of people who want to see a better system, leading to a better world; however, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and even those small single steps toward valuing a virtue-based legal system will be an improvement as we progress on the journey.