The Discretionary Powers of the Criminal Justice System of the United States

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The discretionary powers of the Criminal Justice system of the United States

By Jonell Fergsuon

“In the Criminal justice system the police, the prosecutors and corrections are afforded discretion with regard to enforcing and interpreting the law.” Here I will discuss both pros and cons with regards to the fair administration of justice in the United States.

The Police
The police are afforded a wide range of discretional powers, covering things from deciding whether or to arrest someone to determining disciplinary actions in the workplace. With regards to deciding to arrest someone, I can see many reasons why this discretion is necessary. For example the police come across two young girls in a park smoking marijuana. Now the law says lock them up, however the police can use their discretion and decide to lecture the girls about the dangers of drug use and let them off with a warning. This is a win-win for everyone involved the girls don’t get in trouble and the police can go back to focusing on more important crimes. However there are instances where this discretion can be a hindrance or annoyance to people in a neighborhood. Let’s say there is a young man standing in front of his building, the police walk up and tell him to move along. Now as far as the young man knows he’s not breaking any laws by standing there so he challenges the police’s authority. A few words are exchanged and the young man is arrested and charged with resisting arrest, the charges don’t stick and the case gets thrown out but the police were justified within the realm of their discretion to arrest him even though he broke no laws. The same goes for the discretion afforded to police with regard to the use of force. It is my opinion that they have too much leeway in this area. How can we the public differentiate between whether the use of force was justified or if that particular cop was having a bad day? We can’t. A cop can punch a 15 yr old girl in the face of shoot a man 40+ times and not be prosecuted for it. It all falls under their discretion, did they believe their lives were truly in danger? We may never know but having that that discretion to fall back on has allowed many a cop to get away with excessive uses of force. There is also the discretion police have in the workplace when it comes to disciplinary actions of officers. One can clearly deduce the logic for such a system. It is in the best interest of the commanding officer to maintain moral to give an officer a slap on the wrist for something like incorrectly filing a form or time spent in the station than to throw the book at them for every minor infraction. The downside here is that officers end up with a feeling that can’t be touched, that the rules don’t apply to them. This to me is the overall issue when it comes to the discretion afforded to police. Not the amount of it but the abuse of it. Particularly when dealing with the youths. Both sociological and psychological factors influence the use of police discretionary powers. There are said to be strong relationships between authoritarianism, for example, and justice outcomes. Other measures, such as cynicism and punitiveness, have been observed to be influential predictors of police behavior. Extending the work on jury decision-making, along with other police research, the present research examines use of police discretionary powers with young offenders. Sworn police officers from two jurisdictions, New Zealand and New South Wales, responded to written surveys about their past and intended future behavior surrounding four crimes most commonly conducted by young offenders. In all, over 500 officers took part in the studies. Further, participants responded to a battery of personality and attitude questionnaires, along with questions about situational variables normally taken into consideration by officers. Results show that police behavior towards the same offending varies...
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