Courts, Law, and Justice


Edited by: William J. Chambliss

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    Introduction: What Makes an Act a Crime?

    What makes an act a crime? “Thou shalt not kill” certainly does not apply to the law. One may kill in self defense, if under duress, or to protect your own property. Law enforcement officers and executioners may kill another human being, as can soldiers under orders. Furthermore, at a bare minimum, for an act to be a crime, it must be the result of an overt act or omission to act when one is legally responsible to do so; must be intentional (in most but not all cases); must have caused harm; and must have a causal relationship between the act and the harm.

    Even knowing these principles, however, does not mean that no one is ever found guilty and punished for acts that do not meet these criteria. The roles in the criminal justice system, from police to judges, are filled by fallible human beings; no set of rules or principles can guarantee that role, and that occupants will not find ways to circumvent them.

    The chapters in this volume cover a wide range of topics, including drug and gun control laws, as well as numerous chapters that discuss the ins and outs of the justice system once suspected offenders are arrested, during the trial process, and during sentencing.

    The chapter Drug Laws (Dombrink) gives a historical overview of American drug policy, including changing drug laws over time and the movement to have drugs decriminalized. He explains the pros and cons of current drug policies, international efforts, and the recent changes in America to reduce drug-related crime and harm. Gun Control Laws (McGuire) looks at gun control laws in America and discusses America's unique culture and history, which has led to gun control laws being highly contested by many Americans.

    Legal issues pertaining to the investigative process once a suspected offender has been taken into custody are reviewed. Miranda Rights (Candela) discusses suspects' rights prior to and since the landmark Miranda decision, which address an individual's Fifth Amendment rights. In addition to discussing the Miranda v. Arizona case, Candela details the pros and cons of Miranda and how court cases have since limited Miranda. Scott-Hayward's chapter Polygraphs and Inman and Beck's chapter DNA Testing explain the impact that technology has had on the investigation process, how polygraphs and DNA testing works, and to what degree the information obtained through polygraph and DNA testing has been allowed in criminal trials.

    Legal and procedural issues during the prosecution of suspected offenders are also covered in this volume. Binnall's Exclusionary Rules outlines the development of the legal doctrine that enables courts to exclude certain pieces of evidence from trial due to unconstitutional police and/or investigation tactics, its constitutional basis, and limitations to the doctrine as ruled by the courts. This chapter shows the impact investigations can have on prosecutions, and that court decisions can have on both investigations and prosecutions. Similarly, Steele's chapter Double Jeopardy examines the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states, “… nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb…” and discusses how court interpretations, over time, have impacted the justice system. Campbell's chapter Plea Bargaining reviews the development and spread of plea bargaining, including different types of plea bargaining, reasons for their use, and the consequences of plea bargaining. Binnall's Jury System discusses the development of the American jury system as well as the mechanics and laws pertaining to juries.

    This volume also contains extensive information about sentencing and punishments for crimes, including different types of offenses such as sex offenses and DUI. Grimes's chapter on Three-Strikes Laws and Fearn's Mandatory Sentencing chapter on mandatory minimums both help the reader understand the intended purposes of these laws, the variation of these laws across time and states, and the sociopolitical environment from which these laws developed. Evans's chapter Sex Offender Registry analyzes society's attempts to monitor and control sex offenders, especially following the highly publicized kidnappings, murders, and rapes of children such as Jacob Wetterling, Polly Klaas, and Megan Kanka. This chapter also discusses the ongoing debate over whether or not sex offense registries are constitutional or effective.

    Finally, Wood's chapter Restorative Justice looks at the role the victim plays during the prosecutorial process. Although the U.S. Constitution guarantees rights to suspects and convicted offenders, there are no constitutional rights specific to victims. Wood discusses how society and the justice system have changed over time, which has led to a call by victims' rights activists for changes in the justice system to allow victims to be more involved and protect them from being “re-victimized by the system.”

    Although the topics of this volume are quite varied, the authors all provide detailed overviews of the development of the justice system and give consideration to the contrasting leading opinions that support or denounce the laws and policies used during the investigative, prosecutorial, and sentencing processes.

    William J.Chambliss General Editor
  • About the General Editor

    William J. Chambliss is professor of sociology at The George Washington University. He has written and edited more than 25 books and numerous articles for professional journals in sociology, criminology, and law. His work integrating the study of crime with the creation and implementation of criminal law has been a central theme in his writings and research. His articles on the historical development of vagrancy laws, the legal process as it affects different social classes and racial groups, and his attempt to introduce the study of state-organized crimes into the mainstream of social science research have punctuated his career.

    He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors including a Doctorate of Laws Honoris Causa, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, 1999; the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award, Sociology of Law, American Sociological Association; the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award, Law and Society, Society for the Study of Social Problems; the 2001 Edwin H. Sutherland Award, American Society of Criminology; the 1995 Major Achievement Award, American Society of Criminology; the 1986. Distinguished Leadership in Criminal Justice, Bruce Smith, Sr. Award, Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences; and the 1985 Lifetime Achievement Award, Criminology, American Sociological Association.

    Professor Chambliss is a past president of the American Society of Criminology and past president of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. His current research covers a range of lifetime interests in international drug-control policy, class, race, gender and criminal justice and the history of piracy on the high seas.

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