Note: We use the term “criminal justice system” in this article to highlight the difference between this phrase and “criminal legal system.” We’ll be using “criminal legal system” in future articles.
The term “criminal justice system” is used in the U.S to reference the broad, complex system that addresses criminal activity. This includes everything from law enforcement to sentencing and trials, the justice system, prisons and jails, and the legislation that deems what’s considered illegal. The word “justice” in the phrase implies that the system seeks justice against those who engage in criminal activity. But evidence proves that the system is anything but just. That’s why academics and advocates are increasingly using the term “criminal legal system” to more accurately reflect the system’s role and limitations. You might also see the term “criminal injustice system” used for the same reasons, which is less common.
From its infancy, the criminal justice system we know today has been designed to protect and prioritize white supremacist policies, practices, and people. Most people who experience the “criminal justice system” are often victims of injustice, like being held without sentencing because they can’t reach bail or being racially profiled during a routine traffic stop. And even if someone does do something illegal, it doesn’t warrant undue bodily harm or death. We’ve written about the fallacies of the criminal justice system in-depth and recommend reviewing recent articles on our website.
• Shift your language to “criminal legal system” and notice how it changes the context of conversations around state-sanctioned injustices.
• Consider: What does justice mean to you? How would you like to see justice-centered in the legal system? Outside of the legal system? Who is afforded justice?
But the criminal justice system has a more insidious harmful impact on the same people it targets. The disparities in our criminal justice system mean that low-income and communities of color are overpoliced and underinvested. As resources are funneled towards policing marginalized communities, other forms of crime go unchecked – like wage theft violations and housing-related complaints, crimes that disproportionately impact poor people and people of color. More broadly, state funding for policing often comes at the expense of investments in social services that marginalized groups depend on more than their affluent counterparts.
In truth, the “criminal justice system” does little to invest in justice. Much of our criminal justice system relies on incarceration, which the Sentencing Project refers to as “a bicycle stuck on one gear.” Incarceration alone is insufficient to serve justice. Justice requires a comprehensive investment into diverse forms of social care, from quality education and healthcare to clean air, accessible mental health services, and more. It requires legislation that protects the wellbeing of those most vulnerable. And it has to be rooted in tangible efforts to repair decades of disenfranchisement and exploitation.
You might be reading this and thinking, “this seems silly. If the system is so broken, changing one word isn’t going to do much to solve it.” And you’re right! Shifting language alone does little to dismantle an antiquated and unfair system. But our language matters – and by changing our terminology, we help to contextualize the important advocacy work happening to reimagine what safety and belonging look like. Quite frankly, it’s the least we can do because there is no justice in a system that fails to protect the most vulnerable and prides itself on fairness at their expense.