The Role of Ethics in Criminal Justice

female judge studying court cases

Ethics are at the heart of a functional society and its institutions, including its criminal justice system. To take a closer look at the role of ethics in criminal justice, it is necessary to understand exactly what ethics means. Broadly speaking, ethics are the principles that guide the standards and behavior of an individual, society, system or organization. Ethical issues can be complex since they involve questions of moral principles and judgment. For the criminal justice system to work as intended, every individual and organization that is part of it must consistently behave ethically.

Ethics in Law Enforcement Organizations

Law enforcement officers and organizations have tremendous authority. Every position of authority holds the potential for abuse of that authority. Law enforcement officers must strive to continuously conduct themselves in a way befitting the ethical standards of their profession. For instance, law enforcement officers are expected to comply with applicable legal standards. Similarly, officers are ethically bound to report legal violations committed by fellow officers. Internal affairs officers are obligated to objectively and thoroughly investigate all complaints made against police officers, whether those complaints were issued by fellow officers or by citizens.

Ethics in Legal Representation

Just like law enforcement officers, criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors must comply with their profession’s ethical standards. Prosecutors, for example, must display the following behaviors:

  • Ensure that the accused has been advised of his or her rights and has had a reasonable opportunity to secure counsel.
  • Disclose to the defense any evidence or information that raises questions about or undermines the perceived guilt of the defendant.

Likewise, defense attorneys are expected to follow certain ethical standards, as established by the American Bar Association and similar professional organizations. For example, defense attorneys are expected to diligently investigate their clients’ cases and serve as effective advocates within the bounds of the law. For these professionals, ethical issues can be quite complex, since defense attorneys are both officers of the court and advocates for their clients. They must behave ethically within the law’s scope while simultaneously acting with integrity to provide their client with an adequate defense.

Ethics in Civic Participation

A democratic government encourages and requires the participation of its citizens. However, in the world of criminal justice, civic participation is often downplayed or forgotten entirely. For a criminal justice system to truly serve its citizens, citizens must participate in that system. For example, the court system relies on eligible citizens to serve as jurors when called upon. Individuals who serve on a jury have an ethical obligation to pay close attention to the case, understand the law and vote on a verdict in a manner that is aligned with the interpretation of the law.

It is often difficult, if not impossible, for law enforcement officers to do their jobs properly if witnesses do not step forward with needed information. The reluctance of witnesses to step forward can be attributed to multiple factors, such as fear of retaliation by alleged criminals. Although witnesses have an ethical obligation to share information with the police, police officers have an ethical obligation to protect those witnesses and verify that the information is accurate before acting upon it.

A related issue is the matter of reporting alleged crimes. A functional criminal justice system is dependent upon everyday citizens reporting crimes or suspected criminal activity. Citizens are ethically obligated to report crimes, even if the crime does not directly affect them. For instance, a person might call the police after hearing screams coming from the apartment next door. Citizens also have an ethical duty to avoid making false reports based on preconceived biases.

Professional ethics and servant leadership are at the heart of the Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies degree program at Grand Canyon University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Students who already hold a bachelor’s degree may choose to enhance their career qualifications by earning a Master of Science in Criminal Justice with an Emphasis in Law Enforcement. We invite you to explore our online learning community further by clicking on the Request Info button above.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University.

Loading Form


Scroll back to top