U.S. Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system in the United States may seem daunting, at first glance. To the uninformed, it might seem like a complicated network of bureaucracy, with local, state and federal court systems in addition to specialized military and territorial courts. Once you understand what each level handles and how they all work together, however, it becomes easier to understand. 

The criminal justice system in the United States is based upon the U.S. Constitution. The federal criminal justice system deals with cases that are national, such as espionage, treason, and assassination or attempted assassination of government officials. State criminal justice systems handle crimes that have taken place in the state. Local criminal justice systems, usually at the county level but sometimes at the city level, deal with crimes that have happened within that jurisdiction. 

In the criminal justice system, no matter whether it’s at the federal, state or local level, there are three main components: law enforcement, the courts, and the correctional system. We will examine these three main components of the U.S. criminal justice system here. 

The Law Enforcement System

Law enforcement is responsible for enforcing the laws of the U.S. When they are broken, as crime has been committed. Police or detectives then investigate that crime to gather evidence, take witness statements, apprehend criminals, report their investigation findings, and conduct procedures under rules dictated by the law. Law enforcement must also uphold the rights of criminal offenders, victims and witnesses while doing this. 

Federal Law Enforcement System

Federal law enforcement agencies are primarily organized under U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, although there are independent agencies as well. Here’s how they are categorized:

U.S. Department of Justice, with major agencies including but not limited to:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • U.S. Marshal Service
  • U.S. Attorneys
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons
  • Drug Enforcement Administration
  • Office of the Inspector General
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, with major agencies including but not limited to:

  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • Transportation Security Administration
  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • U.S. Secret Service
  • Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency

Independent Agencies

  • Central Intelligence Agency
  • U.S. Postal Service
  • Department of the Interior agencies:
    • National Park Service
    • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

State and Local Law Enforcement Systems

Every state, and many jurisdictions (cities, counties, towns) within states, have their own law enforcement systems. Their structures vary, as do their names, but they carry the same mission as federal law enforcement agencies: to enforce laws, maintain the peace and order, and provide safety and security for inhabitants. 

The Courts

The court system in the United States is the second component of our criminal justice system. Courts are organized at federal, state, and local/county levels. 

Federal Courts

Federal courts hear cases involving the constitutionality of a law, cases that involve laws and treaties of U.S. ambassadors and public ministers, disputes between states, maritime law, and bankruptcy cases. Federal courts include:

U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the country. It consists of a Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices who are the final arbiters of the law

U.S. Courts of Appeals

Thirteen appellate courts sit below the U.S. Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. Its function is to determine if law was applied correctly at trial court.

Bankruptcy Appellate Panels

These are panels made of three judges who are authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. There are five circuits with established panels.

U.S. District Courts

There are 94 district or trial courts in the U.S. These courts resolve disputes by assessing facts and applying legal principles. They include a district judge and a jury. Magistrate judges also assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. Each state and the District of Columbia has at least one district court. Each district court includes a U.S. bankruptcy court.

U.S. Bankruptcy Courts

Federal courts have jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. Bankruptcy cases cannot be filed in state courts. 

Article I Courts

These courts, also known as legislative courts, don’t have full judicial power. They have power to hear specific cases involving the following issues:

  • U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
  • U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces
  • U.S. Tax Court

State Courts

Every state has its own court system. Most state court systems are structured like this:

  • Supreme Court
  • Court of Appeals
  • State Trial Courts, called Circuit Courts or District Courts
  • Courts handling specific legal matters:
    • Probate Court
    • Juvenile Court
    • Family Court
    • Traffic Court
    • Housing Court
    • Small-claims Court

States may have separate courts to handle criminal and civil matters, but in most states, a trial court of general jurisdiction handles both types of cases. State court cases are decided by judges and juries. State courts hear most criminal cases, probate cases, contract and tort cases, family law cases. They are the final arbiters of state laws and constitutions.

Trials may result in appeals to higher courts. After a conviction is handed down from either the trial court or appellate court, sentencing will occur. This is the penalty that is imposed on an offender found guilty of a crime. The judge decides the sentence, which could consist of incarceration, probation, fines, the death penalty, or a variety of other penalties.

The Correctional System

The U.S. Correctional System is the third component of our criminal justice system. It encompasses all sentenced offenders, including those in probation, parole, and correctional institutions. To read more about the U.S. Correctional System, see this page.