Ethical considerations are an integral part of criminal justice as both an academic discipline and a profession. In addition to the importance of adherence to ethical guidelines among persons working at multiple levels of lawmaking, policing, courts, and corrections, it is equally important that those teaching, conducting scholarship, and performing services in academic criminal justice subscribe to ethical tenets. The major ethical code in academic criminal justice is that promulgated by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS). ACJS is an international association that was founded in 1963 to advance the development of both professional and scholarly activities in criminal justice through education, research, and policy analysis. As a community of scholars, field practitioners, policy analysts, and students, ACJS is a diverse organization chiefly concerned with circulating new and existing theories, research findings, and practices. Like related organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, the American Political Science Association, and the American Sociological Association, ACJS has adopted a formal code of ethics designed to guide the practices of members and maintain the integrity of the discipline. The code expressly does not apply to activities of members that are purely personal in nature.
The proposal for a formal code of ethics to govern the criminal justice community was initiated by Richard Bennett in 1998 when he chaired the ethics committee of the American Society of Criminology (ASC). Given insufficient interest in ASC at the time, the proposal was taken to the ACJS executive board, where it found greater receptivity. While no particular event precipitated interest in an ethical code, ACJS members believed it was time to establish basic ethical guidelines by which all members should abide, so a committee was formed to address the matter. The Code of Ethics of the American Sociological Association (ASA) served as the model from which the ACJS code was developed. According to Lawrence Rhoades, discussion over a code of ethics in ASA dates to 1951, with the first draft appearing in 1963 and approval from the ASA membership taking place in 1969.
Based on ASA permission, the ACJS Code of Ethics mirrors the ASA document; except for some language modifications, no major departures were made. According to committee member Mary Stohr, the process followed by the committee in drafting the ACJS code was collaborative and democratic, and included a wide range of input. After the final draft had been developed by the committee, the document was presented to the ACJS executive board. The board identified some problems (e.g., disagreements over sanctions), but eventually questions were resolved, and the ACJS Code of Ethics was passed by the majority of members on March 21, 2000. Adherence to the code thereby became an official condition of membership in the organization. There have been no changes to the document since its approval.
The three sections composing the ACJS Code of Ethics lay out the general ethical principles of the organization, provide members with ethical standards regarding their responsibilities and professional conduct, and establish policies and procedures for enforcement. The code also describes composition of the ACJS ethics committee, along with that body’s mandate for both specific allegations of ethical violations and general questions about ethics. The code is intended to safeguard against personal biases, viewpoints, and ideologies unduly affecting criminal justice scholarship and administration.
The General Principles section discusses the proper use of criminal justice knowledge and the expectations of members in their professional roles. Some central values underpinning the ACJS code include universal respect in research and practice, avoidance of intentional harm, and recognition of diversity among colleagues, students, practitioners, crime victims, and those accused or convicted of committing crimes.
The next section explicates the ethical standards that are to be upheld by all members of the organization. This section is organized according to the official position held by members and sets forth rules and guidelines that should be followed in specific situations. Subsections include guidelines for members of the academy functioning in capacities as teachers, supervisors, and administrators; researchers; participants in the publication and review process; employers, managers, supervisors, employees, and sponsors; experts; practitioners; and students. The Ethical Standards Section also outlines principles for adherence. For example, members of the organization are encouraged to be familiar with the content of the Code of Ethics, nondiscriminatory toward anyone who has filed an ethical complaint, and cooperative in any ethical violation complaint investigations.
The final section of the ACJS Code of Ethics discusses the policies and procedures used to ensure that members of the organization adhere to the guidelines of the code. This section specifies composition and responsibilities of the ACJS ethics committee for investigating and resolving ethical violations and provides a range of actions that may be taken in addressing complaints. To account for different scenarios and contexts in which the Code of Ethics may be applied, the rules and sanctions for ethical violations are written broadly so that all conduct may be fairly judged.
There is no official process for monitoring member compliance with the ACJS Code of Ethics. For an ethics investigation to be initiated, a member or nonmember of ACJS must file a complaint against a member with the seven-person ACJS ethics committee, which includes the immediate past president of the organization. The committee chair and the current ACJS president determine whether the complaint is covered by the code, and if so, communicate with the accused party and solicit a response. After deliberating on the complaint and response, the ethics committee decides through majority vote whether to dismiss the case, seek additional information, appoint a mediator (from the ACSJ membership) who is acceptable to both parties, or proceed to a formal hearing.
Mediation that does not culminate in a resolution may result in either dismissal of the complaint or a hearing. Hearings are conducted by a three member panel of the ethics committee selected by the chair, and the ACJS code stipulates provisions for due process at hearings. If the panel finds an ethical violation, it reports findings and a recommendation to the full ethics committee, which in turn shares the report with the parties to the complaint. The parties then have an opportunity to submit written comments. Final determination is made by the ACJS executive board based on all input. The board may dismiss the complaint, accept it as founded but apply no sanctions, issue a private or public reprimand, deny membership privileges for a specific period, or terminate membership (with the latter two actions becoming public record).
According to both Richard Bennett and Mary Stohr, few complaints have been filed with the ethics committee since the establishment of the ACJS Code of Ethics in March 2000. The ultimate impact of any professional code of ethics on the behavior of organizational members can be difficult to ascertain due to undetected and unreported violations, combined with challenges inherent in demonstrating deterrence. At the same time, the ACJS code, like its counterparts in analogous organizations, serves as a public declaration of the academy’s stance toward professional ethics and provides members with guidelines for tailoring the conduct of their professional activities around particular situations and circumstances.
- Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. “Code of Ethics.” http://www.acjs.org/pubs/167_671_2922.cfm (Accessed May 2013).
- American Bar Association. “Model Rules of Professional Conduct.” http://www.americanbar. org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/model_rules_of_professional_conduct/ model_rules_of_professional_conduct_table_of_contents.html. (Accessed May 2013).
- Rhoades, Lawrence J. “A History of the American Sociological Association, 1905–1980.” http://www.asanet.org/about/Rhoades_History.cfm (Accessed May 2012).
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