Corruption of Institutional Authority Essay

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Authority is an inherent part of the criminal justice system. It is integral to each profession within the system, as well as to the very purpose of the system. If individuals did not perceive the professionals of the criminal justice system as possessing authority, they would not obey laws, they would not follow regulations, they would not accept judgments, and they would not endure punishments. Because authority is so important for the criminal justice system to function, the corruption of authority within the institutions that make up the criminal justice system is one of the greatest ethical dilemmas currently facing the practitioners of the criminal justice system.

Authority is a form of power. It is a power that demands obedience. When individuals have authority over someone else, they have the ability to demand that person’s obedience to any directive. They influence behavior and exert control over that person. Authority in the criminal justice system is inherent in the social contract. The social contract states that human beings give up some rights and freedoms in order to be protected against attempts to infringe upon the personal and property rights and freedoms that remain. The criminal justice system is designed to provides that protection and when that protection fails, it provide compensation and/or punishment as needed.

Each element of the criminal justice system works alone and in concert to fulfill this duty to society. Each element of the criminal justice system, therefore, shares in the authority of the system. The primary aspect of this authority is in its greatest power, the ability to deprive an individual of liberty or even of life. Each section of the criminal justice system approaches this ability in a different fashion and each of those approaches leave room for potential abuse of authority and the power it wields. The fact that the authority invested in the different elements of the criminal justice system is imbued with so much power makes it ripe for corruption.

The criminal justice system begins with its gatekeepers, the law enforcement professionals. To a certain degree, these individuals possess the greatest potential for abuse of authority. Most law enforcement professionals operate alone or in small groups, they have the greatest amount of discretion for meting out punishment. They have the authority to make arrests and in the most extreme cases the authority to end someone’s life. Any interaction between law enforcement professionals and the public is based in their authority. The possession of authority by law enforcement professionals results in a demand for respect and an expectation that their instructions and orders will be obeyed.

Law enforcement professionals, however, are human; they possess the same failings, prejudices, and temptations as others in the community from which they have been chosen. Because of this, a law enforcement professional can abuse his or her authority in a variety of ways, such as targeting individuals for tickets or stops based on race, age, gender, or other demographic traits. Law enforcement professionals seeking to abuse or misuse their authority can exercise excessive force, engage in discriminatory profiling, or commit illegal acts, such as theft, blackmail, or criminal threats in order to force an individual to submit to their will. The power to arrest gives great authority to a law enforcement professional and the threat of arrest can be used and misused to encourage different behaviors among citizens. Likewise, the power to use force and thereby the threat of force can be used and abused in the same way. Further, individuals may attempt to influence the authority possessed by law enforcement through bribes or graft.

Prosecutors hold in their profession the authority to pursue or dismiss a criminal case. They present the evidence in a criminal case to the jury and the judge. They can abuse their authority by targeting groups or individuals in a discriminatory fashion. They can falsify reports, withhold evidence, or direct investigations and harassment campaigns. They can use and misuse their authority in the plea-bargaining process as well. In most cases, the prosecutor is perceived to have the upper hand regarding authority in a criminal trial, and it is possible for that authority to be corrupted. Historically, bribes and graft have not been uncommon in this section of the criminal justice system.

Defense attorneys are in some ways the failsafe of the criminal justice system. Their presence should provide the accused with a sense of protection. They have the authority to stand up to the prosecution and the judge and any witness in defense of their client. The adversarial nature of the American criminal justice system gives authority to defense attorneys. The defense attorney corrupts his or her authority through action and inaction. If a defense attorney does not seek to provide the fullest defense for their client, if he or she is lazy or uninterested in the plight of the client, or if he or she engages in backroom deals with the prosecutor or judge to suppress evidence or “railroad” a client, the defense attorney has allowed his or her authority within the system to be corrupted.

Judges hold the authority of the courtroom. In some cases, a judge is the sole authority in the courtroom, such as in cases where the trial is held before the bench, instead of with the presence of a jury. Judges at various levels, such as courts of appeal, possess increased levels of judicial authority. As some judges are appointed and others elected, they may serve multiple masters within the community. This means that sometimes they will abuse their authority in order to serve political or personal purposes, corrupting their part of the criminal justice system for personal, social, or political gain.

Authority within the correctional system can be seen as greater than in other areas and fraught with opportunities for abuse and misuse. This is due to the fact that once an individual is mandated to the correctional system, his or her basic right to liberty has been removed. The individual is under the complete control of the professionals of the correctional system. The corruption of authority in the correctional system can result in excessive use of force, physical and even sexual abuse, denial of basic human rights, as well as harassment and other forms of victimization. In cases where an individual has been sentenced to probation, the probation officer’s authority carries opportunities for abuse and misuses, as myriad violations are at the probation officer’s disposal to decrease the liberty of the probationer. This opens up a wide range of opportunities for corruption and abuse. Parole boards and parole officers hold authority over the decision to return individuals to liberty and allow them to keep that liberty. This authority is also corruptible based on the nature of the position. Members of parole boards are typically common citizens who are accessible and may be malleable. Parole officers are often left to their own devices and are subject to the same pitfalls experienced by law enforcement.

Lawmakers and government officials are often seen as separate from the criminal justice system, however, without laws the criminal justice system would not exist and much of the criminal justice system is inherently political. Campaigns are run and elections won on lawmakers’ and government officials’ views of crime and justice. Because of this, while the criminal justice system serves the people, it can be directed by lawmakers and government officials to engage in various behaviors and campaigns that may call for the misuse or abuse of its authority in pursuit of the fulfillment of a campaign promise.

As an institution, the criminal justice system can be rife with opportunities and instances of the corruption of its authority. This can greatly impact the nature of interaction between the criminal justice system and the citizens that are to be served and protected by that system. The corruption of any aspect of the criminal

justice system can impact the entire system, as each element of the system feeds into the others and is influenced by its actions, inactions, and decisions.


  1. Benson, Bruce, “An Institutional Explanation for Corruption of Criminal Justice Officials” Cato Journal, v.8/1 (1988).
  2. Hough, M., et al. “Procedural Justice, Trust, and Institutional Legitimacy.” Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, v.4/3 (2010).
  3. LaFree, Gary. Losing Legitimacy: Street Crime and the Decline of Social Institutions in America. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.
  4. Laswell, Arnold and Harold Rogow. Power, Corruption and Rectitude. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.
  5. Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. Reprint. New York: HarperPerennial, 2009.
  6. Punch, Maurice. Conduct Unbecoming: The Social Construction of Police Deviance and Control. London: Tavistock Publications, 1985.
  7. Zimbardo, Phillip. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Reprint. New York: Random House, 2008

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