Criminal Justice Ethics Essay

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Criminal Justice Ethics, the only journal dedicated to an interdisciplinary exploration of the ethical issues that arise at various points in the criminal justice system—from legislative decisions to reentry challenges—has been a forum for theoreticians, policy makers, and practitioners for more than 30 years.

The journal was first published biannually in 1982 as an early initiative of the Institute for Criminal Justice Ethics, a center within the City University of New York and housed within John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The institute was formed with the help of a $50,000 Exxon seed grant and subsequently paid its way by means of journal subscriptions along with some support from John Jay College. The founding editors were two John Jay professors, William C. Heffernan and Timothy Stroup. Heffernan, a theoretically oriented lawyer specializing in Fourth Amendment issues, has remained closely associated with the journal (in more recent times as book review editor). In 1987, after Stroup’s early departure, John Kleinig, an Australian moral and social philosopher, was appointed to be the journal’s primary editor and director of the institute. Kleinig remained primary editor until early 2011, when Jonathan Jacobs, a philosopher from Colgate University, joined the John Jay faculty and succeeded him as director of the institute and editor of the journal.

The journal was originally published in-house, despite some overtures by commercial publishers, mainly to enable its publication at a price accessible to various practitioners and practitioner organizations. But in 2008, with the increasing demands on publication, including Internet availability, the journal became a joint publication of John Jay College and Routledge, an imprint of Taylor and Francis. In 2010, it began publishing three issues a year. In 1996, an index covering the first 15 years was published, and the journal—including its earlier issues—is now available online through a number of document providers.

Reflective of a larger academic turn to applied ethics that began to emerge during the 1970s, the animating purpose of the institute and journal was to “focus greater attention on ethical issues in criminal justice by and for philosophers, criminal justice professionals, lawyers and judges, and other contributors to an informed social discourse.” The journal seeks to connect the various participants in the criminal justice system— including police, the legal profession, judicial officers, and correctional personnel—and to link their work to academic contributions that bear on ethically responsive criminal justice processes. To do this, especially in its earlier days, the journal incorporated a variety of formats, including commentaries on current criminal-justice-related issues, case studies (on incidents such as police cover-ups, the payment of witnesses, and the use of excessive force in effecting arrests), extended review essays (in preference to brief book notes), symposia (on issues such as gun control, hate crimes, and drug laws), and a print format that was intended to parallel “generalist” publications such as The Hastings Center Report and Encounter. The journal also solicits and publishes special issues (notably on hate speech and loyalty), including some arising from workshops (on topics such as humanitarian intervention and the accountability of private military and security contractors), along with articles in standard academic format. With the shift to Routledge, the format edged closer to that of a standard academic journal, with a much broader international, particularly Asian, presence as the result of its online availability.

The commentaries, in which (often prominent) people were invited to provide an op-ed analysis of a current “hot topic,” frequently generated a lot of readership reaction and sometimes led to the cancellation of subscriptions. It was editorial policy not to represent a particular viewpoint on criminal justice issues, and some effort was made to invite commentary contributors from across the ethical and political spectrum. On some issues— such as gun control, the death penalty, and sentencing policy—angry readers were stirred into cancellation mode. After 2009, not to assuage critics but as the result of difficulties in securing high-quality commentary pieces, the commentary section was dropped. It also marked the journal’s movement toward being a more mainstream academic publication.

Apart from its commitment to the concerns of a diverse group of professionals, the journal has also sought to cross disciplinary boundaries (philosophy, law, sociology, criminology), to encourage international, national, and comparative perspectives, and to address issues of theory as well as practice, requiring only that authors focus primarily on the ethical dimensions of their criminal-justice-related topics. For this reason the journal attracts a diverse group of authors as well as readers.

As American colleges and universities developed an increasing interest in sponsoring courses in criminal justice ethics in the 1990s, the journal not only became a valuable resource for course materials but also provided a specialized venue for those who began to contribute to the field. Although other journals have begun to move into the field—such as Criminal Law and Philosophy and the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law— Criminal Justice Ethics has remained committed to providing a venue for discussion of the ethical issues that arise out of the institutions of criminal justice. Many of its articles continue to be reproduced in anthologies and classroom texts.


  1. Institute for Criminal Justice Ethics: (Accessed September 2013).
  2. Sorensen, J., C. Snell, and J. J. Rodriguez. “An Assessment of Criminal Justice and Criminology Journal Prestige.” Journal of Criminal Justice Education, v.17 (2006).
  3. Vaughn, Michael S., et al. “Journals in Criminal Justice and Criminology: An Updated and Expanded Guide for Authors.” Journal of Criminal Justice Education, v.15/1 (Spring 2004).

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