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The Criminal Justice System is Broken and Can't Be Fixed

The best remedy for fighting the system just might be an ocean starfish.

Crime permeates our social fabric. It always has because we are all deviant and deviance is an underpinning of criminality. Whether you believe people are born criminals or socialized to become so, we are afraid of being victimized by the criminal element. Even more disturbing exists the idea that any one of us (given the right circumstances) can cross the line and become "criminal." That self-awareness makes crime salient. In other words, if we can be the bad guy so easily, think of all the others who have and will despite our perceived control of our own moral and social consciousness.

Conflict criminal justice issues vacillate from sentencing, juvenile justice, and mental illness to the hiring, training, & retention of law enforcement and corrections officers. The inescapable paradox of prison and punishment as well as recidivism, probation, and parole all face today’s criminal justice students, practitioners and the general public.

If you’ve never been a victim of a true violation of law, the distant prospect of being victimized creates anxiety and fear. Everyone has an opinion on what should be done about crime and victimization. For those who don’t ride fences, you’re either tough on crime (and criminals) or you’re not. Our existential anxiety pushes the age-old concept of justice through vengeance, retribution, and punishment or, on the other hand, the perspective that criminals are “sick” and/or products of their social environment and that they are the true victims. From classrooms to courtrooms, both perspectives remain polarizing ideologies. For further explanations on a macro-sociological scale, check out my other Psychology Today articles Justice or Just Us, Finding a Phone Booth and Have We Sacrificed Security for Liberty?

A Broken System

The criminal justice system is broken and it can’t be fixed. A bold declaration that I make on the first day of "Introduction to Criminal Justice." Securing buy-in from students means that we understand that our contemporary problems with the system didn’t happen overnight, but, rather the system was built broken. A cursory examination of the word "broken" by The Merriam Webster Dictionary will yield results such as damaged, altered, fractured, irregular, interrupted, full of obstacles, weak, crushed, or disconnected.

Despite efforts to reduce or eliminate it, crime will never truly "go away." It is only displaced—moved from one part of the system to another based upon motivated offenders, suitable targets, and the absence of capable guardians. It’s a matter of risk management. The real test is understanding that we can all be victimized (or become criminal) and that apathy and denial are not our allies.

Many in society are conflicted by what is and what is “supposed to be” as well as how things have changed or how they have remained the same—both producing consequences rooted in disruption and disconnection. From the anecdotal to empirical, a survey of evidence suggests the system is broken and that there is no general consensus on how to fix it:

  • The causes and correlates of crime started with God-given rational choice and free will. Punishment was to be swift, severe, and certain. It moved into a hedonistic calculus and the greater good theory to a bio-psycho-social school that proffers that our genes, heredity, the brain, and upbringing/class division/wealth and power influence crime more than individual choices, accountability, and responsibility;
  • It started with punishment (centuries ago) and that issue sticks around. From mutilation, branding, stocks, and pillories to workhouses, exile, and finally, prisons, there is little agreement on the best methodology to deter crime;
  • The Social Contract is an implicit agreement for which our society gives up some of our civil liberties in exchange for security. For that to happen, however, rights must be respected and authority must be respected;
  • Criminal justice (as a system) is made up of cops, courts, and corrections—each with their own ideas and agendas of “justice.” They are political and arbitrary (even under the color of law) given elected and appointed officials and a dual system of government that seeks checks and balances. They operate as business silos and not cooperatively with each other;
  • The long withstanding model of criminal justice is that of crime control and due process. Crime control seeks order as its most important value while due process values individual liberties and civil rights. Law enforcement systems are typically public order advocates while the courts and judicial process systems advocate for due process. The corrections system often vacillates between both based upon sentencing, custody, security and who manages those functions. This includes theories and applications of incapacitation, deterrence, punishment, rehabilitation, and reintegration;
  • Lady Justice is depicted as blindfolded and holding balanced scales. Is justice blind? Are the scales balanced? If you place public order and due process in each scale, one is going to be heavier than the other and constantly tipping back and forth;
  • The existing, fragmented criminal justice system sets atop sociological pillars which helped to create it. These are primary institutions inherent to our social and moral development that are considered to be similarly fragmented—rooted in years of what many consider to be moral relativity and secular humanism. These institutions are the family, school, and religion;
  • Crime = violation of law, and those who violate laws are criminals. Justice = freedom, fairness and proportionality;
  • Criminal justice is old, but the study of criminal justice is new. Unlike its parent discipline of sociology (and other, disciplinary pick-ups), it seeks to study a broader “system” that is predicated on a business model with sociopolitical and legal frameworks—all within the executive, judicial, and executive branches of government in a democracy and republic;
  • Criminal justice studies the phenomenon of social control in organized societies where the rule of law is the primary social control mechanism. Operative words: social control, organized society, rule of law;
  • Crime and justice is propaganda. There is no true criminal justice, but only the idea of justice;
  • The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are not grounded in the reality of contemporary times and should be a “living” document—designed to change with the times;
  • Citizens of each state elect representatives and senators. Together, they are called the United States Congress. States make laws and their enforcement and sanctions are thus different;
  • Criminal justice reform is a new phenomenon. Although issues on crime and justice administration have been tackled by presidential commissions, lobbyists and special interest groups, only in recent decades has such a push been made to “reform” the criminal justice system.

The Starfish Thrower (or Star Thrower)

The criminal justice system is broken and it can’t be fixed. That doesn’t mean that we stop working or throw up our hands. It also doesn’t mean that we quit moving toward a better system. It’s simply too big to tackle! It has to be broken down into manageable parts for us to handle while not losing sight of the larger whole. To do this means we all must find the little things that allow us to not only survive, but to thrive within a conflicting system.

A beautiful poem was translated by Loren Eiseley in 1969 that I use at the end of each semester to empower and qualify those (including myself) who choose to believe that there is something little we can do each day—whether taking a drunk driver off the street that night, removing a sexually abused child from the home, teaching many and reaching a few, or simply giving a reassuring hug, smile or handshake. It’s always been about the little things that give us affirmation and validation and can move us forward when we get overwhelmed by the toxicity of things we can’t change or have little control over. Find your starfish—and throw it!

A man was walking on the beach one day and noticed a boy who was reaching down, picking up starfish and throwing them into the ocean. As he approached, he called out, “Hello! What are you doing young man?” The boy looked up and said, “I’m throwing starfish into the ocean.” “Why are you doing that”? asked the man. “The tide stranded them. If I don’t throw them in the water before the sun comes up, they’ll die” came the answer. “Surely you realize that there are miles of beach, and thousands of starfish. You’ll never throw them all back, there are too many. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The boy listened politely, then picked up another starfish. As he threw it back into the sea, he said, “It did for that one.”

Copyright © 2018 by Brian A. Kinnaird. All rights reserved.


Eiseley, L. (1978). The Star Thrower. Sagebrush library/school binding: ISBN 1-4176-1867-1. Introduction by W. H. Auden.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary New Edition (2016). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Incorporated.

Schmalleger, F. (2019). Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st Century, 15th Edition. Pearson: ISBN-13: 9780134749754.