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As the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) puts it, the United States does not have a single criminal justice system, but rather, “thousands of federal, state, local, and tribal systems.” In fact, the US is home to 3,116 local jails, 1,566 state prisons, 1,323 juvenile correctional facilities, 181 immigration detention facilities, 98 federal prisons, and 80 Indian country jails in addition to numerous military prisons and other facilities that serve as permanent or temporary detention centers. These prison and corrections statistics represent just one arm of the US criminal justice system, saying nothing about the numerous law enforcement and criminal court systems in this country.

Considering just how massive and complex it has become, few experts are surprised that there are many critical issues in the criminal justice system. From racial disparities to mental illness concerns, read on to learn more about the US criminal justice system and the most pressing problems that it faces today.

Understanding the Criminal Justice System

No lesser authority than the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) echoes the PPI by acknowledging the fragmented nature of our criminal justice system. It states that “criminal cases may be handled differently in different jurisdictions.” However, the US Constitution extends broad due process guarantees that guide criminal justice procedures and protect individuals from undue intervention by criminal justice authorities.

Briefly defined, the criminal justice system provides the government with a way to capture, detain, try, and punish individuals who commit criminal legal offenses. At least in theory, laws are designed to protect individual Americans, and communities as a whole, from danger and damage. The BJS states, “Founded on the concept that crimes against an individual are crimes against the State, our justice system prosecutes individuals as though they victimized all of society.”

Unfortunately, measures taken in the name of public safety often have a dark side. Legal protections and government proclamations may paint a sunny picture of the US criminal justice system, but anyone who keeps up with the news today can plainly see that this system is broken in many respects. Despite the best intentions of the finest criminal justice professionals in the country, problems abound in the US criminal justice system. Here are a few criminal justice issues that are making headlines in 2023:

Racial Disparity in Criminal Justice

In the United States, one of the most significant practical and ethical issues in criminal justice has long been racial disparity. As tensions in this area continue to mount, public scrutiny of racial equity within the criminal justice system will only intensify. In its comprehensive 2022 report Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) identified remarkable racial disparities in areas that include police traffic stops, pretrial release risk assessments, sentencing severity, and incarceration lengths.

To single out traffic stops as one example, a 2020 study shows that Black drivers across the United States were significantly less likely to be pulled over after dark, when officers cannot visually identify a driver’s race from afar. It also showed that Black and Hispanic drivers faced a significantly lower bar for search and seizures than white drivers.

These findings, among many others, have led the NCSL to state bluntly that “throughout the nation, people of color are far more likely to enter the nation’s justice system than the general population.” The goal moving forward is to keep government officials aware of these racial disparities in the criminal justice system and institute targeted methods to address these disparities.

Drug Crime and Drug Policy Reform

As more and more US states continue to legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational use, criminal justice systems must adapt accordingly. In a country that incarcerates people for drug offenses in extraordinarily large numbers, this has required a seismic shift. But this is only one of the many issues impacting drug crime and drug policy reform in 2023.

For example, you should expect an amplified concentration on providing drug offenders with rehabilitation resources and support to better address their substance abuse as the root cause of their crimes. Although the transition from a punitive focus to a rehabilitative focus has been slow to take hold in the US criminal justice system, rehabilitation has proven far more effective than punishment when it comes to engendering lasting positive behavioral changes in addicts and reducing rates of drug crime recidivism.

After reviewing repeat drug offenders in 15 states, the authors of the article “Treating Drug Abuse and Addiction in the Criminal Justice System: Improving Public Health and Safety” found that a quarter of these offenders returned to prison within three years of release for failing drug tests or other technical violations. The authors reviewed a wealth of evidence suggesting that “treating drug-involved offenders provides a unique opportunity to decrease substance abuse and reduce associated criminal behavior.”

The Challenge of Prison Reform

As described in multiple sections above, the prison system in the United States is both sprawling and marred by racial disparities. To address these and other issues, people of many political persuasions are demanding comprehensive prison reform in 2023. Some clamber to tighten laws and get tougher on crime. Others decry the private ownership of prisons and seek to eliminate all profit-seeking motives from the corrections industry. Some are staunch proponents of the death penalty while others favor far more lenient sentencing that might include parole or community service.

The federal government is responding to calls for prison reform in a variety of ways. Take, for example, the recent efforts of the United States Sentencing Commission to offer second chances to convicted prisoners. In April of 2023, this federal agency voted to extend provisions of 2018’s First Step Act that allow judges to “take first steps toward second chances” by uniting deserving incarcerated individuals with family and friends through revisited sentencing.

Youth Justice and Juvenile Delinquency

As Michigan State University’s Caitlin Cavanagh puts it in her 2022 article “Healthy Adolescent Development and the Juvenile Justice System: Challenges and Solutions,” young people are “developmentally different from adults in ways that merit a tailored societal response to crime.” While youth corrections and criminal justice systems have long recognized this fact, countless issues continue to plague our attempts to address juvenile delinquency in 2023. Cavanagh joins a chorus of other experts who believe that many approaches to youth justice in the United States are incompatible with the developmental needs of young people and tend to undercut healthy transitions away from criminal activity and toward productive adult lives.

In fact, the US criminal justice system seems to fundamentally misunderstand many essential facts about young people. For example, the attraction to risky behavior that often drives juvenile crime has not proven an effective measure of predicting adult criminality. Most young people simply outgrow these risk-taking tendencies. Youth justice professionals are increasingly seeking empirically supported methods of corrections that, in Cavanagh’s words, “match youth to developmentally appropriate legal responses, prioritize community-based corrections, and engage youth’s social context in the rehabilitative process.”

Human Trafficking

According to the US Department of State, there are currently more than 27.5 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. Combined with its shocking ubiquity, the incredibly damaging and utterly depraved nature of human trafficking makes it a top criminal justice priority for the foreseeable future. To address this terrible issue, the State Department is committed to working directly with human trafficking survivors to “develop effective anti-trafficking policies and programs that are victim-centered and survivor-centered, trauma-informed, and culturally competent.”


The independent industry authority Security Intelligence joins other experts in predicting a dramatic rise in cybercrime in 2023. In his article “A Perfect Storm: 7 Reasons Global Attacks Will Soar in 2023,” Security Intelligence contributor Jonathan Reed ranks an ailing economy as the top driver of cybercrime today. As shrinking budgets leave less and less funds left over for anti-cybercrime measures, the costs of these measures, both preventive and correctional, are rising dramatically due to inflation.

Another reason for the proliferation of cybercrime in 2023 is the ready availability of malware kits at little to no cost online. While phishing and ransomware attacks used to require extensive computer skills and know-how, average people with the right resources can now launch attacks that may ultimately cost individuals or organizations millions of dollars. Other reasons for rising cybercrime rates include ongoing geopolitical conflicts, the willingness of cybercriminals to target smaller victims, and the rapidly rising number of computer and mobile devices that allow points of entry for a cyberattack.

Challenges With Law Enforcement

Racial disparity issues are not the only challenges that law enforcement faces in 2023. Well aware of these challenges, the law enforcement community has found itself in the midst of a serious recruitment and hiring crisis.

Analyzing this crisis, the International Association of Chiefs of Police cites a poor public image as one of its primary underlying factors. Other likely influencing factors include problems with police department hiring processes and generational societal shifts that have placed a higher value on work-life balance.

Homeland Security

Although other matters have largely forced concerns about foreign terrorist attack out of the headlines, homeland security remains a key focus of the US criminal justice system in 2023. In a May 2023 bulletin of the National Terrorism Advisory System, the US Department of Homeland Security stated, “The United States remains in a heightened threat environment.” It goes on to list the upcoming 2024 general elections and judicial decisions on matters of sociopolitical concern as causes of increased homeland security risk. Potential targets of terrorist attack range from essential public infrastructure and government facilities to faith-based organizations, racial and ethnic groups, and the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, law enforcement agencies and institutions of justice are common targets themselves. Beyond foreign terrorist organizations, the Department of Homeland Security is deeply concerned about domestic violent extremists (or “DVEs”).

Mental Illness

People with mental illness have long gotten swept up in the criminal justice system for a wide variety of reasons. However, in the words of Mental Health America, “the increasing number of individuals with mental health and substance use conditions in the criminal justice system has enormous fiscal, health, and human costs.”

In 2023, there is a tremendous movement to divert individuals with psychological conditions away from US corrections facilities and toward appropriate mental healthcare resources. Mental Health America sees a tremendous need for new community-based services and the education of law enforcement and criminal justice professionals on crisis de-escalation tools, treatment-based incarceration alternatives, and other matters that can help keep unwell people out of the penal system.

What Can We Anticipate for the Future of Criminal Justice?

The dramatic trends of criminal justice in 2023 have the potential to have a ripple effect throughout the United States and around the world for some time to come. To examine these reverberations, the nonprofit and nonpartisan Brookings Institution conducted a research study titled “A Better Path Forward for Criminal Justice.”

The study identifies pretrial release and unfair sentencing, as well as the racial and economic disparities that fuel them, as the primary underlying causes of skyrocketing incarceration rates in the United States. Looking to the future, the Brookings Institution recommends a series of reforms to “slow the flow of people into our nation’s jails and prisons, reduce the number of persons now incarcerated and the lengths of sentences they are serving, and ameliorate unwarranted disparities and unfairness.” It strongly recommends ongoing research to determine the precise costs and benefits of these various reforms.

Pursuing an Education in Criminal Justice

If you are serious about shaping the future of criminal justice, you may want to pursue a degree in criminal justice from an accredited institution of higher learning like Post University. At Post, students can earn either an Associate of Science in Criminal Justice or a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice on campus or entirely online.

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