Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice

Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice

The Role of Ethics and Impact

Research plays a pivotal role in criminal justice. The acquisition of data and its use in creating useful information provides a large number of benefits to the criminal justice process. Of these benefits, trends in crime and effectiveness of programs and policies are among some of the most useful areas of research. The use of information in these areas has provided the foundation for ongoing role and purpose of criminal justice research.

Types of Criminal Justice Research

There is a large area of research in criminal justice spanning forensics to psychology. The field of criminal justice research is multidisciplinary as studies are committed for a variety to reasons. One of the most basic forms of criminal justice research is criminology which attempts to explain the causes, ability to control, and prevention of criminal behavior. This field of research is very broad in scope encompassing specific criminal behavior such as violent crime or serial killing. However, criminal justice research is not always focused on crime itself but is often focused on the effectiveness of law enforcement. For example, research in criminal justice may also include program effectiveness or policy and practices of law enforcement. For example, studies of police departments have determined that police are more effective when they have increased levels of communication with their communities. This type of research has also unveiled the fact that certain legal policies such as zero tolerance policies often have a negative impact of creating prison overcrowding. The types of criminal justice research are broad and cover many aspects of law enforcement and this makes it imperative that this research be sound and ethical.

The Role of Ethics

Because of the serious nature of criminal justice and the impact of policy and law, it is imperative that researchers follow ethical practices when conducting research. This importance is due to the fact that policymakers utilize this research when making laws and this can have profoundly negative impacts on society when decisions are made with faulty information. A strong example of this issue can be seen in the Stanford Prison Experiment.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was a study conceived by Psychologist Philip Zimbardo in which his research group conducted a mock prison and randomly chose participants to be guards and inmates. The experiment started well but soon devolved into a dangerous situation which needed to be stopped early.

The experiment turned into more than anyone had bargained for. Both guards and prisoners soon became embittered and hostile toward one another. Guards humiliated the prisoners by assigning them jobs such as cleaning toilets with their bare hands. The prisoners resisted and insulted the guards. Within four days, the researchers had removed five prisoners who displayed signs of “extreme emotional depression, crying, rage and acute anxiety” (Hanley, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973:81). Before the end of the first week, the situation had become so bad that the researchers had to end the experiment (Macionis, 2011).

The information learned from this experiment was that people tend to act in accordance with their authority and position. While this might seem like a successful experiment because it showed that people in prisons were prone to becoming violent due to their environment, this conclusion was unverifiable due to the abrupt stopping of the experiment. What this experiment did was point out that prison violence needed to be studied better, but because the experiment was considered dangerous it cannot be repeated due to ethics. The lack of ethical consideration for the experiment may have been an oversight but this factor led to credibility issues with the experiment such as:

The major flaws in the experiment were the undersized sample, validity issues, and unethical behavior.
· The sample of 22 participants is not large enough to create statistical significance.
· There are also validity issues with the experiment such as demographics of simulated environment, not matching a real world prison.
· There are many validity issues in question such as the ratio of guards to prisoners and lack of violence that is indicative of a simulation not a real world prison.
· As well, the experiment was fraught with ethical violations from the beginning such as exposing people to maltreatment and researchers becoming too involved in the scenarios (Macionis, 2011).

More effective and ethical research such as conducting reviews of incident reports and literature reviews have proven to show more in depth data concerning prison violence and its causes (Gaze, 2013). This type of research has been very revealing showing that prison violence is not simply a matter of prison personnel and prisoner interaction but it is often a product of the design of the prison (Gaze, 2013). These types of findings show that ethical research can be more exact and precise in its nature than unethical research.

Unethical Research and its Impacts

When research is conducted in an unethical way it can have devastating results for the criminal justice system and to society as a whole. One of the most glaring examples of this problem can be seen in the example of Doctor Chester M. Southam, who in 1952 injected live cancer cells into Ohio State Prison inmates in an attempt to, “discover the secret of how healthy bodies fight the invasion of malignant cells” (Loue, 2000). This type of experimentation is considered unethical today, but at one time it was allowed on prisoners and other disadvantaged groups (Loue, 2000). The real issue with unethical research is that it often does not accomplish what it is intended to do because the participants are not actively assisting the researcher and much of the information is subject to conjecture. When a researcher is hiding or performing unethical studies, there is no collaboration and this reduces the quality of the research.

Perhaps the most important reason for ethics in research is due to the need to have credibility in the research. A researcher who acts unethically provides evidence that his or her findings are not credible. This credibility is only possible when researchers follow standards and ethics.


Lauren E. Glaze, E. J. (2013). Correctional Populations in the United States, 2012. Bureau of Prisons volume 1.

Loue, Sana (2000). Textbook of research ethics: theory and practice. Springer. New Jersey

Macionis, J. (2011). Society: The Basics, Eleventh Edition, by. Published by Prentice Hall. by Pearson Education, Inc.

Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Fri, Jan 22, 2021. Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice Retrieved from

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