Understanding the Importance of Ethics in Criminal Justice Research

Understanding the Importance of Ethics in Criminal Justice Research

For research to be effective it needs to be ethical.

Research serves an extremely important role in the criminal justice system. The collection of data and it dissemination into information allows the criminal justice system to operate effectively and efficiently. These benefits are the result of information that allows for criminal justice leaders to build proper programs, allocate resources, and for policymaking. One of the most important areas of research related with criminal justice is ethics. 

Types of Criminal Justice Research

To understand the importance of ethics in criminal justice research it is necessary to understand the purpose of research in the field of criminal justice. Research in this field spans an enormous area connecting many different subjects within the criminal justice field such as law, forensics, and many other areas of criminal justice. Research serves the purpose of studying criminology and its functioning. For example, studies are used to research the possible causes of crime and methods for controlling it. Studies are also used to identify best practices for law enforcement to increased effectiveness or to root out problems. For instance, studies into community policing have revealed that law enforcement is more effective when there are close ties with the communities they serve (Macionis, 2011). Other purposes in research extend into reducing crime and recidivism rates. For instance, research has clearly linked prison overcrowding to zero tolerance policies (Lauren and Glaze, 2013). Using research in this manner can provide criminal justice with clear strategies, but in order for this research to be effective it needs to be ethical.

The Role of Ethics

Criminal justice is a field that is entrenched in ethics. At all levels of law enforcement, ethics must be followed in order to ensure that individuals are treated in accordance with their rights under the law. Criminal justice research is also bound by ethics. Researchers must be sure that research is conducted in a manner that follows sound evidence-based practices and also abides by research ethics. One of the most famous examples of criminal justice research gone wrong is the Stanford Prison Experiment. Researcher Philip Zimbardo was conducting an experiment in violent behavior and created a mock prison. Participants were chosen randomly and were assigned the roles of guards or inmates. While much information was learned from this experiment it was also deemed unethical when the participants began showing high levels of aggression:

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 problem with this experiment was that it was poorly designed and while it concluded that prisons and their environments can cause increased aggression in inmates and guards; its results were also impossible to replicate since the experiment is not ethical and cannot be reproduced. There were many flaws in this experiment which ultimately made it impossible to use for policymaking or creating any form of prison program, “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).

Ethical research in this area would have used more quantitative or qualified approaches for data collection. Quantitative research utilizes factual data such as reviewing violent incidence reports from prisons and attempting to show correlation between numbers of incidents and population sizes (Loue, 2000). Qualitative research could also be used which might interview prison inmates and guards to determine causes of aggression (Loue, 2000). These methods of research would have provided substantially more data that was also more useful for understanding prison violence.

The problem with criminal justice studies is that they are often expensive to conduct, and their results are not readily beneficial to society. This is a problem understood from the difference between pure and applied research. Most criminal justice research is pure in nature because it has no market purpose and it is studying phenomena for the sake of knowledge (Loue, 2000). In contrast to pure research, applied research is used to determine answers to specific problems or situations such as market research to determine the trends in products (Loue, 2000). As such pure research such as studying prison populations are costly and their benefit may not always be seen directly. For example, reducing crime within prisons may not have a benefit in the short term, but it may decrease recidivism in the long-term.


Criminal justice research is necessary and important. At all levels of the criminal justice system research can be used to improved processes and efficiency. Ethics is one of the most important elements pertaining to research because it provides a map for how this research can and should be conducted. Unethical research leads to large issues such as making data unclear and providing lack of benefit. Ethical research ultimately provides the proper data and information needed by the criminal justice system in order to solve problems and improve the system.


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.

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Triola Vincent. Sat, Jan 09, 2021. Understanding the Importance of Ethics in Criminal Justice Research Retrieved from

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