Few career fields have the same potential to impact people's lives as criminal justice. In light of the extraordinary responsibility afforded to those who pursue criminal justice careers, a strong background in ethics and informed decision-making is essential. Criminal justice ethics rest on the assumption that all people deserve and must receive equal protection under the law, regardless of race.

Dr. Shari Schwartz, an assistant professor and program chair of the social and criminal justice degree program at the University of Arizona Global Campus, has devoted much of her career to promoting greater understanding of how ethical criminal justice stems from treating all people equally. Her work has included research on the difference between adolescent and adult brains and possible implications for sentencing guidelines. She is interested in how complex ideas about ethics are applied in the real world of criminal justice.

In her classroom and in her research, Dr. Schwartz poses crucial questions for reflection and discussion. If a professional in the criminal justice system has a racial bias that they're not aware of, can they be ethical? What must they do to perform their job responsibilities in an ethical manner? How do we create awareness of bias, and what do we do with it when we find it?

Dr. Schwartz argues that in order to improve society, you need the proper tools to question the assumptions baked into the justice system. Further, she suggests that to sharpen these tools, you must be willing to look at the biases that lurk in your own mind.

How Equality In the Justice System Manifested

For hundreds of years, it appeared that the American systems of justice and government were blatantly and unapologetically biased against black people. Even after the abolition of slavery, a regime of Jim Crow laws rose up in the South to maintain the second-class citizenship of black Americans, reinforced by jokes and stereotypes that proliferated through popular culture.

Moving forward from that legacy has been an uphill struggle, says Dr. Schwartz. There is ample evidence to suggest that a systemic anti-black bias remains intact within our institutions of justice. It's analyzed at length in Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which has provoked controversy around and within the prison system.

Dr. Schwartz acknowledges that some progress has been made but emphasizes that the civil rights movement of the 1960s didn't constitute an overnight turnaround. While the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others permanently shifted the conversation around race in America, much more still needs to happen.

"People have changed their behavior but not necessarily their attitudes,” Dr. Schwartz adds.

Between Policy and Police: Equality as an Effect of Ethics

Overwhelming evidence indicates that black Americans are treated unfairly at every level of the justice system, from legislation to policing to sentencing. However, simply publicizing these facts and statistics is not necessarily enough to affect large-scale changes in public perception of the surrounding issues. Raising awareness is only the beginning, Dr. Schwartz argues.

In a recent hearing of a case from Mississippi in which a black death row inmate’s conviction was repeatedly thrown out for prosecutorial misconduct, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh pointed out the necessity of taking a hard line against racial bias in jury selection in order to preserve "confidence of the community in the fairness of the criminal justice system." If people stop believing in the system, the system stops working.

Dr. Schwartz believes that happenings in the courtroom, particularly with regard to sentencing, are the most important areas in the criminal justice system to examine in the classroom for rectifying areas of inequality.

"That's where we have the greatest opportunity to make the biggest impact," she says. “Courts, because of legal precedent, are where policy is made. We have been able to depend on the courts to dole out justice, and to recognize injustice and correct it."

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Beating Bias Begins from Within

In order to tackle injustice within the system, you must be willing to examine the implicit bias within yourself. Understanding your own implicit bias can empower you to make more ethical decisions. Simply put, self-awareness is key. By confronting implicit bias in society and in the judicial system through the classroom, you can begin to improve your capacity for fair and objective reasoning and judgment. Indeed, a more equitable future for society depends on everyone to do so.

Dr. Schwartz emphasizes that, while the conversation begins with acknowledging the reality and the power of implicit bias, it gets more complex from there. For example, police officers, have to accept and be open to it.

“But at what point do they then overcorrect that bias, and what harm does that do?" she asks.

She goes on to explain that, when examining policies, the results may benefit one group while violating the civil rights of another.  

"To what extent does the criminal justice system have a responsibility to legislate about governing behavior? This doesn't come without a cost," she acknowledges.

Addressing these problems requires the best thinking and action from those with the courage to tackle tough questions head-on, she concludes. And this can be done with a degree in criminal justice.

An Ethical System Starts with a Criminal Justice Education

Education is the catalyst for change. When you get an education in criminal justice at UAGC, you will discipline and refine your mind and apply it to some of the most difficult problems of our time, issues that affect us all daily.

Dr. Schwartz explains that at UAGC, ethics, and equality are covered in criminal justice courses, and there is even a class in the Master of Criminal Justice degree program called CRJ524 specifically covering ethics in criminal justice.

Philosophy courses also cover ethics and inequality. UAGC professors include professionals from all areas of the criminal justice system. They can provide real-world examples of ethics in action and walk you through scenarios for creating equality in the American justice system.

Join the conversation, connect with top professionals, and take the first step toward a career that will help shape society and help us work together more effectively as citizens and neighbors. Contact a UAGC advisor today to learn more about the four different criminal justice degree programs we offer.

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