7 Pivotal Events in the History of American Criminal Justice


Photo courtesy of arrestedinbronx.com.

The American Criminal Justice system has a long and storied history. It has undergone a vast array of reforms, and has experienced significant milestones. Here are seven key moments that have helped shape the system we know today.

Advent of America’s “Most Wanted”

In 1949, the Washington Daily News published an article entitled – FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives Named. The FBI’s goal of producing this information to the press was simple. They hoped the publicity would lead to more arrests of notoriously dangerous criminals.

The article generated a huge amount of publicity. And, as a result, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover implemented the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives Program” in 1950.  Although the list of America’s most infamous fugitives is no longer plastered on the walls of post offices, the FBI’s website provides the world with a consistently updated “Ten Most Wanted.”

The result? Both domestic and international attention is given to hunting down dangerous fugitives, who have committed crimes on American soil.

Right to Counsel

In 1963, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling which had a significant impact on criminal trials. The decision was based on the story of Clarence Earl Gideon – a Florida defendant who was charged with breaking and entering with intent to commit a misdemeanor. Gideon was sentenced to 5 years in prison.

Before the trial began, Gideon implored the court for government appointed counsel, as he was poor and could not afford to retain his own attorney. The court denied his application. The reason? Florida law only permitted appointed counsel for capital offenses – namely, crimes which could lead to the death penalty.

After his conviction, Gideon petitioned the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the 6th Amendment guarantees all defendants – both in federal and state courts – the right to counsel, appointed or not. The caveat? The crime charged must be a felony.

Lindbergh Kidnapping and Forensics

Forensic science gained significant public attention and praise due to its role in the arrest of Bruno Hauptmann. When the toddler son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, Jr. was kidnapped and eventually murdered, forensic scientists made a huge impact in two areas of the investigation.

First, the investigators were able to track the circulation of the ransom money. This led law enforcement to Hauptmann’s garage, where a significant amount of the ransom was discovered. Second, forensic investigators successfully matched wood in Hauptmann’s attic to the timber used in making the ladder created to kidnap the child through his bedroom window.

Hauptmann was executed in 1936.

The Establishment of Juvenile Court

In the 19th Century, America’s population exploded. And, as America’s population grew, so did the crime rate. In desperate need for a system to deal with troubled urban youth, Chicago was the first city to implement a juvenile court for kids under the age of 16.

Chicago’s juvenile court was created to provide youth with rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. By the mid-1920s, the majority of the nation’s states had implemented juvenile courts under the Chicago model. 


Photo courtesy of krisannehall.com.

Justice for All

In late 2004, the Justice for All Act was signed into law by President Bush. The Act increased funding for DNA technology and clearer guidelines for its use in criminal proceedings. Another significant impact created by the Act was the bolstering of the rights of convicted felons to utilize post-conviction DNA testing in order to reverse their convictions.

Birth of the ACLU

In 1920, author and pacifist Roger Nash Baldwin, feminist lawyer Crystal Eastman and law professor Walter Nelles founded the American Civil Liberties Union. As a non-profit, non-partisan organization, the ACLU’s mission is to defend the liberties and Constitutional rights of American citizens.

The formation of the ACLU was in response to the so-called “Palmer Raids.” These raids were initiated by J. Edgar Hoover and US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and their goal was straightforward – to conduct a mass arrest of suspected anarchists, radicals and anti-war protestors. The Palmer Raids led to the FBI detaining and interrogating citizens without legal representation. And most disturbing, the FBI started to deport unruly US citizens simply because they had foreign ties.

Today, the ACLU has more than 50,000 members and handles over 6,000 cases annually.

Miranda Warning

The arrest of Ernesto Miranda in 1963 by the Phoenix Police Department led to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Miranda v. Arizona. Prior to the Miranda decision, there was no mandatory rule in place that safeguarded a defendant’s 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

After Miranda was arrested for kidnapping and rape, he was subjected to two hours of interrogation, which resulted in his full confession. In addition to confessing to the crimes, Miranda stated that he had been fully informed of his legal rights.

Miranda was eventually convicted and sentenced to a long prison sentence. His attorney, however, appealed the conviction. Miranda’s appeal led him to the halls of the United States Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the nation’s highest court ruled that all arrested suspects must be fully and unequivocally informed of their legal rights before the commencement of any custodial interrogation by law enforcement.

Three key takeaways from the decision – all questioning must stop when the defendant requests an attorney, statements obtained in violation of the Miranda Warning are deemed inadmissible at trial and the defendant must acknowledge their understanding of their rights.

Currently, there is no standard script and jurisdictions vary in how they present their warnings. As long as the major points are explained to the defendant, and the perp acknowledges their understanding, the police have complied with their obligation.

There are so many other historical and pivotal moments in the history of America’s criminal justice system. Are there any milestones that you believe should also be included on this list?


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About jchasenovelist

Published thriller author, criminologist, and blogger.
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