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American Government Reflections

Chapter 12: The U.S. Legal System

U.S. Law
Laws in the U.S. are classified into several types. The first, common law, is a body of law
based upon judicial rulings in previous cases. These decisions are based upon the judge's sense of
fairness and they usually refer to previous similar cases to determine decisions. Next, statutory
law, are laws passed by lawmaking bodies of local, state, and national government.
Constitutional law is the supreme law and consists of the constitutional provisions. Then,
administrative laws include the laws made by the executive departments and independent
agencies. Finally, there are criminal and civil laws. Criminal laws deal with felonies and
misdemeanors while civil laws invoke disputes between private parties. I think that the
categorization of laws makes it easier to understand what each type of law affects and the people
it applies to. Categorizing the laws also help people understand them and make it easier to
research specific laws. This can also help answer specific questions about laws and allow a
person easier access to information about a law.
The Criminal Justice System
The police enforce the law in the country at local, state, and national levels, but the police
system in the U.S. is highly decentralized. Police may arrest a person if they personally witness
the crime, but if the did not witness the crime they may request an arrest warrant before an arrest
can be made. They are only allowed to use force if absolutely necessary. Recently, there has been
controversy over the amount of force used by the police and whether it was justified. Many uses
of force have resulted in accidental shootings and caused family members unintentional pain and
loss. Today, society has a more negative view on police and works to expose and reform the
police system. If a person is accused of a crime, they are entitled to an initial hearing where a
judge can set bail which becomes a bond when the accused waits for their appearance in court.
Then they go to through a preliminary hearing, indictment, arraignment, jury selection, trial, and
finally receive their verdict. Sentencing has also been a topic of controversy as their are no set
guidelines for sentences and can vary widely from state to state. Many people want a more
structured sentencing system that relies less upon the judge's sense of fairness.
When a person has been convicted of a crime there are various types of sentences that can be
given by the judge. These include probation, imprisonment, parole, and capital punishment.
Probation allows the convicted to remain in society, but under observation. Imprisonment sends
the person to a jail or prison of varying security- maximum, minimum, or medium. After serving
part of their sentence, prisoners are eligible for parole or an early release from prison. The most
controversial of sentences is capital punishment or the death penalty. Many argue that the death
penalty deters crime and is a fair punishment for the worst crimes. Others argue that the penalty
is expensive and that the penalty is highly discriminatory. However, most Americans support
capital punishment. I think that the death penalty should only be reserved for the worst of crimes,
such as homicide, and should be used sparingly. I think that few death penalty sentences should
given out and that the sentence should be avoided if possible. Juvenile crime is also treated
differently than crimes committed by adults. Many of the sentencing for juveniles is relaxed and
focused more on correcting their behavior, though some crimes, such as murder, are tried as
though they were adults.