The Criminal Justice System: Maintaining Social Order or Enforcing Norms?

March 23, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

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Within every society there are institutions whose job it is to maintain social order.  These may be religious institutions, they may be family or kinship structures, or they may be the system of government and law enforcement.  All of these institutions exist at their core to ensure that society keeps running smoothly.

They are also viewed as institutions of authority, though, with the power to enforce norms upon members of society.  One such institution is, of course, the criminal justice system.  In the 21st century United States, the criminal justice system is seen as holding a fair amount of power, and the popular perception of this social institution is more as an enforcer of norms than as the maintainer of social order.  You would think that training as a sociologist, that the habit of looking at the world through a social lens, would incline me to frame my interactions with law enforcement in terms of social order rather than in terms of law enforcement.

As it turns out, you would be wrong.  Last week, I received a very strange piece of mail in my campus mailbox.  It was addressed to “P.O. S. Ford” and was actually addressed to the building in which our Campus Police department is located.  The envelope contained a summons to testify at a hearing for an arrestee who had apparently refused a breathalyzer test.  Last I checked, I was not a police officer (and I feel fairly safe in assuming that that’s what the “P.O.” in the name stood for).  My immediate reaction, though, was one of concern.  “What did I do wrong?  Why am I being summoned to a hearing?”  Then I noticed that there was a date of 3/1/10 on the summons, and my thoughts turned to “Oh great, not only am I in trouble for something that I don’t remember doing, but I MISSED THE HEARING!”

Now, two seconds’ critical reflection made it perfectly clear that this mail had been misdirected.  And, occasional loose interpretation of speed limits aside, I am the very model of a law-abiding citizen.  What does it say about the relationship of the criminal justice system to the population it is intended to keep in line that my immediate reaction is one of fear?  Is it in the best interests of the criminal justice system that this is our reaction to such a summons?  Are there other ways that social order could be enforced, ones that did not play on fear?



  1. I wonder, in your encounter with the mis-directed mail, if it were more of the observer becoming a participant. As a socilogist, an observer, its the job to look but don’t touch, examine without disturbing. But, when you become involved, that scientific training is minimized and your personal involvement takes over. Imagine for the police, no matter who you approach, how you conduct yourself, there is always that “personal reaction.” Automatically to the defensive – pretty tough for the cops.

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