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Criminal Justice System Representation in Media Research Paper

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Updated: May 12th, 2021

Abstract

Criminal justice is a popular theme in media, many of its aspects becoming central to the plot of movies and television shows. It’s a genre that experienced evolution over the years and the media portrayal shifts in accordance with the realities of social perceptions. In the television shows and films examined in this paper, the creators attempt to display various aspects of the criminal justice system realistically and positively. It can be argued that the genre’s popularity has led it to become an influential force on how people perceive various aspects of criminal justice. In some cases, it may inhibit the process and limit professional roles, while others may raise topics of social justice that would not be known to the outside world without such widespread media.

Introduction

Criminal justice is a popular theme in media, many of its aspects becoming central to the plot of movies and television shows. It’s a genre that experienced evolution over the years and the media portrayal shifts in accordance with the realities of social perceptions. Media holds an important role in portraying the criminal justice system and attempts to remain accurate, but many aspects are dramatized or simplified for the purpose of entertainment.

Law Enforcement

Show or Media Example # 1

One of the most iconic TV programs on law enforcement is CSI. It represents law enforcement as a highly effective force, which is able to collect forensic evidence and resolve high-profile crimes using specialized training and science. For the most part, the depiction is positive, with forensics law enforcement remaining competent. The stages of the criminal justice process vary by episode, but usually, it demonstrated the collection of evidence and arrest with some episodes extending to the discovery of evidence and trial.

The show attempts to be realistic using forensic science, but it does not represent the realities of the criminal justice system, where each case requires complex forensic evidence such as DNA testing. This has become known as the “CSI effect” where jurors have unreasonable expectations from law enforcement because of shows such as these which do not necessarily match day-to-day activity or required protocols (Maeder & Corbett, 2015).

Show or Media Example # 2

The motion picture End of Watch tells an autobiographic tale of two police officers in Los Angeles that investigate gang criminality and drug trafficking. The film presents law enforcement realistically as human beings, who are brave but are also subject to poor judgment and errors. This is due to the movie made partially in a documentary police procedural style. However, the overall depiction is positive as the fellow officers demonstrate compassion, the responsibility to their duty, and sacrifice while encountering a dangerous situation (Lesher & Ayer, 2012).

The stages of criminal justice-focused in the film are investigation and arrest. These remain the primary responsibilities of patrolling police officers which the film focuses on. It can be said that the representation is fair since the protagonists are depicted in a manner that is professional. In terms of realism, the film accurately demonstrates a patrol unit in a crime-ridden neighborhood, which commonly has to participate in raids on gangs and drug-busts. This leads to militarization since they are in danger of being in shootouts since the war on drugs has caused numerous instances of violence involving law enforcement (Murch, 2015).

Courts

Show or Media Example # 1

A significant part of Law and Order: Special Victims Units plot is dedicated to the courts, depicting all aspects of the criminal justice process including prosecution, indictment, plea bargaining, trial, and sentencing. The focus was on these stages since the primary purpose of the show is to create episodes of crime and its resolution through legal means of trial. The representation of courts and victims in the show is serious and solemn, highlighting the full power of the justice system which is a positive aspect of Law and Order is realistic with modern-day activities as episodes depict crimes and trials in relation to social issues such as realities of the current climate of the #MeToo movement where more attention is given to victims.

However, the representation of criminal justice is not always fair, since the show depicts the process as simplified with almost always the criminal being rightfully persecuted, which rarely occurs in real life with cases of special victims (Fairstein, 2018).

Show or Media Example # 2

The movie The Judge depicts courtrooms in a more exciting manner, providing candor and exciting legal debates. The movie presents positive aspects and attempts to honor the courtroom as a place of justice, by portraying personal discussions among characters on the meaning and purpose of the law. All stages of the criminal justice process are depicted in the film as the pilot attempts to follow one specific case of unintentional manslaughter by an old judge from beginning to end (Downey & Dobkin, 2014).

The film is fair in depicting criminal justice as it goes deep in discussing the cause for each action and the effects it may have on the trial, and in some cases, the future life of an individual. This makes the viewer strongly consider the impacts of the justice system. However, there are some unrealistic details from a legal standpoint as there are a number of procedural errors. This can be expected from Hollywood productions as legality is a relatively complex and boring concept without dramatization and simplification offered in the film (Machura & Ulbrich, 2002).

Corrections

Show or Media Example # 1

A TV series The Night Of presents the corrections system as a dark and derogatory institution. This negative perception is portrayed as part of a persecutory and corrupt system that does not fulfill its role. The series portrays all stages of criminal justice as the focus is on the investigation of a specific case and it demonstrates the transformation of the protagonist in the corrections system. Overall, the show does not fairly represent the corrections aspect of criminal justice as it attempts to dramatize and establish a pattern of abuse in the system. In general, the show is not realistic in depicting the corrections system as many of the aspects such as cavity searches and disregard by the guards are rare and highly illegal. However, violent inmates may form gangs and demonstrate antisocial or psychopathic behavior (Petruccelli et al., 2017).

Show or Media Example # 2

Orange Is the New Black is the most popular modern series about the corrections system, portraying it as highly abusive, discriminatory, and at times violent, especially towards women and minorities. This portrayal is negative, particularly of guards and administrative staff of the prison, shown as either incompetent or sadistic, fitting with the dramatized stereotype. The series shows some elements of arrest and court trials but focuses primarily on incarceration after sentencing since it serves as the premise to the plot and highlights protagonist transformation.

The representation of corrections is not fair as the women are forced to experience significant difficulties in everyday life, many of which prevent successful social rehabilitation and force them into further crimes. While the show does dramatize numerous aspects, it remains realistic in many details of social significance such as racial divide within prisons, discrimination, and violation of many human and female rights such as limited access to hygiene products (Enck & Morrissey, 2015).

Conclusion

In the television shows and films examined in this paper, the creators attempt to display various aspects of the criminal justice system realistically and positively. However, for entertainment purposes, many things are simplified or overdramatized, which may influence social perceptions. While such media may inspire curiosity from the public on the inner-workings of criminal justice, it should not be viewed as close to the complexity of the real world.

References

Enck, S. M., & Morrissey, M. E. (2015). If orange is the new black, I must be color blind: Comic framings of post-racism in the prison-industrial complex. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 32(5), 303–317. Web.

Fairstein, L. (2018). ‘. USA Today. Web.

Lesher, J. (Producer), & Ayer, D. (Director). (2012). End of watch [Motion picture]. United States: Open Road Films.

Machura, S., & Ulbrich, S. (2001). Law in film: Globalizing the Hollywood courtroom drama. Journal of Law and Society, 28(1), 117–132. Web.

Maeder, E. M., & Corbett, R. (2015). Beyond frequency: Perceived realism and the CSI effect. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 57(1), 83–114. Web.

Murch, D. (2015). Crack in Los Angeles: Crisis, militarization, and black response to the late twentieth-century war on drugs. Journal of American History, 102(1), 162–173. Web.

Petruccelli, I., Barbaranelli, C., Costantino, V., Gherardini, A., Grilli, S., Craparo, G., & D’Urso, G. (2017). Moral disengagement and psychopathy: A Study on offenders in Italian jails. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 24(5), 1–12. Web.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Criminal Justice System Representation in Media." May 12, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/criminal-justice-system-representation-in-media/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Criminal Justice System Representation in Media'. 12 May.

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