Why We Say “Criminal Legal System,” Not “Criminal Justice System”

Why We Say “Criminal Legal System,” Not “Criminal Justice System”

When talking about the institutions and processes that deal with criminal behavior, it is common to use the term “criminal justice system.” However, some scholars and activists prefer to use the term “criminal legal system” instead. This choice is not simply a matter of semantics, but reflects a deeper understanding of the ways in which the system operates and the values it prioritizes.

The Problem with “Justice”

The term “justice” suggests fairness, impartiality, and a concern for the common good. However, the reality of the criminal system is often far from just. For example, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and communities of color are disproportionately affected. Many people who are incarcerated have not been convicted of a crime, but are being held in pretrial detention simply because they cannot afford bail. Others have been wrongfully convicted due to factors such as racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct, or inadequate legal representation.

By calling the system the “criminal justice system,” we risk obscuring these injustices and implying that the system is functioning as it should. This can make it harder to identify and address the structural problems that are causing harm to individuals and communities.

The Role of Law

The term “criminal legal system,” on the other hand, highlights the central role of law in the process. It acknowledges that the system is not simply a neutral arbiter of justice, but is defined by the laws and policies that govern it. This includes not only criminal law, but also laws related to policing, immigration, and other areas that intersect with the criminal system.

By focusing on the legal dimensions of the system, we can better understand how the laws themselves may be contributing to injustice. For example, mandatory minimum sentences and “three strikes” laws have been criticized for disproportionately affecting communities of color and contributing to mass incarceration. By calling attention to these legal structures, we can work to change them and create a more equitable system.

Implications for Activism

Using the term “criminal legal system” can also have implications for activism and advocacy. It emphasizes the need for legal strategies and solutions, rather than solely relying on grassroots organizing or social movements. This is not to say that activism is not important – it can be a powerful tool for raising awareness and pressuring those in power to take action. However, legal strategies such as litigation and policy reform can also be effective in creating systemic change.

In addition, by focusing on the legal aspects of the system, we can engage in more nuanced discussions about the role of law in society. For example, we can consider questions such as: What are the limits of the law in promoting justice? How can we balance the need for public safety with the need to protect individual rights? By grappling with these complex issues, we can develop more informed and effective strategies for change.


While the term “criminal justice system” may be more familiar, using the term “criminal legal system” can help us to better understand the systemic problems and injustices that exist in the criminal system. By focusing on the legal dimensions of the system, we can work to change laws and policies that perpetuate harm and create a more equitable and just society.

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