There are approximately 700,000 law enforcement officers working in the United States. Their efforts have put 2.3 million people in America’s 3,134 local prisons, 1,833 state prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 110 federal prisons, and 218 immigrant detention facilities. Although the United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, nearly one in four people imprisoned worldwide are in American prisons.
Most federal law enforcement is organized under two vast and vast agencies. The Department of Justice includes the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, the US Marshals Service, the Bureau of Prisons, and the Office of the Inspector General. The Department of Homeland Security oversees the Secret Service, Coast Guard, TSA, ICE, and Customs and Border Protection. It tops the 18,000 local and state police departments that enforce laws in America’s neighborhoods and on its streets and highways.
Today’s criminal justice system would be unfamiliar to early Americans, who lived in a world where law enforcement and courts were informal and highly localized operations. In many cases, “justice” was done by townspeople who could be deputed by a lone sheriff or constable with police powers. At times, justice was a violent and highly personal affair – even the aristocracy set the score with formal pistol duels that were sanctioned by policy or custom.
Today, few topics are more heated and controversial than criminal justice. The US justice system provides due process and protection that is unheard of in much of the world. However, there have now and always been disparities in how those protections are implemented based on factors such as race and income. A legacy of decisions taken by men wearing white wigs in the 18th century caused civil unrest across the country in 2020.
Using data from a variety of historical and news sources, as well as government reports and advocacy groups, Stacker identified 50 significant moments in the history of the American justice system. The following is a brief overview of America’s nearly 400 years of efforts to protect its citizens, punish its offenders, and maintain social order through the enforcement of laws.
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