Understanding the Importance of Ethics in Criminal Justice Research

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Understanding the Importance of Ethics in Criminal Justice Research

Effective criminal justice research is ethical research.

The role of research is vital to the criminal justice system. The collection of data and it dissemination into information allows the criminal justice system to operate effectively and efficiently. These benefits are the result of information that allows for criminal justice leaders to build proper programs, allocate resources, and for policymaking. One of the most important areas of research related with criminal justice is ethics. 

Types of Criminal Justice Research

To understand the importance of ethics in criminal justice research it is necessary to understand the purpose of research in the field of criminal justice. Research in this field spans an enormous area connecting many different subjects within the criminal justice field such as law, forensics, and many other areas of criminal justice. Research serves the purpose of studying criminology and its functioning. For example, studies are used to research the possible causes of crime and methods for controlling it. Studies are also used to identify best practices for law enforcement to increased effectiveness or to root out problems. For instance, studies into community policing have revealed that law enforcement is more effective when there are close ties with the communities they serve. Other purposes in research extend into reducing crime and recidivism rates. For instance, research has clearly linked prison overcrowding to zero tolerance policies. Using research in this manner can provide criminal justice with clear strategies, but in order for this research to be effective it needs to be ethical.

The Role of Ethics

Criminal justice is a field that is entrenched in ethics, at all levels of law enforcement, since ethics must be followed to ensure individuals are treated in accordance with their legal rights. Criminal justice research is also bound by ethics, most importantly to ensure research is conducted in a manner that follows sound evidence-based practices and also abides by the humane treatment of individuals. More than just humane treatment, research requires ethical adherence to privacy, informed consent, and other requirements. Examples of unethical research reflect how criminal behavior is difficult to study in an ethical manner. 

Examples of Unethical Criminal Justice Research

Stanford Prison Experiment: Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment at Stanford University in 1971 to simulate a prison environment and study the behavioral and psychological consequences of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard. However, ethical concerns led to its early termination after just six days. The guards were instructed to induce feelings of boredom, frustration, fear, and suffering in the prisoners, sparking criticism regarding the treatment of participants.

Milgram’s Obedience Experiments: These experiments underscored the impact of situational forces on human behavior, but they also exposed participants to potentially harmful situations due to ethical lapses in research practices, drawing criticism for neglecting ethical considerations.

Paying Criminals for Information: This controversial practice involves compensating criminals for divulging information about their criminal activities, raising ethical questions about the propriety of rewarding individuals for sharing details about illegal acts.

These instances underscore the crucial role of ethical considerations in criminal justice research in safeguarding the rights and well-being of participants. Often these concerns are overlooked in the design of tests for prison research, such as the Stanford Prison Experiment While it concluded that prisons and their environments can cause increased aggression in inmates and guards; its results were also impossible to replicate since the experiment is not ethical and cannot be reproduced. There were many flaws in this experiment which ultimately made it impossible to use for policymaking or creating any form of prison program.

This same research could have been achieved using more ethical qualitative and quantitative approaches. In this scenario, quantitative research could have utilized factual data, such as reviewing violent incidence reports from prisons and attempting to show correlation between numbers of incidents and population sizes. Ethical qualitative research could have also been used, which might have involved interviews with prison inmates and guards to determine causes of aggression. These methods of research would have provided substantially more data that was also more useful for understanding prison violence.

The problem with criminal justice studies is that they are often expensive to conduct, and their results are not readily beneficial to society. This is a problem understood from the difference between pure and applied research. Most criminal justice research is pure in nature because it has no market purpose and it is studying phenomena for the sake of knowledge. In contrast to pure research, applied research is used to determine answers to specific problems or situations such as market research to determine the trends in products. As such, pure research such as studying prison populations are costly and their benefit may not always be seen directly. For example, reducing crime within prisons may not have a benefit in the short term, but it may decrease recidivism and healthcare costs due to injuries in the long-term.

The Need for Ethics

Criminal justice research is necessary and important at all levels of the criminal justice system since it can be used to improve processes and efficiency. More importantly, ethical criminal justice research improves the justice system, making it fairer, less biased and less prone to error. Ethics is one of the most important elements pertaining to research because it provides a map for how this research can and should be conducted, regardless of the subject or population. What does it say about a justice system that allows unethical research? Ultimately research ethics provide proper data and information needed by the criminal justice system in order to solve problems and reduce crime.

Photo by Denis Oliveira on Unsplash

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