Exploring the Criminal Justice System (College)

by Karrie Carlson

Exploring the Criminal Justice System is the study of the American legal and justice system. Emphasis is placed on the court system and how it relates to the criminal justice system. The United States Constitution, Bill of Rights, and landmark Supreme Court decisions are studied and critiqued in depth. The legislative process will be studied and analyzed. Students will distinguish how laws are carried out and how the American criminal justice system functions on the federal, state and local levels. Students will explore the history of our federal and state courts, civil and criminal law, and their impact on police and corrections. Through research, students will discover how the criminal justice system has evolved to meet the changing needs of modern society.

Program Information
Course Certification Elements
Course Competencies / Outcomes


  • Identify, pursue, and arrest suspects and perpetrators of criminal acts.
  • Provide for public safety by maintaining order, responding to emergencies, protecting people and property, enforcing motor vehicle and criminal laws, and promoting good community relations.
  • Record facts to prepare reports that document incidents and activities.
  • Render aid to accident victims and other persons requiring first aid for physical injuries.
  • Review facts of incidents to determine if criminal act or statute violations were involved.
  • Direct traffic flow and reroute traffic in case of emergencies.
  • Inform citizens of community services and recommend options to facilitate longer-term problem resolution.
  • Investigate traffic accidents and other accidents to determine causes and to determine if a crime has been committed.
  • Issue citations or warnings to violators of motor vehicle ordinances.
  • Monitor traffic to ensure motorists observe traffic regulations and exhibit safe driving procedures.
  • Monitor, note, report, and investigate suspicious persons and situations, safety hazards, and unusual or illegal activity in patrol area.
  • Patrol specific area on foot, horseback, or motorized conveyance, responding promptly to calls for assistance.
  • Photograph or draw diagrams of crime or accident scenes and interview principals and eyewitnesses.
  • Process prisoners, and prepare and maintain records of prisoner bookings and prisoner status during booking and pre-trial process.
  • Provide for public safety by maintaining order, responding to emergencies, protecting people and property, enforcing motor vehicle and criminal laws, and promoting good community relations.
  • Testify in court to present evidence or act as witness in traffic and criminal cases.
Course Work Based Learning Activities

Possible Work based learning activities:

Field trips:

  • Sheriff County Coroner's Office
  • County Jail
  • City jail
  • City police department
  • County sheriff’s department
  • Superior Court

Guest speakers:

  • 911 Dispatcher
  • Crime Scene Technician
  • Forensic Scientist
  • Anthropologist
  • Pharmacist
  • Judge
  • Pathologist
  • Coroner’s Investigator   
  • Police Department
  • Sheriff’s Department
  • FBI
  • DEA
  • ATF
  • NCIS
  • Probation
  • Parole
  • Military

Job Shadows:

  • Police Ride-Along
  • Explorer Program 
  • Cadet Program
  • Every 15 minutes 

Course Materials

Exploring the Criminal Justice System, The Essentials

Robert Regoli, John Hewitt, Anna Kosloski

Course Units (1 semester course)

Unit 1: Origins of the US Law and US Constitutional Amendments

Unit Length (Hours):

9 hours

Unit Description:

Students will compare and contrast the roots of English and American law, creating a timeline illustrating major historical events and developments of  both systems. Students will research the various types of law (Constitutional, Statutory, and Case) and report on their purposes. Students will evaluate Sir Robert Peels’ “Nine Principles of Policing” as they relate to current day issues in society.  Students will define the purpose of various  laws through a Socratic Seminar and determine if old laws are relevant in today's society.

Students research and examine the Bill of Rights , with special focus on the  First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Students will use close reading assignments to examine the United States Constitution, including its philosophical underpinnings and structure.

Unit Competencies/ Outcomes

1. Articulate and discuss the structural framework of criminal statutory law

2. Analyze and consider the historical origins of American Criminal Law.

3. Explain the principles of the US Constitution as it applies to Criminal Procedures  and the Criminal Justice system.

Unit Assessments

Assessment 1

Students will be split up into 6 distinct timeline periods and tasked with making a flow chart or timeline poster formulating the key changes, events and figures that shaped that period.  The assigned periods are as follows:

  • 100-1500 (Alfred the Great, Frank Pledge, Tithing system)
  • 1600-1700 (Early American policing, Rattle Watchmen, Bow Street Runners)
  • 1800’s (Watch and Ward, formation of departments, Sir Robert Peel)
  • 1900-1960’s (prohibition, gangster era)
  • 1960-1970’s  (race riots, civil riots)
  • 1980’s to current date (technology changes, diversity in hiring, community oriented policing)

Students will present their research (via Google presentation) to the class and will be peer evaluated for discussion points.

Assessment 2:

Students will create a 2-3 minute video depicting what would happen if we did not have a particular amendment in the Bill of Rights.  For example, a group  assigned to the 4th amendment would  be required to make a video explaining how a law enforcement officer might treat a pedestrian stop in regards to search and seizure if the amendment did not exist.

The amendments groups consists of the following amendments:

  • 4th - search and seizure
  • 5th - right to remain silent, and double jeopardy
  • 6th - Speedy fair trial with a lawyer
  • 8th - fair bail and punishment
  • 14th- Equal protection to all people, right to due process

After each video has been viewed, a debate over the consequences will be discussed.

Unit 2: The Effects and Outcomes of Landmark Court Cases

Unit Length (Hours):

9 hours

Unit Description:

This unit will require students to research and analyze landmark case  decisions affecting the criminal justice system.  Case studies can take many forms: legal cases based on written opinions of courts; hypothetical situations involving some conflict or dilemma; and real-life situations drawn from newspapers, magazines, books, or other sources.  Students will also discuss case law, how it is made, its component parts, and how to use cases to resolve a legal problem.  Students will be required to prepare a case brief on a landmark case.

Unit Competencies/ Outcomes

Explain the principles of the US Constitution as it applies to Criminal Procedures and the Criminal Justice system.

Appraise value of landmark case decisions and synthesize the impact on modern society.

Unit Assessments 

Assessment 1

Using internet resources students will analyze one of the highlighted landmark cases and prepare case brief summary  using the IRAC Model:

      I - Issue or problem the court faces

      R - Rule or relevant law the court used

      A - Application or how the court applied the rule to case

      C - Conclusion or outcome of case

The conclusion shall include the case decision’s cause and effects on law enforcement personnel and how an officer performs their jobs based on the landmark case.

  • Miranda V. Arizona
  • Mapp V. Ohio
  • Weeks V. United States
  • Terry V. Ohio
  • Illinois V. Gates
  • United States V. Ross
  • United States v. Martinez-Fuerte (1976)
  • Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
  • Harris v. United States (1968)
  • Carroll V. United States
  • Graham v. Connor, (1989)

After each oral presentation, students will be directed in a class discussion regarding the case.

Unit 3: The Courts

Unit Length (Hours):

9 hours

Unit Description:

Students will define a variety of terms associated with litigation and trial practice. Students will be able to understand  the procedural steps in jury and non jury trials from pretrial through the appeal.  Students will understand  the role of a jury in a criminal case versus a civil case in state court proceedings.  Students will examine the importance of the jury in relation to fairness and due process.  Students will participate in a mock trial and evaluate the effectiveness of the process while learning the relevance and  roles of judge,  bailiff, court clerk , prosecutor and the defense attorney.

Unit Competencies/ Outcomes

Comprehend the functions of the Criminal Justice system from detention through release back into society.

Analyze the adversarial process in the presentation of evidence and consider the roles of the prosecutor, defense counsel, judge and jury

Understand how to prepare a case for successful prosecution in court

Unit Assessment

Assessment 1

Jury Selection Assignment: After discussion about how a person can qualify to become a juror, students will be given opportunity to choose their own jury from a panel of potential jurors. The case, victim and defendant will be described prior to the students hearing the profiles of the potential jurors. Students will be broken up into groups of four. Two students will be chosen as the prosecution and the other two will be defense attorneys. The groups will be shown photos and profiles of 16 potential jurors for a street robbery case. The students must take notes and rate the jurors based their profiles. After all profiles have been presented, the two teams will go back and forth choosing jurors based on how they feel they will see their case. Each side may strike two jurors the other side chooses until 12 jurors are “sitting” for the case. After the panel is set, the instructor will give points for each potential juror based on their potential biases. For example, juror number one, who is an elderly female, may relate more to the victim who is also elderly and therefore the prosecution will earn more points for getting juror one on the panel as opposed to defense who will earn less for having juror one selected. This assignment is a competitive learning activity in which the students want to earn more points than the other side in order to “win” the case.

Assessment 2

Mock Trial Assignment: After discussion and research on the courts and how a case is tried the students will participate in a mock homicide trial. Students will be chosen to play the role or part of a judge, bailiff, court clerk, prosecuting attorney and defense attorney. A defendant will be chosen and may or may not testify depending on what the defense attorney decides. Other students will be given the role of investigation police officer, crime scene expert, Sergeant, pathologist, or witness. A jury of twelve will be chosen and will decide if the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not guilty. The prosecution will be tasked with presenting the evidence to prove the elements of a homicide are present and the defendant is responsible. The case is set up so that either side can win depending on the evidence presented or the doubt provided by the defense.

Unit 4: Branches of the Criminal Justice System

Unit Length (Hours):

9 hours

Unit Description:

Through reading and discussion of the different levels of the state and federal courts, students will research and analyze the different branches of the Criminal Justice System. Students will demonstrate the understanding of the information provided.  Students will describe court levels,  Federal, State and local levels. Using the resources, students compare the court levels, using a flow chart of the hierarchies (power of authority) of the court structure.  Students will identify  the components of each level and as well as the court officers and the role they play.

Unit Competencies/ Outcomes

Articulate and discuss the structural framework of criminal statutory law.

Analyze and assess the differences between federal and state courts.

Unit Assessment

Assessment 1

Court Visit Assignment

Student will be required to attend either youth court or adult court.  Permission is needed for youth court, whereas adult court cases can be attended by general public.

For youth court, complete the following assignment:

In a one-page paper describe the following without using names:

  • What were the charges the youth was charged with?
  • What are the details of the case?
  • Describe the evidence against the youth.
  • Describe how the defense attorney represented the youth.
  • What was the decision of the jury?  
  • Do you agree with the decision?
  • What were the consequences for the offense?

For adult court, complete the following assignment:

In a one-page paper describe the following:

  • What type of courtroom was it? (Prelim. hearing, arraignment, misdemeanor or felony case)
  • Describe what you heard.   Write about the details of the case.
  • Describe the duties of the judge, bailiff and attorneys in the courtroom.
  • Explain what you learned from this experience. Be specific.

Written papers will be graded for completeness and relative information relayed by observer.

Assessment 2

Play the Annenberg Classroom Court Quest game.  This activity will help the student understand the different types of courts throughout our country.  Students must "help" clients negotiate their way through the court system choosing the correct court depending on the case and type of law addressed.  

www.annenbergclassroom.org/page/court-quest

Unit 5: Social Responsibilities

Unit Length (Hours):

9 hours

Unit Description:

Through reading, analyzing, and discussion, students will be able to exhibit an understanding of the concepts of equal access to justice.  Students will be able to compare and identify ethical and non-ethical standards expected of the criminal justice system.  Students will be able to critique and evaluate the historical issues of gender equality faced within the criminal justice system.  

Students will be able to identify how the criminal justice system has evolved to meet the changing needs of our modern society.

Students will analyze the the concept of police discretion and how it works in a modern police department.

Unit Competencies/ Outcomes

Describe the concept of community alliance between the public and the police.

Compare and contrast the various police community relations programs in place today.

Unit Assessment

Assessment 1

Through internet research students will compare and contrast the current hiring standards for male and female applicants entering the law enforcement industry. They are to conduct the research on two large police agencies.   Students will need to be able to determine if Constitutional Law or Case law might be a factor in hiring based on gender.  

Assessment 2

Ethics and policy through current events.  Students will research and find a current situation in which law enforcement ethics is in question.  Each student will research the facts and present the situation and possible solutions to the class via a visual presentation.

Assessment 3

Students will research and present a current controversial case where police discretion was used.  Incidents such as pursuits and use of force will be highlighted as examples.  

Unit 6: Exploring current trends

Unit Length (Hours):

9 hours

Unit Description:

Through reading, analyzing, and discussion, students will be able to exhibit an understanding of the concepts of current political trends and how they affect the criminal justice system.  Currently in California there are two new laws that have affected the role of law enforcement: Prop. 47 which has decriminalized many felonies and misdemeanors or non arrest situations, and AB109 that has released prisoners into our society at a fast rate. Students will be able to compare and identify how the changes have affected the criminal justice system. Students will be able to critique and evaluate the laws.

Unit Competencies/ Outcomes

Differentiate and assess situations using the new laws which are being instituted in California

Unit Assessment

Students will be broken up into 4 different groups and placed on a “for” or “against” side of Prop. 47 or AB109.  After research and group time, the sides will be involved in a 30-45 minute debate.  Current cases and examples need to be used to state each side in a convincing manner. The debate can be run using any form of debate format.  An example format:

Tag team debate, each team of students (no more than 5) represents one side of a debatable question.

  • Each team has a set amount of time (3-5 minutes) to present its point of view.
  • Read aloud the issue to be discussed. Give each team the opportunity to discuss their argument.
  • One speaker from a team takes the floor and can speak for no more than 1 minute. That speaker may "tag" another member of the team to pick up the argument


Course Summative Assessment

Students will be required to research and present research on case law that is relevant to the current political atmosphere.  Students may present the research via a 5-7 minute recorded video or a 5-7 minute lecture using PowerPoint or similar format.  The project will be teacher and peer evaluated.