Ethical Leadership in Criminal Justice

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The criminal justice system assumes responsibility for maintaining social order and protecting citizens from crime, but numerous ethical violations within the system reduce its efficacy. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the importance of ethical leadership in criminal justice and review the traits, which are the most important to an ethical leader. The discussion revolves around the following thesis: an ideal ethical leader in criminal justice is a person, who recognizes the complexity of ethical choices, can distinguish the meaning of law from the meaning of ethics and is capable of using this power potential wisely for the benefit of the criminal justice organization and the community he/she serves.

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Despite the level of responsibility imposed on criminal justice professionals, they are not secured from ethical violations. In the past fifteen years, the criminal justice system has become much more susceptible to public attacks for non-compliance. Wright (1999) writes about a reporter who, under the Freedom of Information Act, managed to discover an alarming number of correctional officers arrested for at least one kind of criminal activity, while operating in the criminal justice system. Excessive use of force in the police is also a matter of public concern (Wright, 1999). In all these situations, the role of ethical leadership is vital to the survival of the entire system. However, given the amount of authority in the hands of most criminal justice professionals, ethical pressures on their leaders are likely to be much greater than in public service organizations outside of the system. An ideal ethical leader in criminal justice is a person, who recognizes the complexity of ethical choices, can distinguish the meaning of law from the meaning of ethics and is capable of using this power potential wisely for the benefit of the criminal justice organization and the community.

The ethical pressures in criminal justice organizations differ considerably from the ethical challenges facing private businesses and other public institutions. According to Banks (2012), criminal justice professionals “are given great authority under the law, and that authority is to be employed ideally in enforcing the law and protecting the public” (p. 23). Criminal justice professionals deprive criminals of their freedoms, and they have discretionary power to make the decisions, which impact the freedoms available to citizens. The system of criminal justice is based on a combination of powers given to it by the community, but it cannot use these powers effectively and safely without maintaining the highest level of ethical integrity. All criminal justice professionals are human beings, and they are not secured from the risks of fallibility (Wright, 1999). They face numerous temptations and issues while fulfilling their primary obligations. The forces which normally cause individuals to act unethically also have their effects on criminal justice employees (Wright, 1999). This is why the importance of ethical leadership in criminal justice is normally higher than in other organizational and institutional fields.

The importance of ethical leadership in criminal justice is justified by the considerable influence it has on the quality of organizational climates, as well as it’s potential to keep officers from engaging in unethical practices. Ethical leadership predetermines the amount of unethical conduct present within a particular agency (Wright, 1999). However, it is not enough for top managers to know codes of ethics and try to enforce them effectively (Dion, 2008). Much more important for the leader is to achieve a perfect fit of the ethical stance and the strategies, systems, procedures, policies, and culture within the criminal justice agency (Dion, 2008). Successful ethical leadership recipes will vary across organizations, but certain features can guarantee the creation of a more ethical climate in most organizational settings.

An ideal ethical leader in criminal justice realizes, recognizes, and deals with the complexity of ethical decisions within his/her agency. It is the leader, who is ready to discuss these complexities openly and involve others in the development of relevant solutions (Thornton, 2014). Ethical leaders are capable of talking about the difficult ethical choices they have to make, in order to achieve integrity and maintain stability in their criminal justice agencies. Such talks, as well as ethical actions, should become an essential part of day-to-day operations and decisions. Thornton (2014) recommends using ethics in day-to-day approaches to decision-making. Criminal justice professionals should not perceive ethics as a distant perspective or a source of theoretical knowledge about professionalism. “Every activity, whether it is a training program, a client meeting, or an important top management strategy session, should include conversations about ethics” (Thornton, 2014, p. 34). The leader must motivate and obligate the agency to embrace the existing ethical challenges and send a message that ethical conduct is not limited to legal compliance (Mills, 2003).

An ethical leader in the criminal justice system is a person, who is aware of the fact that being legal does not always mean being ethical. At earlier times, the difference between law and ethics was rather blurred, mainly because the challenges facing the criminal justice system were not as pervasive as they are today (Mills, 2003). The present-day society is changing rapidly, challenging established norms and beliefs. A truly ethical leader must be aware of these challenges and changes. Meeting them effectively is impossible without expanding ethical coverage beyond the realm of law. The current state of the law is too narrow to address all ethical problems in criminal justice. An ethical leader must become the point of ethos, which will promote the most essential values to underpin day-to-day decisions (Mills, 2003). He/she will serve as a role model for other officers, as they try to achieve ethical integrity and use it for the benefit of their community.

Finally, bearing in mind the level of responsibility and accountability requirements imposed on criminal justice, and ethical leader must be able to maintain a perfect balance of power and ethics. Ethical leadership in criminal justice must always entail a wise and balanced utilization of the existing power potentials in ways that protect the rights and interests of the community it serves (Thoms, 2008). Ethical leaders are expected to set, distribute, and maintain a culture of morality and compliance. Thoms (2008) is right: individuals working in top positions assume complete responsibility for demonstrating ethical leadership so that leaders and professionals at lower levels of the organizational hierarchy can grasp and embrace its importance. In the same way, it is the ethical leader who teaches followers to use their powers wisely and in accordance with the law and ethical principles of work in criminal justice. In a society where law and order are crucial values, the quality of ethics in criminal justice is always at the center of public attention. Beyond being respectful of all employees and understanding the difference between law and ethics, an ideal ethical leader will always know how to balance the calls for power with the calls for fairness and justice in relations between citizens and the system.

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To conclude, ethical leadership is one of the chief considerations, when it comes to assuring the quality of professional performance in the criminal justice system. The importance of ethical leadership in criminal justice and law enforcement can hardly be overstated. Ethical leaders set the stage for creating, distributing, and maintaining a healthy organizational culture, which facilitates the provision of quality services to the community without abusing the rights and powers of professionals in the system. Unfortunately, not every leader knows how to be ethical. In criminal justice, an ideal ethical leader must understand and acknowledge the complexity of ethical challenges, realize the difference between ethics and law, and be able to maintain an ideal balance of ethics and power. The latter is particularly relevant in light of the numerous responsibilities and accountability requirements imposed on the criminal justice system. An ethical leader must show respect for everyone in the criminal justice organization and actively involve them in the process of making ethical decisions. Respect should become a fundamental feature of ethical leadership in criminal justice. Beyond showing respect for everyone in the criminal justice agency, an ethical leader will certainly know how to balance the calls for power and effective prevention and punishment of crime with the calls for fairness and justice in relations with every citizen and the entire community.

References

Banks, C. (2012). Criminal justice ethics: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Dion, M. (2008). Ethical leadership and crime prevention in the organizational setting. Journal of Financial Crime, 15(3), 308-319.

Mills, A. (2003). Ethical decision making and policing – the challenge for police leadership. Journal of Financial Crime, 10(4), 331-335.

Thoms, J.C. (2008). Ethical integrity in leadership and organizational moral culture. Leadership, 4(4), 419-442.

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Thornton, L.F. (2014). Ethical leadership: 7 lenses – principles and practices. Leadership Excellence, 31(1), 34.

Wright, K.N. (1999). Leadership is the key to ethical practice in criminal justice agencies. Criminal Justice Ethics, 18(2), 67-68.

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