In most professions, ethics is an important part of the relationships that govern industries. In both the practices of law and medicine, ethics is essential. The question – explain the statement “without knowledge of ethics, criminal justice professionals may be naïve about moral issues occurring within the criminal justice system” – gives greater credence to the motivations that sometimes guide professionals within the criminal justice system than is usually warranted. Virtually all professionals within the criminal justice system, whether law enforcement officers, correctional facility staffs, prosecuting and defense attorneys, or judges, are all well-versed in the fundamental ethics that presumably guide their conduct. There shouldn’t be any naiveté involved; that is the whole point of “professionalism.” That said, it would be misleading to suggest that moral questions don’t challenge even the most astute professionals within a system prone to broad interpretations of law and frequently operating within the “gray areas” within which much of life often occurs.
Ethics, of course, differs from the law in terms of the legal strictures and ramifications associated with their violation. Ethics overlap with the law, sometimes considerably, but don’t always, and usually entail expectations of conduct that are voluntary but transgressions against which can involve professional ruin, such as debarment in the case of lawyers. Ethics are, however, at the core of the legal profession. Within the practice of law, the American Bar Association governs the legal profession with respect to its Model Rules of Professional Conduct, violation of which can result in suspension of license and debarment. Such fundamental tenets as attorney-client privilege and basic levels of competency are important for the integrity of the criminal and civil justice systems. Newly-barred attorneys may be naïve regarding some of the aforementioned “gray areas,” for example, a decision to violate attorney-client privilege in the interest of public safety, but knowledge of ethics is drilled into law students and a part of the bar exam, so a basic understanding of ethics and the practice of law should already exist.
For law enforcement officers, the decisions, as evident in Ferguson, Missouri, can be instantaneous and life-threatening. The provision of badge and firearms carries with it a great deal of responsibility, and knowledge of the nexus between ethics and the law is as important as for any profession. Morality can be subjective, and the view from inside a patrol vehicle can be enormously different than that in the tenement slums and inner-city school yards where challenges can be the greatest. The burdens on police officers, and on correctional officers working inside prisons, are enormous, and the margin for error minimal. As with newly-trained lawyers, police recruits are trained in ethics, but the realities of the environments in which they operate on a daily basis do not always lend themselves to conventional ideas of ethical behavior, especially where the scourge of drugs is concerned. Officers operating undercover to infiltrate outlaw biker gangs, drug traffickers or other criminal organizations are constantly challenged to adhere to basic tenets of morality while deeply immersed in the most of unethical environments. Not only are their lives at constant risk if their cover is blown, but criminal cases can be jeopardized if the undercover officer unintentionally, or intentionally but with good intentions, violates codes of ethics.
Knowledge of ethics is an integral component of all criminal justice professions. Probation officers, bail-bondsmen, police officers, lawyers, and judges are all sworn to uphold certain minimum levels of ethical behavior. Naiveté is no excuse for unethical conduct. Unethical criminal justice professionals are not naïve; they are attempting to manipulate the system for advantage. Obviously, there are exceptions, but such exceptions are few in number and circumstance.