Culpability Requirements in the Criminal Justice System

Criminal justice professionals work together to serve the public good. Law enforcement officers, judges, probation officers, attorneys and corrections personnel all have important roles in making the American criminal justice system work. They work with public agencies and community organizations to help create a justice system that prevents crime, punishes deviant behavior and rehabilitates offenders and prepares them to re-enter society. In the vein of punishment for crimes, a major responsibility of police officers and court officials is establishing culpability or the lack thereof.

What is Culpability?

Culpability “refers to the blameworthiness of the accused,” according to the definition provided by USLegal. When the court determines that the accused is culpable for a crime, the accused is considered to have an appropriate understanding that what the person did was wrong.

Being culpable implies that an action (or neglect of an action) is immoral, wrong or illegal. It does not, however, always imply malicious intent on the part of the wrongdoer. It simply means liable or blamable. A liable person is answerable for inappropriate actions.

For example, if you are driving on a busy street, lose focus and crash into another vehicle, then you are responsible for your action. Because you didn’t mean to cause harm, it’s called culpable negligence. It’s understood to have been unintentional, but you are still held accountable.

How do criminal justice professionals determine blameworthiness?

The Process of Determining Responsibility

The federal government determines factors of culpability for federal law, and each state decides who will be held responsible for what offenses in an individual state.

Most criminal codes in the U.S. rely on the following four elements of culpability:

  • Intention – Was the crime intentional? In legal terms, people intend to commit crimes if they foresee the consequence and if they intend for those consequence to occur.
  • Knowledge – Is it known that a given action will bring harm? Knowledge is different from intention. If someone plans to murder another person, that’s intention. If someone burns down another person’s home knowing a person is inside, that’s knowledge.
  • Recklessness – By the law, people are considered to have acted recklessly if they knew of and subsequently disregarded a significant risk. The court considers what a reasonable person would do in a given situation, and if the perpetrator’s behavior seems reckless in that context, it contributes to blameworthiness.
  • Criminal Negligence – People may act with or without intention, knowledge or risk and still be criminally negligent. For instance, if a person fires a gun and injures another person. The shooter may have had no intention of harming someone, had no knowledge or reason to believe that the action could harm someone. The shooter could still be considered guilty of criminal negligence if the behavior is deemed risky.

Culpability comes into question at several points of the American justice system, and criminal investigators seek to answer questions related to the requirements for it. Attorneys argue for or against their client’s responsibility. Judges and jurors determine the level of blame an accused or convicted person may hold when determining guilt and sentencing.

Professionals throughout the criminal justice system use the concept of culpability to guide their work in investigations, trials, corrections and rehabilitation.

Becoming a Criminal Justice Professional

Virginia Wesleyan University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice helps students launch careers in law enforcement or corrections and lays a foundation for those seeking to enter law school.

Students can complete Virginia Wesleyan University’s fully online program in as little as 12 months. They study under highly qualified instructors, including criminologists, detectives and lawyers. Graduates of the program can enter federal or local law enforcement or work as private detectives.