The Top Criminal Justice Misconceptions on Television
Crime shows like CSI and Law and Order are extremely popular, partly due to the fact that viewers see a crime, investigation, and arrest all within a one hour-long episode. In reality, the process is not that simple and there is a lot more involved.
One of the biggest misconceptions found on the TV show CSI, and others like it, is how long everything takes. Crime scene investigations don’t take hours or days like on a typical TV episode. They can take months, years, or even decades depending on the case evidence. It takes time to investigate a crime scene, check for DNA and fingerprints, analyze the evidence collected, find and interview witnesses and go through trials. The crime scene investigation itself can be quite lengthy, let alone the arrest and conviction process.
On various crime shows, you will often see one person who works for law enforcement who acts as the crime scene investigator, detective and data analysis specialist all in one. This is very misleading as most people working in criminal justice have a specific departmental focus. The person who collects DNA is not the same person investigating a crime or arresting the accused. When you obtain a degree in criminal justice, you can choose your area of expertise with a specialization or certification.
The process of collecting and analyzing fingerprints also takes longer than what you see on television. Proper fingerprinting identification is based on a 9-point evaluation. On TV you might see fingerprints run in under a minute but, in actuality, the FBI is scanning a database of more than 65 million prints; it can take six months to a year to complete the fingerprinting process.
Crime shows portray investigation teams working a single case at a time. In reality, law enforcement agencies balance a high volume of cases that are being worked simultaneously.
The ration of cases that are solved is far less than what you see on TV. Unfortunately, only about half of cases investigated are actually solved.
Collecting DNA is a more lengthy process than what you see on CSI: Miami and similar television programs, nor is there an instant turnaround when analyzing it. The sample is received by a lab technician and reviewed for accuracy and qualification. Once the offender’s qualification is verified and there is no reason for rejection, it can begin the DNA typing process. Once DNA analysis is complete, the data is entered into the FBI’s COmbined DNA Index System (CODIS). This information is searched at the state and national level routinely against unsolved crimes and missing persons cases.
As opposed to what CSI and other crime shows depict, not all eyewitnesses have solid knowledge of the event to help the case. Research has proven that many witnesses don’t have an exact memory of what they saw, if any at all. In criminal justice degree courses, professionals learn how to best judge a good eyewitness from one who doesn’t have an accurate memory of the events they witnessed.
One thing that can be surprising for many criminal justice students is how much of an impact crime shows have on the jurors; those who watch these shows will have a different opinion than those who don’t watch them. This is sometimes called, “The CSI Effect”. Studies have shown that jurors can be easily swayed by eyewitness and victim testimony and the presence of DNA due to what they see on shows. For example, jurors who watch CSI will tend to prefer solid DNA over testimony in rape cases and with breaking and entering cases, they are more willing to vote guilty when there is a victim involved.
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