How Criminal Justice Students Can Overcome Ethical Dilemmas

detectives at crime scene

There aren't many fields that impact other people's lives as much as criminal justice. As a student in a criminal justice degree program, you're preparing yourself for a career with tremendous consequences. Therefore, it's essential that you establish a strong approach to ethical decision-making and leadership before you graduate, and that includes knowing how to tackle ethical dilemmas. Here are some tips to start building your own code of ethics so you can make better, faster decisions in your future career.

Stake Your Ethical Ground

In order to adhere to a code of ethics, you first need to know what your values are. What are the standards that you'll measure your actions against? There are a number of foundational ethical theories and models you can choose from to align your guiding principles with your own values or those of the institution you're serving.

With a model in place, it's easier to decide on a course of action based on how your options fit within this broader ethical framework. After all, one of the keys to ethical decision-making is consistency, and making every decision in a vacuum can be a recipe for both inconsistency and ethical lapses as well. In a field like criminal justice, consistency is also an essential component of fairness. Arbitrary and inconsistent decisions in this arena can have the effect of undermining public faith in the criminal justice system, which can subsequently lead to dire and self-defeating results.

Acknowledge the Complexities

The thing about dilemmas is that choosing between your options isn't easy – that's what makes it a dilemma. Even when trying to abide by an ethical standard to create outcomes that align, navigating your way to those conclusions isn't always going to be simple. Often, the opposite will be true.

Ethical behavior requires that you first acknowledge the imperfection and complexities that created the dilemma to begin with. Facing these issues head on and thinking through them critically can help ensure that you are tackling the problem with eyes wide open and help you persuade other people who may need to be convinced of your decision. From college to your career, the habit of acknowledging and discussing the problems at play forms the foundation of ethical leadership.

Plan, Implement, and Assess

Now that you've established a framework and talked through the gray areas, how do you actually make a decision? Start by planning out each step you'll take and considering what outcomes could occur at each stage. What other parties will need to be involved, and when? How could they impact the outcome? How might they react, and will you need to respond? What will be the long-term effects of your decision, on both the micro and macro levels? Considering all the variables at play is an important part of the planning process.

When you're certain you've thought through your approach, it's time to put your plan into action. At this point, it can be helpful to break down the implementation into smaller steps, and you should be on the alert for new ethical blind spots that may crop up.

Once your decision is made and the dominoes fall into place, reflect on the outcomes of your decision. Did it go according to plan? Would you have done anything different? What lessons can be applied to similar situations in the future or your overall ethical decision-making process and leadership approach? People who are truly interested in morals and ethics – in doing things the right way – will be eager to assess the effectiveness of their own actions in relation to their ethical code. When it comes to ethics, holding yourself accountable and always striving for improvement is essential.

Whether you're just getting started as a criminal justice undergrad or you're supplementing prior education and experience with a Master's degree in criminal justice, it's never a bad time to analyze your approach to ethical decision-making to ensure you're on solid ground. With the stakes as high as they are, reaching for the right outcomes when ethical dilemmas come your way isn't only a good idea – it's a necessary one.

Written by Ashford University staff

For more information about on-time completion rates, the median loan debt of students who completed each program, and other important information, please visit ashford.edu/pd/omscj. Certain degree programs may not be available in all states.

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