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Criminal Justice at the Federal Level


The responsibilities for criminal prosecution and imprisonment are divided between the local, state, and federal levels of the judicial system. Such crimes as, for example, drug distribution, could violate state and federal laws simultaneously. Therefore, these wrongdoings could be investigated at either of two levels. Even though crime legislation is mainly conducted at the state level, the federal government could impose specific requirements for the projects it subsidizes. The next significant responsibility of the federal government is to control the observance of constitutionally guaranteed human rights (Friends Committee on National Legislation). The current paper examines the issue of criminal justice at the federal level and describes the relationship between the federal and state levels.

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The Federal Level of Criminal Justice

First of all, it is necessary to note that not all crimes belong to a federal offense. In all the states of the US, murder is considered a crime. Nevertheless, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it would not be regarded as a federal offense unless “a federal official is murdered while performing official functions” (para. 4). The same pattern characterizes robbery that would be counted as a federal crime only if there is some link with the federal government. The same is true not only for murder and robbery but also for arson, rape, theft, and burglary. From this, it could be inferred that a crime would be investigated by federal law enforcement agencies only if this crime contravenes federal law.

Still, some crimes are considered purely federal offenses. For instance, counterfeiting belongs to this category since printing money is a duty of only the federal government. Additionally, if a felon crosses the border of states while committing a crime, his or her actions would be regarded as a federal offense. This implies that if, for example, a person was kidnapped in one state, it would be a crime at the state level. However, if a kidnapper moved a person from one state to another, it would become a federal crime.

Besides, as has already been mentioned in the introductory section, the federal government bears responsibility for the protection of constitutionally guaranteed rights of people from being limited by the criminal justice system. The illustrations of such duties are the fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, and fourteenth amendments of the US constitution. The mentioned amendments guarantee protection from unsubstantiated seizure and search, self-incrimination, and atypical punishment. The amendments also ensure the ability to have counsel during the court hearing (US Const. amend. IV, V, VI, VIII, XIV). What is more, at the federal level, courts use the all-purpose judge system, which implies that the same judge conducts a whole court case, without passing it to another judge at certain stages. Therefore, the federal level of criminal justice is distinguished from the state one by a narrower set of duties and functions.

The Federal Level of Criminal Justice and Constitutional Rights

Another essential function of federal courts is the protection of the constitutional rights of US citizens. Initially, the Bill of Rights restricted only the federal governments; however, in the 20th century, the Supreme Court has begun to enforce some rights against the government of states. At the federal level, courts guarantee the compliance of the undeniable citizens rights, and to some extent, the rights of people without US citizenship who are currently residing at its territory. An example of protection of the rights of non-citizens could be the help of asylum-seekers (Human Rights Watch). However, it also should be noted that the current administration imposes strict sanctions such as deportation towards undocumented immigrants who enter the country.

Still, the protection of constitutional rights at the federal level requires certain advancements. The issues of illicit drug distribution, gun violence, labor rights, and gender identity remain unsolved (Human Rights Watch). It is not easy to establish regulations of these aspects at the federal level because all states have different laws and regulations at the domestic level. For instance, in some states, the usage of particular sorts of light drugs is permitted for therapeutic purposes while others are forbidden. The same is true for the creation of paid family leave programs. It is curious to notice that federal law enforcement agencies promote the idea of expanding their hacking and monitoring powers (Human Rights Watch). What is more, the Federal Bureau of Investigation forces American IT companies to weaken the protection of private communications (Human Rights Watch). From one point of view, the expansion of authorities would enhance national defense capabilities. From another point of view, it would threaten and limit the privacy of both citizens and non-citizens.

Another compelling case deals with the problem of gender discrimination. In May 2016, the Department of Education and one of Labor created guidance that regarded discrimination on the ground of gender identity as sex discrimination (Human Rights Watch). The latter is forbidden under federal law. Nevertheless, a federal court prohibited the departments from enforcing their interpretations of the federal law (Human Rights Watch). Thus, undoubtedly, constitutional rights are protected in the federal system, but these rights are connected with the judicial system, not ordinary life.

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The relationship between the Federal and the State Level of Criminal Justice

Some minor connections between both levels of criminal justice have been described in the second section of the current research paper. More precisely, certain conditions turn state offenses into federal ones. Another significant issue that links these two levels of criminal justice is the Dual Sovereignty Doctrine (US Const. amend. V). This doctrine means that a state and a federal government could prosecute a suspect simultaneously, which would not violate the interdiction of double jeopardy. A suspect should commit a crime that breaks the law of each sovereign. In other words, an individual could be accused of the same illegal act twice and thus be doomed to double punishment. Besides, Blackman emphasizes that in the system of dual sovereignty, “Congress has plenary power over the state courts through concurrent, mandatory, and exclusive jurisdiction” (2033). Consequently, Congress could permit or prohibit state courts to examine the causes of action that could lead to the consideration of the case at the federal level. From this, stems a question about the de facto sovereignty of the state judicial system.

Still, it should be noted that in a number of cases, the Supreme Court refused the suggestion to abolish the dual sovereignty doctrine. At the same time, dual prosecution for the same crime is prohibited by the Constitution. Therefore, it could be argued that the doctrine violates constitutional laws. Nevertheless, it could be argued that at the times when the Constitution was written, the crime was viewed as an infringement of some particular law, while currently, the federal and state government have different laws. Thus, a perpetrator is not dually prosecuted for the violation of one law. Instead, he or she is accused of the breach of two regulations of the different levels. What is more, two penalties may be imposed on a violator. From one point of view, this idea seems to be justified. Nevertheless, an individual might be accused by mistake, and then he or she must serve two sentences instead of being free. In addition, it could be argued that a delinquent is convicted two times for the same action.


In conclusion, it should be mentioned that the division of judicial power between the federal and state levels causes certain inconveniences and misinterpretations. For example, there are debates on the effectiveness and justifiability of the Dual Sovereignty Doctrine. On one hand, it should prohibit double jeopardy. On the other hand, an intruder receives two punishments for one action. Besides, federal courts could manipulate state ones and make them either pass the examined case to the federal level or not. Federal courts guarantee the protection of rights stipulated by the fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, and fourteenth amendments of the US constitution. However, there are some concerns about the federal judicial system’s ability to protect such fundamental human rights as equality, non-discrimination, and privacy. In spite of the fact mentioned above, it should be admitted that criminal justice at the federal level still exists, and it deals with more sophisticated cases than state courts.

Works Cited

Blackman, Josh. “State Judicial Sovereignty.” University of Illinois Law Review, vol. 2016, no. 5, 2016, pp. 2033.-2128.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. “A Brief Description of the Federal Criminal Justice Process”, n.d.

Friends Committee on National Legislation. “State and Federal Responsibilities for Criminal Justice”. n.d.

Human Rights Watch. “United States. Events of 2016”.

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US Const. amend. IV, V, VI, VIII, XIV.

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