Criminal Justice Leadership: Challenges in the Present and Improving for the Future


As fast-paced times brought in numerous technological innovations in the modern world, crime, drugs, violence, terrorism and other types of social malaise still remains to be a problem like in the past. Worse, new and modern types of misdemeanors have sprouted like cybercrime, organized crime and many more that has increased the role of criminal justice leadership at present. As these modern misdemeanors threaten people, the police, courts, and correctional agencies will definitely need to face multifarious challenges today and in the future. It is but logical that the criminal justice system must be perceived as having authority by the people it serves. Thus, it is vital that to gain the confidence of the people for them to perceive the authority and accept the legitimacy of the criminal justice system.

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In this regard, strong leadership in the criminal justice system will buttress the organization as a whole for it to achieve all its goals and missions. This is because an important aspect of leadership is helping a group choose the “right” decision method (Schermerhorn, Hunt & Osborn, 2003). In this case, we will try to delve into the current state of leadership in the criminal justice system and try to assess if it is satisfactory enough to promote the development of the organization.

Sad to say, inappropriate, illegal, and unethical behavior can occur in all types of organizations, like hospitals, social service agencies, corporations, and even universities. It is not surprising that criminal justice agencies will be susceptible to some unethical practices. Some members will eventually succumb to corruption, will use excessive force, will commit acts of brutality, will violate due process protections and human rights provisions of individuals, will exploit and harass clients and fellow workers, and engage in other unethical practices (Wright, 1999). Thus, it will be essential to survey the different challenges that criminal justice leadership in order to view what changes should be done in the next five years.

The first challenge in criminal justice leadership is to apply current theoretical models of leadership in criminal justice organization. Klofas et al. (2003) revealed that only a few empirical testing of the theoretical models of leadership in criminal justice organizations has been attempted. Moreover, what has been done is still rooted in the 1950s research of the Ohio State and the Michigan studies. This situation may be caused either by slow application of current theoretical models of leadership to criminal justice organizations or the limited number of reliable instruments to test the new theoretical positions. However, some new research, particularly in the police field, could reveal what leadership in criminal justice agencies can do and from there criminal justice leaders can draw implications for its management.

For example, the research by Kuykendall and Unsinger (1982) suggested that police managers have a preferred leadership orientation. The researchers used an instrument created by Hershey and Blanchard (1977), the researchers found that police managers are likely to use styles of leadership known as selling (high task and high relationship emphasis), telling (high task and low relationship emphasis), and participating (high relationship and low task emphasis), with very little concern for delegating (low relationship and low task emphasis).

Of these styles of leadership, which are similar to those discussed previously, the most preferred style is selling. The researchers suggest that police managers are no less effective than managers in other organizational settings and that the selling, telling, and participating styles lead to organizational effectiveness.

Similar findings were generated by Swanson et al. (1988) in their research involving 104 police supervisors in the Southeast in the late 1970s. Using the managerial grid, the researchers found that their sample of police supervisors showed high concern for both production and people and emphasized team management in their organizations.

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Employing other measures, the researchers also found that police supervisors used a style of communication that emphasized the open and candid expression of their feelings and knowledge to subordinates rather than a style of communication that emphasized feedback from subordinates to managers about their supervisory capabilities. This research suggested that police managers had an open communication style with subordinates and supported the idea that police managers were indeed democratic in their leadership styles (at least, they professed to be).

Later research, however, suggested that such a participative and democratic leadership style is not as ubiquitous in police organizations as previously indicated. Auten (1985), for example, found in his sample of police supervisors and operations personnel in state police agencies in Illinois that the dominant managerial model was the traditional paramilitary one, with one-way communication. In addition, these police supervisors and operations personnel strongly believed that they had no meaningful role in organizational decision making. The researchers suggest that there were communications breakdowns between the supervisory and operations personnel and the administrative heads of the agencies.

Not only is there limited consensus on what type of leadership styles predominate among police managers and administrators, but when police supervisors are asked to think about a leadership style as opposed to acting out a style in a specific situation, they tend to change their approaches to leadership. Clearly, what a supervisor regards as an appropriate style of leadership may not be in agreement with what he or she actually does in a given situation.

Current research, for example, on occupational stress, high turnover, absenteeism, and substance abuse in the police field suggested that the traditional paramilitary structure of police organizations, with its emphasis on an autocratic style of leadership, created and perpetuated these problems. These problems may be traced to other factors in the police role, such as the danger associated with the job, yet it is important to examine how specific leadership styles contribute many of these problems. Much leadership research in policing is lacking in this area (Klofas et al., 2003).

Also, another challenge in criminal justice leadership are the concerns raised in the style of leadership in the courts, prisons, and probation and parole organizations. Leaders of these departments have problems trying to understand the political process and how it affects their organizations. Many have concerns about how much of their organizations they really control, particularly in tight fiscal times when resources are stretched and competition among social service agencies for finite dollars is fierce. Like police administrators, court and correctional administrators are not often expected to perform tasks that they agree with nor have the resources to successfully complete.

A prime example of this difficulty is the “three strikes” initiative that swept the country during the early 1990s. For many departments of corrections’ leaders and prison administrators, such a law was impossible to live with and had dire practical consequences for prison management. Yet, its political appeal was so great that political leaders jumped on the bandwagon to pass laws that were difficult to implement and, in some cases, draconian in their effects (Irwin and Austin, 1995).

Klofas et al. (2003) mentioned a review of the Leadership Institute offered by the California Department of Corrections showed that effective qualities of leaders can be identified and taught to criminal justice administrators. The program, however, must be evaluated to determine its effectiveness in transmitting the principles of leadership to the real world of criminal justice management and administration. Such future evaluations will help identify primary elements of criminal justice leadership and will also prove invaluable to criminal justice administrators in confronting the day-to-day challenges of being leaders of large public organizations.

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Given the current state of leadership research in both police organizations and correctional organizations, it is recommended that the following issues be addressed in the next five years:

  1. Additional research needs to be done on how criminal justice administrators actually lead their organizations. This is because much existing research is out of date and tells us little about the increasing complexities of the leadership process.
  2. The contemporary models of leadership offered by organizational behavior theory need to be examined. Contingency approaches should be examined in relation to criminal justice organizations, along with refinement of instruments to test these theories in the criminal justice environment. The situational factors influencing the leadership process must be examined in the operations of criminal justice systems.
  3. To understand fully the leadership phenomenon in criminal justice organizations, they must use the new methodologies to look at the intricacies associated with the leadership process. Traditional survey methods in criminal justice organizations have yielded some valuable information, yet field methods would provide information about the actual leadership mechanisms used by criminal justice administrators. To understand the leadership process, it is helpful to watch and document what criminal justice leaders actually do and, more important, be able to distinguish effective criminal justice leaders from ineffective ones.
  4. Lastly, criminal justice organizations need to discuss how much they can expect of criminal justice managers in terms of leadership. It is common to blame the poor performance of subordinates on ineffective management or leadership. On many occasions, because the chief has limited resources and multiple demands, all community expectations for police services cannot be met. Too often the chief is viewed as an ineffective leader when leadership has little to do with this problem. To be effective, a leader must provide some degree of control over the external environment. But we need to be realistic about how much a police administrator can control. Perhaps for this reason, many experts recommend that incoming police chiefs develop clear and stable relations with local political groups so that expectations can be spelled out on both sides.


We all know that individuals are either elected or appointed to lead criminal justice organizations. Usually, these leaders have come up through the ranks of the organization. They understand the importance of creating and setting the “tone” in the organization and they can influence the culture of the organization. Indeed, criminal justice literature is replete with accounts of both the good and the bad in the cultures of criminal justice organizations. Whether these accounts reflect corruption in police organizations or the alleged violence and brutality of correctional work, concerns have been raised about how such cultures are created, sustained, and perpetuated in criminal justice organizations.

For many the issue hinges on the role of leadership in influencing organizational culture. Stojkovic and Farkas (2003) have noted the importance of leadership to organizational culture. Their research suggested that effective leadership within criminal justice organizations must pay attention to how cultures are created, the mechanisms which transmit culture to new employees, the role of leaders in the transmission of culture, and how culture can be influenced by administrators. Future research in criminal justice leadership will have to address the importance of organizational culture and offer suggestions on how it can be created and nurtured to fulfill organizational goals of criminal justice organizations.


Auten, J. (1985). The paramilitary model of police and police professionalism. In The Ambivalent Force: Perspectives on the Police, A. S. Blumberg and E. Niederhoffer, (eds.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Irwin J. & Austin J. (1997). It’s About Time: America’s Imprisonment Binge. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Klofas, J., Kalinich, D., & Stojkovic, S. (2003). Criminal Justice Organizations: Administration and Management, 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Kuykendall, J. & Unsinger, P. (1982). The Leadership Styles of Police Managers. Journal of Criminal Justice, 10, 311-321.

Locke, E.A., Shaw, K.N., Saari, L.M., & Latham, G.P. (1991). Goal Setting and Task Performance: 1969-1980, Psychological Bulletin, 90, 125-152.

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Schermerhorn, J. R., Hunt, J. G., & Osborn, R. N. (2005). Organizational Behavior. New York: Wiley.

Stojkovic, S., & Farkas, M.A. (2003). Correctional Leadership: A Cultural Perspective. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Swanson, C.R., Territo, L. & Taylor, R.W. (1988). Police Administration: Structures, Processes and Behavior, 2nd ed., New York: MacMillan.

Wright, K.N. (1999). Leadership Is the Key to Ethical Practice in Criminal Justice Agencies. Criminal Justice Ethics, 18(2): 2.

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