The wheels of criminal justice might move slowly and fitfully when insufficient attention is paid to the system as a whole. In Britain, for example, a parliamentary committee warned two years ago that its overstretched system was "close to breaking point". And in Canada, justice ministers had emergency meetings last year when excessive delays prompted an apex court ruling that led to serious criminal charges, including murder cases, being thrown out as a result of unreasonable waiting periods. The American system is flawed too, according to some critics who view it as "neither too lenient nor too punitive, but too prone to both extremes". At times, calls for systemic reform might arise when abuse surfaces - like the stripping, beating and gassing of children under detention in Australia's Northern Territory.
The recurring nature of such debates over the years reflects both the grinding pace of change in many places and the tension between two competing aims. Foremost is the instrumental purpose of criminal justice, which is to deter criminal behaviour and reduce the incidence of crime. The emphasis here is on effective policing methods, rigorous prosecution, and appropriate punishment for offenders.