The Wedding Cake Model of Criminal Justice

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The wedding cake model is one explanation of how criminals move through the criminal justice system in the United States. While this might sound fun and friendly, this model displays a much more sinister idea, separating criminals based on their crimes.

The Wedding Cake Model Theory was developed by Samual Walker and is often used to explain to people the criminal justice system in the United States. The criminal justice system has different layers, which is easily explained as a Wedding cake.

We’re going to dive into each layer and show you just what using this model means. Read on to learn more.

The Wedding Cake Model of Criminal Justice

As mentioned above, a wedding cake is often used to describe the US Justice system because it has many layers, just like the US system. We’re going to break each layer down for you to help make it more clear.

The Bottom Layer

The bottom layer of the wedding cake serves as a base and is the largest layer of the cake. The same holds true for the US justice system. This layer contains most of the cases handled by the system and is typically made up of misdemeanors and traffic violations–the violations that more members of society are likely to make.

The bottom layer is almost made up entirely of first-time offenders since repeat offenders tend to commit more serious crimes the second time around. Not all criminals in the bottom layer are first-time offenders, however, as misdemeanors like prostitution and public intoxication also land an individual here, no matter how many times you commit the aforementioned crimes.

Criminals on the bottom layer may go to court, but more often than not, they are slapped with a monetary fine. They rarely go to jail and typically end up on probation. Most people on this layer of the cake are offered a plea bargain, which they take as there really isn’t a reason not to.

If you end up on the bottom layer, don’t be surprised if you aren’t even required to appear in court. At this level, there are many systems in place to process offenders as quickly as possible. For example, many cities have programs where you can pay online when you receive a traffic or parking ticket.

You won’t see the crimes of the bottom layer in the media, as these crimes are typically boring. Unless seeing a website with “Man fined for speeding in a school zone” really gets you hyped up.

Middle Tier Closest to the Bottom

After the bottom layer, you have another slightly smaller cake. This cake is probably still quite large, however, and is composed of low-level felonies. These offenses usually hurt another person but don’t result in death. Many offenders in this tier can end up in jail time but can also be resolved with probation. The jail sentences in this tier will be short, generally less than 5 years.

This tier may have some first-time offenders who have committed a more serious offense or maybe someone who has committed the same crime that got them into the bottom layer but a second time to a more serious degree. Think class C felonies, which include things like:

  • Stalking
  • Assault
  • Carjacking
  • Theft

As you can see, in all of these sample felonies, the victim, while possibly in pain, will walk away from the crime. Some of these crimes, such as stalking and theft, won’t require jail time but will have a much heftier punishment than a simple fine. Some examples include restraining orders, mandatory class attendance (anger management), and community service. You will likely not see crimes of this tier in the media either.

Middle Tier Closest to the Top

Next, you have an even smaller layer, but this layer isn’t the smallest one yet. This middle layer, which is closer to the top than the bottom, is made up of serious offenders. These are high-level felonies that resulted in injury, or maybe even death to the victim. By the time you get to this layer, most of the people in it are career criminals, although it is possible to have a first-time offender in this layer.

Most of these crimes result in significant jail time above 5 years but less than 20. Occasionally the criminals in this level can get off without jail time (in the case of vehicular manslaughter for example), but it is rare, and only in certain cases when the perpetrator pleads guilty.

Below are some examples of felonies perpetrated by those in this tier.

  • Vehicular manslaughter
  • Robbery
  • Kidnapping
  • Hate crimes
  • Sex crimes

These criminals are the first of the criminal justice system that you will likely see in the media as most of these cases appear in the local news. It is unlikely, however, for these criminals to be known nationwide except for in the case of some hate crimes.

Top Tier

The top tier and the smallest layer on our cake represents criminals who have committed serious crimes which typically result in the death or serious injury of another person. These criminals are almost guaranteed to serve a lengthy jail sentence, and some may even face the death penalty. Top-tier criminals can expect to receive jail sentences of 20 years or longer (though occasionally shorter, depending on the state).

All top-tier cases will be heard in court, even if a plea deal is offered. Some of these cases may even be escalated to the supreme court if it is necessary. When you think of a criminal, you are likely thinking of someone in the top tier.

Why is the Wedding Cake Model Important?

The reason the wedding cake model is important is that it helps people realize that there is more to the criminal justice system than these mass murders that are all over the media. The sample of criminals you are seeing when you watch TV or the news is actually quite a small sample of those processed through the criminal justice system each day all over the nation.

This means that many people go into the criminal justice system thinking they will be working cases like Ted Bundy and Jeffery Dahmer every day. But the reality is that working in the criminal justice system can be just as monotonous as any other job. For every Ted Bundy case, there are hundreds of thousands of other cases that may never even make it to court.

Much of the general public thinks that lawyers have nothing else to do but try these large cases. But as a public defender, you may have over one hundred cases on your desk at any time. Some are traffic violations, others which are minor assaults, and maybe one murder. They may also have no murders at all.

It can be helpful to discuss the Wedding Cake Model of criminal justice when speaking with someone interested in a career in law or law enforcement. There are some cops and lawyers who never have a Ted Bundy case and instead are stuck processing traffic violations day in and day out.

The Wedding Cake Model can also help lawyers, police officers, and anyone else in the system to be able to estimate what their punishment will be for a particular crime. While this model is never exact, you can likely deduce the amount of jail time you will be facing based on what tier of the cake your crime is on.

It is also important to know that two criminals on different tiers of the cake will likely have completely different experiences in the criminal justice system. Someone like Ted Bundy will face much more scrutiny and isolation compared to someone who is going to court for speeding in a school zone.

What is a Celebrated Case?

One of the reasons a wedding cake was chosen to model the criminal justice system is because the terminology “celebrated case” is used when discussing high-profile cases. “Celebrated cases” are those which make national news that can make lawyers, judges, and police officers famous. These cases are always top-tier and can sometimes define an individual's career.

What is Assembly Line Justice?

After learning about the Wedding Cake Model, it’s easy to imagine the large number of cases that are processed through the justice system. This has led to the creation of another term called “Assembly line justice.” This term is used to specify how criminal justice works at the lower levels of the cake (bottom tier or the tier closest to the bottom).

At these layers, it’s imperative for the criminal justice system to process these offenses quickly and efficiently because there are so many of them. There are often systems in place, like automatic traffic fine systems, to process these offenders as quickly as possible without causing a bottleneck in the system.

Reference Legal Explanations

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