Exploring the Wedding Cake Model of Criminal Justice

Exploring the Wedding Cake Model of Criminal Justice

Exploring the Wedding Cake Model of Criminal Justice banner

While it may seem like there could be no logical relation between wedding cakes and criminal justice, the reality is that the wedding cake is representative of one of the most widely utilized models in the criminal justice field. With a better understanding of the wedding cake model of criminal justice and what it entails, you can remain informed as you embark on your career. This knowledge is crucial for navigating this challenging yet rewarding field.

Understanding the Wedding Cake Model of Criminal Justice

What exactly is the wedding cake model of criminal justice meaning, anyway? Specifically, this model was created by Samuel Walker and is essentially a metaphor for different levels of crime and their severity. In the wedding cake model, it can be helpful to envision a layered cake, with the smallest most attention-grabbing crimes and cases at the top, and the largest volume of less-severe offenses at the base. To follow, we will be looking at some examples of the wedding cake model of criminal justice and how these components and structure apply to real-life cases.

Origins of the Wedding Cake Model

The concept of the wedding cake model was introduced to the field in the 1980s by Samuel Walker. He was known as an accountability specialist who wanted a replacement for the existing Reagan Crime Commission’s criminal justice model. The new model reflected how limited resources and public attention shaped case prioritization in many jurisdictions around the country. He proposed the wedding cake model idea in his 1985 publication known as Sense and Nonsense About Crime, Drugs, and Communities.

Key Components and Structure

When you envision a wedding cake, you can easily picture a cake with several layers, the base layer being the largest and the top tier being the smallest. In the wedding cake model of criminal justice, there are four different layers. Each layer comes with its own set of rules in terms of processing, media attention, public perception, and outcomes.

  • Layer 1 (base layer) – Misdemeanors
  • Layer 2 – Lesser felonies
  • Layer 3 – Serious felonies
  • Layer 4 – High-profile cases

Detailed Analysis of Each Layer

While each layer has its own separate classifications and rules, it is important to understand how each tier plays its own unique role while remaining closely interconnected with the other layers of the cake.

The Top Tier: High-Profile Cases

The top layer of the wedding cake typically involves the most high-profile cases that garner a great deal of media attention. These cases often spark public debate over societal ills and may involve celebrities or other big names. Walker referred to these as “celebrated cases.”

Top Tier Layer Examples

Examples of top-tier cases in the criminal justice system have included the O.J. Simpson trial, Ted Bundy, and police brutality cases (such as the Rodney King case).

Second Tier: Serious Felonies

Beneath the top tier of the wedding cake, you will find the serious felonies. These crimes tend to be more violent in nature and may include such charges as aggravated battery or rape. In these cases, there still tends to be a great deal of public concern with the potential for serious consequences if the person charged is convicted. In many of these cases, there is no bail (though this is not always the case).

Second Tier Layer Examples

Some examples of second tier crimes include:

  • Robbery
  • Burglary
  • Assault
  • Significant white-collar crimes
  • Large-scale drug offenses

Third Tier: Lesser Felonies

In the third tier, you will find lesser felonies, which are less severe and often remain less visible to the general public. Several of these cases go on to tend with plea agreements, though this can vary from one case to the next.

Examples of the Third Tier

Examples of lesser felonies include:

  • Shoplifting
  • Minor drug offenses
  • DUI (first-time offenses)
  • Vandalism

Bottom Layer: Misdemeanors

On the bottom and largest layer of the criminal justice wedding cake, you will find misdemeanor charges. These are the most common offenses, so they tend to be processed rapidly and without social media attention.

Examples of the Bottom Layer

Examples of misdemeanor charges include:

  • Traffic violations
  • Trespassing
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Petty theft

Importance and Utility of the Model

Now that we have looked at some examples of the wedding cake model of criminal justice, it is time to think more deeply about why this model is so important. Consider its potential applications in the field. In a number of ways, this model can help in providing insights and an understanding of the criminal justice system as a whole.

Insights Into Criminal Justice Priorities

First, the wedding cake model reveals possible imbalances in resource allocation based on whether a case is a top-tier, high-profile case or sits lower on the cake’s structure. This model is also helpful in illustrating the proportions of crimes – showing that the majority of crimes are in the lower tier of the cake –  in comparison to the high-profile cases that are seen in everyday media. Unfortunately, the focus on just a few top-tier cases can divert attention and valuable resources away from larger-volume cases. This can have a serious impact on the criminal justice system.

Impact on Policy and Public Perception

The wedding cake model also highlights the role of the media in shaping public perception of crime and safety. That is especially true when it comes to the often-excessive levels of media coverage in high-profile cases versus a complete lack of coverage for lesser crimes. When crimes are under-reported, there is less urgency to address them. Since the majority of crimes are in the lower tiers of the wedding cake model, voters may be less likely to advocate for policies that are related to these crimes.

Criticisms and Limitations

As useful as the wedding cake model can be in gaining insights into the criminal justice system, it is not without its potential limitations.

Oversimplification of Criminal Justice Processes

One of the potentially biggest challenges with the wedding cake model is the fact that it can obscure nuances and exceptions within each layer. For example, not every major felony receives the same level of coverage and media attention. While the wedding cake model does provide a useful way to categorize and assess different levels of crime, the reality is that these individual cases are often less neatly divided. This must be considered when applying the wedding cake model in real life.

Potential for Bias and Inequality

With the wedding cake model, the focus on higher-profile cases also has the potential to reinforce perceptions of criminality associated with certain groups. Unfortunately, this can further fuel systemic biases and lead to inequalities within the system.

Real-World Applications

The wedding cake model of criminal justice provides a useful conceptual framework meant to be applied to crimes in the real world. While it may not be perfect in its application to every single case, it can be useful to look at how cases impact policy and public perception. In some cases, the amount of media attention and coverage received might even impact the severity of the sentence or other aspects of a case.

Case Studies Demonstrating the Model at Work

To better understand the wedding cake model of criminal justice, it can be helpful to look at some real-world cases and apply the model to each one.

One prime example of the model at work is that of the Bill Cosby allegations of 2018. During this, he faced numerous charges of serious crimes ranging from sexual assault and battery to child sexual abuse. Because of the serious and shocking nature of these crimes and the fact that Bill Cosby was always viewed in the media as “America’s Dad,” this case received incredible media coverage and ongoing attention.

In the early 1990s, the police brutality case involving the Los Angeles Police Department and Rodney King also garnered worldwide attention. This case was perhaps most notable because despite ongoing charges of police brutality within the LAPD and other major departments across the United States, this case had very clear video evidence against police officers that gave King credibility.

Reforms Inspired by the Model

The wedding cake model of criminal justice has resulted in some significant changes and reforms within the criminal justice system. Following the Rodney King case, for instance, there was a great deal of public outcry against the police that resulted in many departments having to develop and accept reforms aimed at preventing misconduct and similar incidents in the future. This just goes to show how awareness of the model can motivate reforms focused on more equitable use of resources and addressing imbalances within the system.

What Makes the Wedding Cake Model Relevant Today?

The wedding cake model of criminal justice is still widely utilized today, despite its potential limitations and the fact that it was introduced nearly 40 years ago. Today, the model continues to reflect a reality where resources are finite and media attention shapes criminal justice priorities.

How Does the Wedding Cake Model Influence Legal Outcomes?

The wedding cake model has the potential to influence legal outcomes because cases at different tiers may receive vastly different levels of media attention. This can result in varied case outcomes or even sentencing disparities between cases depending on media coverage and resource allocation.

Can the Model Predict Future Trends in Criminal Justice?

It may be possible to apply the wedding cake model of criminal justice to predict future trends in the field. To note, there is the potential for the model to be used to predict where focus might shift as new types of crime emerge or even as social movements change what the public deems as important.

Advance Your Criminal Justice Education with JWU

While the wedding cake model of criminal justice may not be perfect, it remains the most widely accepted model for gaining valuable insights into criminal justice priorities. This model highlights the impact different types of cases have on both policy and public perception.

Still looking for the right criminal justice degree program to advance your career? Explore Johnson & Wales University’s online master’s in Criminal Justice, which combines criminological and organization theory with policy and practice to help you prepare for leadership roles in the field. For more information about completing your degree online, complete the Request Info form, call 855-JWU-1881, or email [email protected].

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