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Section “Law Enforcement” expanded with new content. Statistical information updated throughout the article.

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date: 11 August 2020

Criminal Justice: Overview

Abstract and Keywords

The criminal justice system traces its roots to ancient times. When the 13 original colonies were formed, they brought many of the laws and legal processes from England. Traditionally, the criminal justice system is viewed as including law enforcement, judiciary, and corrections. However, state legislatures and Congress must be viewed as essential components of the criminal justice system because they pass laws that influence the other three components. A number of controversial practices and policies exist within the criminal justice system. Social work, which has had a long involvement in the criminal justice system, including spearheading the creation of the juvenile justice system in the United States, is involved in all phases of the criminal justice system.

Keywords: law enforcement, probation, parole, judiciary, corrections, capital punishment, restorative justice

The criminal justice system traces its roots to the Sumerian Code and the Code of Hammurabi (Allen, Latessa, & Ponder, 2013). When the American colonies formed, they transported many criminal laws and practices from England. Children and adults were dealt with similarly by the early, fledgling criminal justice system. Child-care advocates from the Progressive Era were able to initiate some separation of children from adults during the development of reformatory institutions. In Chicago in the late 19th century, social workers from Hull-House provided educational services to youth in detention centers. These settlement house workers envisioned a system just for juveniles and collaborated with the Chicago Bar Association and the Illinois Conference of Charities and Corrections to lobby successfully the Illinois legislature to create the first juvenile court in 1899 (Alexander, 1997). Demonstrating the influence of the settlement workers at Hull-House, the first juvenile court was located across the street; the first juvenile court probation officer was a settlement house worker from Hull-House (Alexander). In the 1920s settlement house workers from Cleveland, Ohio, advocated for women who were incarcerated at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, as did other social workers who were actively involved with discharge planning for adult offenders (Alexander, Butler, & Sias, 1993).

Traditionally, the criminal justice system has been envisioned as consisting of three components: law enforcement, judiciary, and corrections. Law enforcement officers, represented by the police, arrest offenders. The judiciary tries these offenders and determines whether they are guilty or not guilty. For those offenders who are adjudicated guilty, corrections manage them by probation, incarceration, and parole. Corrections may be further divided into institution based (that is, prison or reformatories) and community based (that is, probation, parole, home confinement, and residential program).

Another important component of the criminal justice system is the legislative arena, which includes state legislatures and Congress. State legislatures and Congress determine behaviors that are criminal in the first place and the sentences to be meted out for those found or pleading guilty. For instance, stalking, computer solicitation of sex with a minor, viewing child pornography on the Internet, and racketeering are relatively new crimes. Legislatures have passed laws that have created new categories of crime, for example, related to various forms of sexual assault and drug possession.

Some laws have been changed to decrease the number of offenders, such as possession of small amounts of marijuana and the killing of one’s spouse in response to domestic abuse.

Components of the Criminal Justice System

Law Enforcement

Police officers, deputies, state troopers, border patrols, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) make arrests and initially charge individuals. Most law enforcement officers see their jobs as to protect and serve the community. In 2011, there were 698,460 law enforcement officers (FBI, 2012). Of this total, 88.2% were male and 11.8% were female (FBI, 2012). In 2012, 48 law enforcement officers were killed feloniously in the line of duty (FBI, 2013a). Twenty-two of these officers were killed in the South (FBI, 2013a).

The best source for determining the number of crimes in the United States is data collected by the FBI for the Uniform Crime Reports and the National Crime Victim Survey (Allen et al., 2013). These data tell us whether crime has increased or decreased over the past year. However, some crimes are not known to the police or are underreported; some do not have individual victims; and some victims may not report crimes, such as domestic assaults.

Since the 1930s, the FBI has submitted yearly reports about statistics regarding yearly arrests for various crimes. Local jurisdictions report their arrests in their jurisdictions. Although not every jurisdiction in the United States participates in this activity, most do, and the Uniform Crime Report offers the best official statistics about crimes in the United States. However, there are still some crimes that are not reported to local law enforcement. Crimes are categorized into Part I crimes, the most serious, and Part II crimes, the other serious crimes. Part I crimes are also called index crimes. These Part I or index crimes are murder/manslaughter, rape, armed robbery, aggravated assault, arson, burglary, larceny–theft, and motor vehicle theft. These crimes are further broken down into violent or personal crimes, consisting of murder, rape, armed robbery, and aggravated assault. Property crimes are grouped; this grouping entails arson, burglary, larceny–theft, and motor vehicle theft. Part II crimes are all crimes that are not considered Part I crimes. The number of crimes is presented by rate, typically per 100,000, which allows comparison of large cities with small cities.

Overall, in 2012, citizens committed 1,214,462 violent crimes, an increase of approximately 0.7% from the amount of violent crimes in 2011 (FBI, 2013b). Still, the number of crimes in 2012 was almost 13% lower than the number of crimes in 2008 and 12% lower than the number of crimes in 2003 (FBI, 2013b). In 2013, the overall violent crime rate was 386.9 violent crimes per 100,000, similar to the rate of violent crimes in 2011 (FBI, 2013b). Of violent crimes, aggravated assaults accounted for 63% reported to law enforcement in 2012; 29% were robberies, almost 7% were rape, and 1.12% were murder (FBI, 2013b). Firearms were used in approximately 70% of murders, 41% of robberies, and 22% of aggravated assaults (FBI, 2013b). In 2012, 84,376 forcible rapes were reported to law enforcement, constituting 52.9 per 100,000 females (FBI, 2013b). The number of rapes was about 0.2% higher than in 2011, 7% lower than in 2008, and 10% lower than in 2003 (FBI, 2013b).

To improve data collection regarding crime, the FBI created the National Incident-Based Reporting System. Its purpose is to improve data collection from the Uniform Crime Report. The system provides more detailed information for each single crime occurrence. Employed to its full potential at the agency level, the National Incident-Based Reporting System tells precisely when and where a crime takes place, what form it takes, and the characteristics of its victims and perpetrators. This system is better able to assess the scope of the nation’s crime problem. For example, in 2012 there were 5,001,060 criminal incidents in the United States (FBI, 2013c). This total yielded 5,734,653 offenses, 6,050,049 victims, and 4,556,193 known offenders (FBI, 2013c).

On a directive from Congress, in 1992 the FBI began reporting data on hate crimes in the United States. In 2012, a total of 1,730 law enforcement agencies stated that 6,718 offenses occurred to be categorized as hate; these constituted 5,796 hate crimes (FBI, 2013d). These offenses involved 7,151 victims and 5,322 offenders (FBI, 2013c). Particularly, 49.2% of these hate crimes were racially motivated (FBI, 2013d). The second percentage, 19.2%, was motivated by sexual orientation (FBI, 2013c). Religious bias was third and represented 17.4% (FBI, 2013c). Twelve percent concerned ethnicity or national origin bias (FBI, 2013d). Racially, 66.1% represented anti-bias and 22.4% were anti-White bias (FBI, 2013c). In addition, Sandholtz, Langton, and Planty (2013) reported and compared hates crimes from 2003 to 2006 and from 2007 to 2011. The majority of hate crimes were racially based, comprising over 60% from 2003 to 2006 compared to about 55% from 2007 to 2011 (Sandholtz et al., 2013). Unlike the statistics in the previous paragraph, these researchers had a category of association hate crimes, which represented slightly less than 30% from 2003 to 2006 and slightly more than 30% from 2007 to 2011 (Sandholtz et al.). Religious-based hate crimes increased from 10% from 2003 to 2006 to slightly more than 21% from 2007 to 2011 (Sandholtz et al.). There was a slight increase in hate crimes based on sexual orientation, from 16% from 2003 to 2006 to approximately 18% from 2007 to 2011 (Sandholtz et al.).


The judiciary consists of the trial process, which generally involves the judge, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and juries. However, most cases are decided by plea bargains and only a small number of cases actually go to trial. Estimates are that more than 90% of cases are decided by plea bargains or nolo contendere, that is, a plea meaning that the defendant does not wish to contest the charges (Lynch, 2003). In 2002, a total of 1,114,000 adults were convicted in federal and state courts for felonies. Approximately 94% of this total was in state courts and 69% were sentenced to incarceration either in prison or in the local jails (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006).

The judiciary may decide whether to try a juvenile in juvenile court or adult court. In some states the legislatures have taken this decision out of the hands of prosecutors and judges and mandated that some juveniles and children as young as 12 years be tried as adults if these children have been accused of murder or other very serious offenses (Allard & Young, 2002).

The judiciary is also involved in cases in which a convicted defendant has filed an appeal for his or her conviction or sentence. This is especially so in capital cases where the death penalty has been imposed. A capital case may be in state and federal appellate courts for 15 to 20 years before a death sentence is actually carried out. Often, the U.S. Supreme Court is the final court in a death penalty case but the Court may refuse to intervene and decide a case. Snell (2013) reported that at the end of 2011, a total of 3,082 individuals were under the death sentence. More than half of persons sentenced to death were in California, Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania (Snell). Most persons under the death sentence were White, a total of 55%; 42% were Black and 14% were Hispanic (Snell). Only 2% of persons under the death sentence were female. From 2000 to 2011, the percentages of persons under the death sentences remained unchanged (Snell).


At the end of 2005, almost 5 million adult men and women were under the control of federal, state, and local probation and parole jurisdictions. Of this total, about 4,162,500 were on probation and about 784,400 were on parole. In terms of incarceration, at the end of 2005, a total of 2,193,798 prisoners were held in federal or state prisons or in local jails. The incarceration rates for racial groups were as follows: African American males, 3,145 per 100,000; Latino males, 1,244 per 100,000; and White males, 471 per 100,000. An analysis of trends shows that incarceration in the United States has increased significantly since the 1970s.

Glaze and Herberman (2013) documented that 6,937,600 offenders were under the supervision of the adult criminal justice system at the end of 2012. This number was the fourth consecutive decline in the correction population (Glaze & Herberman). Although Glaze and Herberman did not report race and sex data in their tables, they did provide data from 2000 to 2012 on placements in community corrections and percentages of crimes for several years. For example, the United States had 3,060 per 100,000 adults supervised by the correctional system in 2000, but that amount decreased to 2,870 per 100,000 in 2012 (Glaze & Herberman). The United States had 2,160 per 100,000 adults under community supervision in 2000 compared to 1,980 adults per 100,000 in 2012 (Glaze & Herberman). In terms of the incarcerated population, there were 920 adults per 100,000 in 2000 compared to 920 per 100, 000 in 2012 (Glaze & Herberman). However, in 2006, 2007, and 2008, the United States had 1,000 adults per 100,000 incarcerated (Glaze & Herberman). According to traditional practice, probation constituted the most utilized sanction by the criminal justice system.

The Bureau of Justice defines probationers as offenders confined in the community in lieu of incarceration as well as those allowed to remain in their homes (often with electronic monitoring). Parolees are offenders supervised in the community after serving a prison term. Parole boards decide whether to release inmates to community-based parole supervision. The federal government and some states have abolished parole.

State Legislatures and Congress

Legislative bodies are often overlooked as part of the criminal justice system, but they make laws and decide what criminal conduct is. Prior to 1990, there was no law forbidding stalking. A police officer in Ohio was convicted of multiple counts of stalking–fourth-degree felonies (State v. Barnhardt, 2006). In addition, laws regarding computer behaviors have been enacted, and police officers are now on the lookout for cybersex predators. Also, legislatures have authorized adult trials for some children who have been accused of serious crimes, such as school shootings; adult trials have occurred for children as young as 12 years. Since the 1980s, Congress has actively persuaded states to reform some of their laws by tying the receipt of federal funds to changes in states laws. For example, most states have Megan laws, which require states to notify neighbors when sex offenders have moved into their neighborhoods. In addition, some states have passed laws permitting civil commitment of sex offenders to prevent these offenders from being released from prison confinement. Last, some states have passed laws, such as Three Strikes, permitting the sentencing of felons who have been convicted three times to receive life sentences.

Controversies within the Criminal Justice System

A number of controversies exist within the criminal justice system, at all levels and in all components. In law enforcement, the primary criticisms are racial profiling and police brutality. Studies have been conducted on the extent to which race is a factor in police stops of minorities, particularly African Americans, both on streets and on highways. Widely publicized, brutal incidents involving African Americans or people of color and police officers, many of whom are White, make matters worse. Prominent examples include the Rodney King beating by officers in California; the Abner Louima incident, in which a Haitian was sodomized with a stick while in police custody; the Amadou Diallo incident, in which Diallo was fired at 41 times and killed; and more recently, the incident in New York when Sean Bell was shot at more than 50 times and killed after he and his friends left a bachelor party. These incidents, as well as many other incidents that do not make the news but are known within the African American community, make it difficult for law enforcement to establish a collaborative and trusting relationship with the African American community to address crime in the community (Alexander, 2005b).

Racial and Ethnic Disparities Exist in the Criminal Justice System

African Americans are overrepresented among those incarcerated (Mauer, 2006). Reports have been issued on the high number of African Americans who are under the control of prisons, probation, and parole (Mauer). The high number of African Americans in prisons cannot be viewed in isolation because it is the judiciary system that sends them to prisons and it is the law enforcement system, backed sometimes by laws passed by the legislatures, that initiates entrance into the judiciary system.

To illustrate, since the 1980s, differential, and what some characterize as discriminatory, laws punish possession of crack cocaine more seriously than possession of powder cocaine. Cocaine is an expensive drug, and many users are actors, actresses, athletes, and business executives, many of whom are White. Crack cocaine was developed to make cocaine affordable for poor people—poor Whites, Latinos, and African Americans. Crack cocaine is punished more harshly than equal amounts of powered cocaine. With the help of racial profiling, a high number of African Americans are stopped, searched, and arrested for possessing crack cocaine. Although African Americans have complained since the 1980s, most legislatures have failed to act or make the punishments more equal.

To illustrate this point, a U.S. District Court judge, who was a drug policy adviser to the first President Bush and who then advocated for tough laws for crack cocaine crimes, stated that “the policy had gone too far and was undermining faith in the judicial system” (Apuzzo, 2006, p. A7). Trafficking in 500g of powder cocaine carries a five-year sentence but it takes only 5g of crack cocaine to get a sentence of five years—a 100-to-1 disparity. Judge Reggie B. Walton noted that crack is an inner-city drug and cocaine is a suburban drug; the differences in punishment are unconscionable and “contributed to the perception within minority communities that courts are unfair” (Apuzzo, p. A7).

The Federal Sentencing Commission has asked Congress thrice to address the sentencing disparity between cocaine and crack but it had refused to do so. Congress has not even been willing to increase the punishment for cocaine (Apuzzo, 2006), although it proclaimed to have a war on drugs. This failure to increase the penalty for cocaine possession may be attributable to race because it affects mostly Whites (Alexander, 2005b).

However, in 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine (Lee, 2010). In 2013, President Obama used this law to reduce the sentences of 8 federal prisoners and pardoned 13 others (Flatow, 2013).

Some observers point to the high number of African Americans involved in drugs, violent crimes, and weapons possession as to why there are disproportionately more African Americans than Whites in prison. Alexander (2005b) points out that Whites commit most of the violent crimes in the United States, use the most drugs, and are more likely to be arrested for possessing weapons. The FBI defines serious crimes or Part I crimes as (a) murder or manslaughter, (b) rape, (c) aggravated assault, (d) armed robbery, (e) burglary, (f) arson, and (g) theft; violent crimes include the first four. In 2003, 61% of those arrested for violent crimes were White and 37% were African American (U.S. Department of Justice, 2004). Although this pattern has been shown consistently, many Americans still believe that African Americans are responsible for the most serious crimes in the United States. As an illustration, African Americans constitute approximately 33% of persons arrested for sex crimes, but they are frequently depicted as the common rapists, an image that has a long history in the United States. However, although Whites are more likely to be arrested for drug crimes and weapons possession, they do not go to prison in numbers comparable to their arrests. The same pattern is found among White juveniles; they too are not committed to juvenile incarceration proportionately.

Snyder (2012) presented a fairly comprehensive table on arrests. It described the number of arrests by sex, race, and perpetrator status, including whether the perpetrator was an adult or juvenile. As an illustration, in 2010, a total of 9,792,190 males were arrested compared to 3,329,920 females. Of the total number of arrests, 11,479,470 adults were arrested and 1,642,650 juveniles. By race, 9,122, 010 were White and 3,655,620 were Black. The statistics involving race mirrored the statistics and arguments made by Alexander (2006). Some conservatives explain the overrepresentation of Blacks in the criminal justice system as being the result of Blacks committing more violent crimes, carrying weapons illegally, and being involved with drugs. Alexander (2006) disputes this assertion. Of the most serious crimes in 2010, the only crime in which Blacks exceed Whites was robbery, 62,020 to 48,310 (Snyder). The murder numbers were slightly higher for Whites than for Blacks, 5,540 to 5,430 (Snyder). For forcible rape, Whites outnumbered Blacks by 13,210 to 6,300 (Snyder) and Whites also outnumbered Blacks in arrests for aggravated assaults, 260,770 to 136,400 (Snyder). In terms of drugs, there were 1,093,910 Whites arrested and 519,830 Blacks (Snyder). For weapons violations, 92,630 Whites were arrested compared to 63,710 Blacks (Snyder).

It may not be well known that many African Americans are incarcerated in prisons located in rural areas; as a result, their incarceration benefits rural communities for census purposes and grants obtained at the expense of urban areas from where most prisoners come. Stinebrickner-Kauffman (2004) was one of the first to question the legality of the census bureau counting prisoners where they are incarcerated. Alexander (2005a), picking up on Stinebrickner-Kauffman’s argument, explored other implications of this phenomenon, noting how additional monies have been used to help rural communities. He argued that most offenders commit their crimes in their own communities and in fact have damaged their communities. Thus, if money is generated from incarceration, then it should go to the community in which the damage has been done. In fact, this is the central argument of restorative justice, which seeks to motivate offenders to repair the harm they have done to the community (Alexander, 2006).

There is also the issue of the collateral damage done to the African American community by the get-tough-on-crime campaigns (Mauer, 2003, 2006). Convictions and imprisonment for a large number of African Americans carry considerable damage, such as loss of voting rights and employment discrimination. Pager (2003) sought to test the impact of an antidiscrimination law in Wisconsin that banned discrimination against ex-felons when the convictions had nothing to do with a job being sought. She tested for entry-level jobs requiring only a high school education. On the basis of a tactic long used to detect housing discrimination by landlords, Pager gave Whites and African Americans the same profile of drug convictions and prison sentences. She then gave another group of Whites and African Americans no criminal records when they applied for jobs in the city of Milwaukee. Her dependent variable was whether an employer called the applicant offering a job after the interview. Pager found that 34% of Whites without records received callbacks, compared with 17% of Whites with a criminal record. For African Americans, 14% of those who had no criminal records received callbacks, compared with 5% of African Americans with criminal records. Simply put, a White man with a criminal record has a better chance of getting a job than does an African American man without a criminal record. This discrimination occurred in a state with protective legislation, which means that discrimination may be worse in states without such laws.

Other controversial issues in the criminal justice system involve sex offenders and especially child molesters. Indeed, some child sex offenders have killed children in the process of assaulting and molesting them. As a result, there has been an outcry to pass legislation that protects children. The two most popular laws have been community notification and restriction of sex offenders from living too close to schools, playgrounds, and community centers (Hundley, 2007). Quoting Allison Taylor, the executive director of the Council on Sex Offender Treatment of the Texas Department of State Health Services, Hundley reported that sexual assaults cannot be stopped by passing an ordinance and there is no evidence that proximity to a school, playground, or child-care center contributed to recidivism by sex offenders. To date, no study has reported that these measures effectively protect children. Children are more likely to be sexually molested by a family member, a neighbor who is not a convicted child molester, a teacher, or a coach (Alexander, 2004). Further, the more popular laws concerning where offenders can live establish 1,000 feet as the boundary. But no research has been reported that shows that children are more likely to be molested within 1,000 feet as opposed to more than 1,000 feet away (Alexander, 2010).

Capital punishment also remains a controversial issue. Society has endeavored to find the most humane method of executing prisoners. In these endeavors, various forms of executions have been tried and subsequently abandoned, including firing squad, hanging, the gas chamber, and the electric chair. Lethal injection was believed to be the most humane method of execution, but even that has come under attack because of some botched executions in Florida and California, wherein executioners could not find veins. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing individuals who were younger than 18 years of age at the time they committed their crimes violated the cruel and unusual clause of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Roper v. Simmons, 2005). In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing someone who is mentally retarded also violated the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002). Advocates are seeking a further narrowing of capital punishment by arguing that it is cruel and unusual to execute individuals who were mentally ill at the time they committed their crimes.

Another issue involving capital punishment is that many prisoners have been released from death row and prison because of wrongful convictions. Much of the impetus to this movement has been generated by the Innocence Project, headed by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld (The Innocence Project, 2007). This project focuses on using DNA to prove that some convicted persons on death row and in prison were in fact innocent of their crimes. The Innocence Project has a web site where it keeps a running total of the persons who have been exonerated. Special issues in criminal justice and law review journals have been devoted to wrongful convictions (Alexander, 2007).

Social Workers’ Involvement in the Criminal Justice System

As social work was emerging as a profession in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some social workers expressed doubts about workers being involved in the criminal justice system because of the lack of self-determination of clients and possible conflicts with social-work values (Alexander, 1997). Criminal justice is not the most popular area for practice among social-work students and professionals. Lennon (2005) reported that only 713 of 26,137 undergraduate students (2.7%) and only 798 of 37,052 postgraduate students (2.2%) were placed in field settings involving criminal justice.

Still, social workers occupy a number of positions inside and related to the criminal justice system. Social workers are employed as institutional counselors and juvenile and adult probation and parole officers. One of the more prominent positions held by social workers is victims’ advocate in the legal process. As society became more responsive to victims and their families, a number of prosecutors’ offices began to employ social workers to assist and support victims and families in the courtrooms during trials, at sentencing, and at the time of parole hearings.

In prisons, social workers are typically employed in mental-health units to work with inmates with psychiatric problems. In some states, social workers have become prison wardens.

Some social workers are employed by public defenders offices to work with indigent defendants who need mental-health treatment, substance-abuse treatment, or other specialized services. Also, in the area of employee assistance programs, some social workers have contact with law enforcement officers and provide counseling to them. The counseling may help police officers address challenging issues in their personal lives or difficulty coping with a traumatic incident, such as a shooting.

Social workers must address issues of limits of confidentiality with a duty to warn. As an example, the U.S. Supreme Court case of Jaffee v. Redmond et al. (1996) involved the issue of whether a social worker’s counseling with an officer was protected as privileged information. In this case, a police officer shot and killed a man and saw a social worker to deal with the trauma. The officer was sued by the family of the deceased, and the plaintiff’s lawyer attempted to get the information from the social worker, setting up a legal issue for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide.

Social workers have been prominent in the area of restorative justice—a growing trend. One web site reported the addresses of 86 organizations that embraced some aspects of restorative justice (Restorative Justice Online, 2005). Within the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota, social workers have established the Center for Restorative Justice and Mediation. Furthermore, numerous social workers have written about restorative justice (Adams, 2004; Beck & Britto, 2006; Burford & Adams, 2004; Gumz, 2004; Holtquist, 1999; Umbreit, Coates, & Vos, 2004; van Wormer, 2003, 2006).

In conclusion, the criminal justice system has expanded considerably since the 1970s. The United States incarcerates a high number of its citizens, with minorities being overrepresented in the prison system. Furthermore, the United States executes more persons than other industrialized countries do. Social workers played a prominent role in the creation of the first juvenile court in 1899 and currently act as victims’ advocates with the legal system. Recently, social workers have played a prominent role in humanizing the criminal justice system by espousing and embracing restorative justice.


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van Wormer, K. (2006). The case for restorative justice: A crucial adjunct to the social work curriculum. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 26(3/4), 57–69.Find this resource:

Further Reading

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2006). Occupational outlook handbook, 2006–07 edition. Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists. Retrieved December 29, 2006, from