The Wedding Cake Model of Criminal Justice

Minor in Criminal Justice Administration Program Page

Criminal justice and wedding cake seem like two things that have nothing in common — so you might be surprised to learn that these romantic, whimsical cakes were the inspiration behind what remains one of the most widely-studied models of criminal justice today. So what is the wedding cake model of criminal justice, and why is it significant for students who want to explore fields like criminal justice or criminology?

Find out what wedding cakes — usually a symbol of love and celebration — have to do with court cases, criminal trials, the media coverage they receive, and how the general public perceives them.  

What Is the Wedding Cake Model of Criminal Justice?

The wedding cake model, first popularized by Samuel Walker during the 1980s, is a model of crime that consists of four primary groups. First, the model classifies crimes based on their nature and severity, ranging from petty theft and other non-violent misdemeanors to the most severe and violent offenses. Crucially, it also reflects how the resulting cases are treated and perceived — not only within the justice system but also by the media and the general public itself. 

The model takes its name from the classic shape of a wedding cake, which traditionally consists of stacked tiers or layers arranged with the largest layer at the bottom and the smallest layer at the top. The base layer in the wedding cake model represents the least severe and most common offenses. The top layer represents a small but widely-known handful of “celebrated cases.” Finally, there are two additional layers in between, which represent violent and non-violent felonies. 

We’ll cover each layer of the wedding cake model in detail later in this article. First, however, let’s rewind and look at the model’s debut in the 1980s.  

Samuel Walker: Creator of the Wedding Cake Model

Police accountability specialist Samuel Walker proposed the wedding cake model in his 1985 publication Sense and Nonsense About Crime, Drugs, and Communities, which the Department of Justice describes as “an analysis of conservative, moderate, and liberal crime control policies.” 

According to its abstract, Sense, and Nonsense put forth the wedding cake model as an alternative to then-President Ronald Reagan’s Crime Commission’s models of the criminal justice system. 

In addition to proposing the wedding cake model, the book also delved into topics like “the effectiveness of criminal justice in controlling crime,” “punishment in the criminal justice system,” “strategies for closing up criminal justice system loopholes,” “strategies for locking up more criminals,” and the system’s treatment of “career criminals,” meaning repeat or habitual offenders.

The Layers of the Wedding Cake Model

The wedding cake model of criminal justice is made up of four separate tiers or layers, which represent levels of criminal cases within the U.S. justice system. 

The Wedding Cake Model of Criminal Justice

As the abstract of Sense and Nonsense About Crime explains, “The top ‘layer’ of the ‘wedding cake’ includes ‘celebrated cases’; the second and third ‘layer’ are comprised of two general categories of felonies; [and] the fourth ‘layer’ consists primarily of misdemeanors, minor theft cases, and crimes against persons or property.”

These layers are discussed in more detail below, from misdemeanors on the lowest tier to what Walker calls “celebrated cases” on the fourth and uppermost tier. 

The Bottom Tier: Misdemeanors

The lowest and largest tier of the wedding cake model consists of misdemeanors — minor offenses rapidly processed by the courts in an “assembly line” fashion, with no publicity or fanfare surrounding notable cases. Examples of crimes in this category include petty theft, disturbing the peace, and minor acts of vandalism. These cases are usually resolved when the defendant makes a plea agreement. 

The 3rd Tier: Less Serious Felonies

The next tier of the model corresponds to less severe felonies, normally non-violent offenses involving financial or drug-related crimes. Like misdemeanors, most of these cases end with plea agreements. 

The 2nd Tier: Serious Felonies

The second tier of the model is reserved for more serious or violent felonies, such as rape and aggravated assault. Bail may not be an option, and there is less chance of a plea agreement prior to trial. 

The Top Tier: Celebrated Cases

The top and smallest tier in the model corresponds to high-profile, highly publicized “celebrated cases” like those of Ted Bundy or O.J. Simpson. Celebrated cases are not reflective of cases in other layers of the model, because they involve additional factors like press coverage and cameras in the courtroom. 

Why the Wedding Cake Model Matters

High-profile criminal cases receive disproportionate coverage in news and media entertainment. Typically, these are cases involving charges against celebrities or politicians or shocking and extreme acts of violence, like alleged serial murders. Some examples that likely come to mind include the cases of O.J. Simpson, Bernie Madoff, Michael Jackson, Ted Bundy, or Jeffrey Dahmer — many of which have since been dramatized by movies, podcasts, and TV series. 

Thanks to their extensive coverage, these types of cases may seem to the public as though they represent established norms within the justice system. In reality, the vast majority of cases involve minor and non-violent offenses — without the “media circus” of cameras, reporters, and curious onlookers. 

The wedding cake model is significant because it draws clear distinctions between high-profile, “celebrated cases” and other types of cases that move through the justice system. By relating them to the largest layer of the cake, it also shows how these less-sensational cases actually comprise the majority of criminal proceedings. In short, it creates a more realistic picture of how the justice system typically functions, which is helpful for the general public and those considering criminal justice careers. The model is also significant because it allows attorneys to predict the sentencing possibilities for various offenses more easily. 

Limitations of the Wedding Cake Model

Though it provides a useful framework for looking at criminal proceedings in the United States, there are many other aspects of the justice system that the model does not address. Therefore, we must look to different models and theories to understand these other aspects. 

For example, while Sense and Nonsense About Crime examines issues like poverty and inequality, the wedding cake model does not go into depth concerning the psychological or socioeconomic factors that drive criminals to offend. On the other hand, we may want to understand why crimes occur. If we want to understand why crimes occur, we can likely learn more by studying biological, sociological, or psychological theories of criminal behavior. 

While not without its limitations, the wedding cake model remains a valuable and relevant tool for those studying criminal justice or crime-related public policy today. 

 woman police officer sits in a patrol car

How Media Affects Criminal Justice Policy

You’ve probably heard the phrase “trial by media,” which refers to the phenomenon of media coverage shaping public perception of a case. For example, an unflattering mugshot, selectively edited interview clip, or out-of-context quote can make a defendant appear guilty to the public eye — even if there hasn’t actually been a guilty plea or verdict. 

However, the relationship between media coverage and criminal cases goes much further, shaping our perceptions not only of the courts or the accused but of crime rates and public safety within our own communities. Media coverage of crime is disproportionately focused on violent, shocking, or high-profile cases, which doesn’t accurately reflect the vast bottom tier of the wedding cake model: low-level misdemeanors that, while far more common than murders or celebrity scandals, seldom make the headlines or capture the public’s attention. The Crime and Justice Research Alliance highlights research by Richard Kania and others on this topic, summarizing their research as follows: 

“[T]he mass media serves as gatekeepers for coverage on the corrections process through the news as well as prime-time TV shows, which blur the line of fiction and reality. They also noted that the news media and entertainment media reinforce each other to promote the idea that crime is immediate and a public threat. The authors concluded that if justice scholars and other professionals do not take an active role in framing criminal justice stories in the media, then news and entertainment producers by default, will determine the perception of this industry.” 

On the positive side, however, media coverage can also help raise awareness around issues of injustice, such as wrongful convictions of defendants. By impacting public opinions and perceptions, which in turn impacts how people vote, media portrayals of criminal cases can indirectly lead to changes in criminal justice policy. 

Study Criminal Justice at National University

Kickstart an exciting and rewarding career in the justice system by getting your degree from National University. Graduates of our degree programs emerge with the skills to compete and excel in a rapidly changing world, taking on roles like FBI agent, law enforcement officer, criminal psychologist, crime scene investigator, forensic analyst, public policy advocate, and more. 

With graduate, undergraduate, and online programs, National University offers flexible learning options to meet you at every point on your journey. You’ll also find ample scholarship opportunities, convenient accelerated study options, and benefits for student veterans, plus the option to transfer credits or gain college credit for military experience

Discover your role in creating safer communities, supporting fairer criminal trials, and building a better justice system. Explore National University’s Certificate in Criminal Justice Administration, Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration, Master in Criminal Justice Leadership, and other accredited certificate and degree programs. Contact our admissions office to learn more, or start your application online today. 

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