Criminal justice is an extensive field that encompasses the laws, procedures and agencies responsible for defining criminal behavior and holding criminals accountable. Diverse and impactful career opportunities are available within the criminal justice field.
But what is criminal justice? This article explores the field, overviews its three primary branches and discusses common criminal justice career paths.
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What Is Criminal Justice?
Criminal justice refers to the network of systems determining the guiding policies and procedures used to address and prevent crime. Three primary branches make up the criminal justice system: law enforcement, courts and corrections. These systems identify criminal behavior, arrest crime suspects and penalize offenders accordingly.
Law enforcement is the system responsible for enforcing the law and overseeing, managing and maintaining public safety. Law enforcement is the first branch lawbreakers encounter in the criminal justice system. The law enforcement field is made up of police officers, deputies, sheriffs, government agents and criminal investigators.
These professionals enforce local, state and federal law; investigate reported violations of the law; gather evidence; and write reports on criminal activity. An individual who is arrested enters the court system.
Law enforcement professionals should feel passionate about protecting and maintaining the safety of their communities by upholding the law. The following skills can serve a career in law enforcement:
Effective written and verbal communication
Sound judgment and ethics
Empathy and compassion
Teamwork and collaboration
Jobs in Law Enforcement
Law enforcement offers various career opportunities, including the following:
Criminal Investigator: Criminal investigators collect and analyze evidence, interview witnesses, conduct surveillance and detain suspects. These professionals collaborate with other law enforcement officials to solve criminal cases. See our guide on how to become a criminal investigator.
Transit and Railroad Police: Transit and railroad police officers patrol transit property and transportation systems, such as bus lines, railroads and subways, to ensure the safety of employees and passengers. These professionals respond to emergencies and investigate crimes in these environments.
Deputy Sheriff: Deputy sheriffs patrol assigned areas within their counties to ensure public safety. These professionals respond to emergency and non-emergency calls, maintain security in courtrooms, escort detainees from court hearings and arrest and detain suspected criminals.
Criminal Analyst: Criminal analysts identify criminal patterns and trends using statistical modeling, research and data analysis. These professionals use data-driven insight to develop strategies that help law enforcement reduce criminal activity.
Evidence Technician: Evidence technicians collect, document, process and preserve evidence from crime scenes. Once processed, evidence technicians transport evidence to forensic scientists who determine what occurred at the crime scene. These professionals ensure the evidence is admissible and can legally be used by its designated party during trial.
The court system, comprising local and federal courts, determines whether a suspected offender is innocent or guilty of their accused crime. This branch of the criminal justice system interprets and applies the law to each case and ensures cases follow due process during trials. Judges command courts to ensure the law is followed and offenders are appropriately adjudicated.
Individuals interested in law or overseeing court proceedings can find suitable career paths in the court system. The following skills are essential to thrive as a professional in the courts:
Written and verbal communication
Attention to detail
Jobs in the Courts
Attorney: Attorneys are legal experts who establish their clients’ legal needs, overview their options and provide advice according to their situation. These professionals may represent their clients in civil or criminal trials, research and gather relevant information for each case, attend pretrial hearings and develop strategies to favorably settle their clients’ cases. Check out our guide on how to become a lawyer.
Paralegal: Paralegals are professional law assistants who help lawyers prepare for meetings, hearings and trials by researching laws and investigating cases. These professionals prepare reports to advise lawyers on support strategies for their clients. Paralegals help lawyers draft legal documents, collect evidence and prepare arguments if the case goes to trial. Our guide on how to become a paralegal contains more information.
Jury Consultant: Jury consultants are experts in human behavior and trial strategy. These professionals offer various pretrial and trial services, such as pretrial jury research, assessing liability and damages, developing case themes and evaluating and preparing witnesses.
Court Interpreter: Court interpreters facilitate communication between parties during legal proceedings. These professionals have a strong understanding of legal jargon and are also typically fluent in two or more languages. Court interpreters interpret all dialogue from attorneys, witnesses, bailiffs and the judge.
Legal Secretary: Legal secretaries provide clerical and administrative support to lawyers. Their duties include transcribing and proofreading legal documents, attending trials to type minutes, and corresponding with witnesses, partners, clients and colleagues.
Corrections is the branch of criminal justice that deals with the sentencing and penalization of criminals decided by the court to deliver justice to crime victims and criminals. Typical sentences include probation, incarceration and parole.
Corrections professionals work directly with offenders, supervising, reconciling and rehabilitating them. The following skills are needed to succeed in a corrections role:
Ability to work in high-pressure situations
Jobs in Corrections
Correctional Officer: Correctional officers supervise arrested individuals awaiting trial and those serving time in correctional facilities. These professionals maintain order and safety in jails and prisons. They regularly inspect facilities to ensure they meet established standards and help counsel and rehabilitate offenders.
Probation Officer: Probation officers work with individuals—typically first-time, non-violent offenders—who receive a probation sentence after being tried for a crime. These professionals regularly meet with offenders to monitor their behavior and ensure they comply with court orders. Explore our guide on how to become a probation officer.
Parole Officer: Parole officers work with people who have been released from prison—also called parolees—to ensure they comply with their parole conditions. These professionals closely monitor parolees for good behavior and assist with a smooth transition as they re-enter society. They also provide counseling, job training and assistance with securing housing. Review our guide on how to become a parole officer.
Juvenile Correctional Officer: Juvenile correctional officers provide security to juvenile offenders serving time in correctional facilities. These professionals transport incarcerated juveniles to and from classes, medical facilities, court hearings and recreational activities. Juvenile correctional officers may coordinate with therapeutic teams to provide counseling and other rehabilitative services.
Substance Abuse Counselor: Substance abuse counselors work with individuals or groups to provide education, support and counseling to those struggling with substance abuse. These professionals use various techniques to identify the root of addictive behavioral patterns and develop personalized treatment plans to help patients cope with substance dependence and other behavioral disorders.
What Is Criminology?
Criminology is an integrated, multidisciplinary study of crime, criminal behavior, crime prevention and the impact of crime on society. Criminology encompasses psychology, sociology, anthropology and biology to create a comprehensive understanding of the psychological, social and environmental factors that influence criminals.
When you compare criminology vs. criminal justice, you’ll notice lots of overlap, but the career areas also have some key differences.
Criminal Justice vs. Criminology: How Are They Different?
Criminology studies crime and examines the psychological and sociological behaviors of criminals. This discipline centers on the social and environmental factors that contribute to criminal behavior. Criminologists focus on understanding why crime occurs, researching the impacts of crime on society and determining ways to prevent crime.
Comparatively, criminal justice is the comprehensive set of systems—including law enforcement, courts and corrections—responsible for defining crime. This discipline also prevents criminal activity and outlines the appropriate consequences for violations of the law.
How to Get Into Criminal Justice
Determine an Area of Interest
Criminal justice is an expansive field comprising several subfields. Each of the three primary branches––law enforcement, courts and corrections––encompass diverse job opportunities for individuals seeking challenging yet gratifying careers.
People who seek direct involvement in their communities may enjoy careers in law enforcement, whereas someone eager to work with offenders may be suited for a career in corrections.
Choose an Education Pathway
To pursue an education in criminal justice, you must choose your desired degree track. An online criminal justice degree is a good start for those interested in exploring careers in the field.
Criminal justice degrees range from associate to doctorate and offer specialization and concentration options at every level. This allows students to tailor their studies to accommodate their interests and professional goals. In addition to criminal justice, majors that can lend to a career in the field include:
Information technology or information security
Whether you stop with a criminal justice bachelor’s degree, or you go on to pursue a master’s in criminal justice, make sure the degree you pursue prepares you for the career path you desire.
Find a Job
Once you’ve completed your education or professional training, you can network with your professors, previous employers and classmates for leads on jobs.
Many criminal justice jobs can be found in the government. Federal agencies, such as the CIA, DEA, FBI and Department of Homeland Security regularly update their career pages with job openings. You can also check your local and state government websites for job postings.
Popular criminal justice career sites and job boards include:
Go Law Enforcement
National Criminal Justice Association
Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences
The American Society of Criminology
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Criminal Justice
What is the meaning of criminal justice?
Criminal justice refers to the comprehensive group of systems, including law enforcement, courts and corrections, responsible for identifying crime and holding individuals who violate the law accountable for their actions.
What is the difference between criminology and criminal justice?
Criminology focuses on understanding criminal behavior, including the sociological and psychological components that drive individuals to commit crimes. In contrast, criminal justice focuses on the systems, structures and organizations in place to address and prevent crime.