The criminal justice system is one of the most important entities in the United States. It is dedicated to protecting the public, preventing crime, and rehabilitating offenders of the law. The criminal justice system is made up of millions of police officers, court officials, correctional officers, detectives, victim advocates, forensic scientists, and other essential specialists. Most of these professionals possess a college degree in a related field, such as criminal justice, criminology, or criminalistics.
While criminology, criminalistics, and criminal justice all sound very similar, they are three distinct fields of study. As such, it is important aspiring protectors know the difference between each field, before launching an education and career. In this guide, we’ll outline the differences between criminology and criminal justice, as well as criminal justice and criminalistics, and the career paths associated with each.
What is Criminal Justice?
Criminal justice is the interdisciplinary study of the criminal justice system. It is an overarching field of study that encompasses three core areas: law enforcement, the courts system, and corrections.
Law enforcement is perhaps the most visible area of criminal justice, made up of police officers, detectives, and special agents who are actively fighting against crime. The courts system, meanwhile, is dedicated to delivering justice under the law. They may decide if suspects are guilty or innocent, choose the level of punishment, or ensure there is a fair trial. The third component of criminal justice is corrections, which is all about the prison system. Corrections professionals oversee offenders in prisons, as well as help to rehabilitate and integrate criminals back into society.
The field of criminal justice is all about enforcing solutions to prevent crime, safeguard civilians, and detain criminals who threaten public safety. Criminal justice professionals are actively involved in the community, the crimes, and the prisons themselves. They may respond to crimes, arrest offenders, deliver justice to criminals, or monitor offenders during (or after) their sentences.
As a result, a criminal justice degree is a great choice for anyone interested in having a hands-on role within the system. In a criminal justice program, you will learn how to detect crime, detain criminals, prosecute and imprison offenders. You will learn the ins and outs of criminal investigation, criminal justice reform, and profiling. You will develop the skills necessary for modern law enforcement, emergency response, and security.
Those with a criminal justice degree can go onto pursue careers in policing, government agencies, prisons, probation, courts, and more. Below are some of the career examples you can pursue with a degree in criminal justice:
- Customs and Border Protection
- Drug Enforcement Agency
- Federal Bureau of Prisons
- Policing and Law Enforcement
- Private and Personal Security Agencies
- Transportation Security Administration
What is Criminology?
Criminology is closely related to the sociology and psychology behind crimes and criminal behavior. It is the study of crime prevention, criminal behavior, and how society is affected by crime. In essence, criminologists are dedicated to understanding the why and how of crimes, as well as using their research to develop strategies that will help prevent future crimes.
Criminologists may complete a blend of hands-on and research-based work, depending on their workplace and areas of interest. For example, some criminologists may be found interviewing suspects and profiling criminals. Others may be found researching the impact of crimes on society, or investigating evidence found at the scene of the crime, to understand the behaviors leading up to it.
At the end of the day, criminologists are analysts. They collect data, study criminals, and analyze their findings to understand the inner-workings of a crime—including why a crime took place and which factors contributed to its evolution. Criminologists may also analyze behaviors of detained offenders and those who were released, to develop strategies for rehabilitation.
For those who are naturally analytical and interested in psychology, sociology, and the deeper-level insights behind criminal behavior, a criminology degree could be a great fit.
Most graduates of a criminology degree go onto pursue a career in education or research. Often, criminology graduates become government researchers, college professors, psychologists, or go on to study criminal law in graduate school. However, some graduates use their degree to advance their skillsets in positions as police officers, government agents, victim advocates, and probation officers.
If you choose to study criminology, you also have the option of specializing in biocriminology (the study of biology in criminal behavior), feminist criminology (the study of women and crime), or penology (the study of the prison system).
What is Criminalistics?
While criminology is focused on social sciences, criminalistics is rooted in natural sciences. Criminalistics involves the collection and analysis of physical evidence found at crime scenes. Those who specialize in criminalistics are dedicated to compiling, documenting, preserving, and observing evidence to understand the events of a crime. They use the evidence to piece together what happened, at what time, and (ideally) who is a primary suspect.
Criminalists have a vast understanding of biology, chemistry, geology, statistics, and physics. They apply various scientific techniques to examine and store evidence. Physical evidence may include firearms and weaponry, DNA/biological material, drugs and alcohol, food, fibers, fluids, and more. In fact, within the criminalistics field, one can specialize in various areas, such as arson, DNA, toxicology, computer forensics, and firearms.
Those who study criminalistics may pursue careers as forensic science technicians, forensic scientists, crime scene investigations, or crime scene technicians. Each role requires a great amount of on-the-job training, laboratory experience, and extensive education in chemistry, biology, and/or forensic sciences. This degree path is an excellent choice for someone who has a passion for the sciences, and prefers behind-the-scenes work in criminal justice.
The Key Differences Between Criminal Justice, Criminology, and Criminalistics
What is the difference between criminal justice and criminology?
At a high-level, the main difference between criminal justice and criminology is their approach. Criminal justice focuses on how professionals, and the greater society, should handle crime. Criminology, on the other hand, focuses on the criminals themselves, and specifically why they commit crimes.
What is the difference between criminal justice and criminalistics?
Criminal justice is all about managing and preventing crime—through law enforcement, judiciary officials, and corrections. Criminalistics, meanwhile, is rooted in understanding how crimes happened and who was responsible. In other words, criminalistics takes a look at the evidence of crimes to understand what happened and who committed the offense.
What is the difference between criminalistics and criminology?
Criminology is all about understanding the criminal psychology—Why did they commit the crime, and how? Criminalistics, meanwhile, is an investigative field designed to understand the evidence behind a crime—Who did it, and what exactly did they do?
Which Field is Right for You?
Because criminal justice is such an expansive field, it is important to consider your career goals before taking the plunge into a training program. There are many academic programs and fulfilling career opportunities available to you. You can choose to work in law enforcement, criminal behavior, forensic sciences, counseling, sociology or psychology. You can become a special agent or work behind-the-scenes in a crime lab.
You can study criminal justice, criminology, or criminalistics. Ask yourself what your interests and passion areas are, and how those align with each of these fields.
- If you are looking for a science-based role in criminal justice, criminalistics may be for you.
- If you are interested in the psychology behind criminal behavior, criminology is a great option.
- If you are looking to become directly involved in your community, preventing and responding to crimes, you may consider enrolling in a criminal justice program.
Many schools today incorporate criminalistics and criminology into their criminal justice programs. So whether you prefer to study criminal justice, criminology, criminalistics, or a combination of the three, there is no doubt that an all-encompassing Criminal Justice School is a great place to start.
Learn more today by calling 800-889-3282 or visiting www.goodwin.edu/criminaljustice.
Goodwin University is a nonprofit institution of higher education and is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), formerly known as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). Goodwin University was founded in 1999, with the goal of serving a diverse student population with career-focused degree programs that lead to strong employment outcomes.