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What is Criminal Justice?

Learn About the Study of the System and Methods of Crime and Punishment


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Criminology and criminal justice are often used interchangeably.  If you were to ask 10 college students hoping to work as police officers what they were studying, the chances are that half of them would tell you criminology and the other half criminal justice.  The fields are certainly related, but for those looking for careers in criminal justice or criminology, it is important to distinguish between the two and to be able the answer the question of what is criminal justice.

The Difference Between Criminal Justice and Criminology

If criminology is the study of crime, and its causes, costs and consequences, criminal justice is the system in which crimes and criminals are detected, detained, tried and punished.  Most often associated with law enforcement alone, people who study criminal justice actually look at all of the different components and inner workings of the system.

Components of the Criminal Justice System

There are three main components of the criminal justice system: law enforcement, courts, and corrections.  These three components work together to prevent and punish deviant behavior.

Law Enforcement

The law enforcement function is perhaps the most visible.  Police officers are typically the first contact a criminal has with the system.  Police patrol communities to help prevent crimes, investigate incidences of crime, and arrest people suspected of committing crimes.  Once a person is arrested, they enter the courts system.

Courts System

The courts system consists of attorneys, judges and juries.  In the courts, the guilt or innocence of the suspect is determined.  After the evidence is presented and weighed, and after the suspect, now defendant, is offered the opportunity to confront his accusers, he is either released or is found to have committed the alleged crimes.  If found guilty, the suspect receives a sentence, or punishment, based on criteria set by the judge and by statutes.  After the defendant is sentenced, he is turned over to the corrections system.

Courts System

The corrections system incorporates all forms of sentencing and punishment.  It includes incarceration, probation and parole.  A convicted criminal is the responsibility of corrections until his full sentence is served or commuted.  Corrections include prisons, jails and probation and community control officers.

Evolution of Criminal Justice

Our modern ideas of justice and the ways in which we deal with crime and criminals has evolved significantly over thousands of years.  Once a matter of vengeance and family blood feuds, crime has come to be viewed as a societal problem, thus requiring a societal or governmental solution.

Crime and Punishment

The criminal justice system as we know it has its roots in the Roman Republic and medieval England, which is one of the reasons why Latin remains the language of the courts.  Concepts such as restitution and execution are carried over from ancient times, though other ancient punishments such as mutilation, flogging and branding have largely been done away with as our sensibilities and understanding of crime has changed.

Rise of Prisons

Incarceration and the prison system is quite new, having only been placed into wide usage in the 1800s.  Prior to that, when society deemed it necessary to separate a criminal from the population he was exiled and often threatened with death if he returned home.

Modern Policing

In addition to prisons, another relatively new development within criminal justice is the modern police force.  Once viewed as the duty and responsibility of every male citizen, the importance of maintaining safe and secure communities has become a function of the government.  The concept of policing in society has changed significantly over the centuries.

Through the work of criminologists and law enforcement professionals, the criminal justice system continues to evolve as we search for ways to better serve victims, witnesses, society and even suspects and convicted criminals.  The study of criminal justice helps us to learn better ways to solve crime and protect citizens.

Careers in Criminal Justice

Criminal justice has grown to offer a tremendous number of career options.  Those interested in working in the field can find plenty of jobs in the courts, corrections or law enforcement systems.  The hardest part about finding a job in criminal justice is figuring out which career path is best for you.

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