Criminology vs. Criminal Justice: What Is the Difference?

Criminology vs. Criminal Justice: What Is the Difference?

Criminology vs. Criminal Justice: What Is the Difference? banner

As academic majors and professional fields, criminology and criminal justice share a great deal in common. So, what exactly is the difference between criminal justice and criminology? Read on for some key insights into both extremely fascinating and vitally important disciplines.

How Is Criminal Justice Defined?

The comprehensive legal dictionary precisely defines criminal justice as “a generic term for the procedure by which criminal conduct is investigated, evidence gathered, arrests made, charges brought, defenses raised, trials conducted, sentences rendered and punishment carried out.” This definition encapsulates criminal justice’s highly practical focus on the business of administering justice in the “real world.” So, when it comes down to the criminal justice vs. criminology debate, it’s essential to know and understand the difference.

The Three Pillars of Criminal Justice

In the United States, the criminal justice system is comprised of three principal interacting and interdependent component parts: law enforcement, courts, and corrections.

Law Enforcement

Law enforcement, including police officers, detectives, sheriffs, deputies, and park/game officers, is responsible for investigating crimes, gathering evidence, and arresting suspects. They also protect public safety. Law enforcement officers must strive to maintain a helpful presence in the communities they serve while often dealing with individuals acting disruptively or breaking the law.


Overseen by judges and propelled by prosecutors and defense attorneys, the criminal court system manages legal trials and settlements including the delivery of verdicts and the handing down of sentences. In fact, ordinary citizens of all kinds play an integral part in the US court system by serving on courtroom juries. The principal function of criminal courts is to present and evaluate case evidence before determining the guilt or innocence of an accused suspect. It is important to note that, in the U.S., all criminal suspects are considered innocent until proven guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”


When the courts hand down a guilty verdict and impose a criminal sentence, the convicted party enters the corrections system. This places them in the hands of prison officials, corrections officers, probation officers, rehabilitation specialists, and other professionals who manage criminal sentences and endeavor to reform offenders. Although many people equate corrections to the prison setting, corrective measures in the U.S. include fines, probation, community service, and parole. From social workers to educators to religious advisors, countless corrections professionals strive to change criminals for the better and prepare them for reintegration into society.

How Is Criminology Defined?

The independent academic resource provider accurately describes criminology is a subfield of sociology and defines it as “assessing why crime is committed, how it is committed, and how it can be prevented” while “taking into account personal, societal, and systematic factors.” This definition encapsulates criminology’s generally theoretical concentration on answering important questions about and developing an improved understanding of crime and those who commit it. Regarding the difference between criminal justice and criminology, this is a solid definition to go off of specifically for criminology.

Theories of Crime

Given that criminology has a theoretical focus, what specific theories does it focus on? Over the years, criminologists have developed countless theories that have propelled their field forward. To illustrate three examples, strain theory, social control theory, and labeling theory have proven extremely influential among criminologists. According to strain theory, the cultural pressure to achieve certain goals leads disadvantaged people to resort to illegitimate methods as they struggle to achieve them. Social control theory, by contrast, posits that all people are innately driven to commit illegitimate acts and would likely do so if not for the social controls continually restraining them. Another prominent approach to criminology study, labeling theory examines the ways in which society marks behavior as illegitimate and the effect of that labeling upon the behavior of people.

Criminal Psychology

While many facets of criminology theories look outward toward society, criminal psychology looks directly into the thoughts and feelings of the criminal offender. From investigating criminal motivations to designing better rehabilitation programs, criminal psychologists study the various roles that mental health conditions play in deviant thinking and behavior. Specific areas of concern for criminal psychologists range from the value of psychological profiling to the reliability of recalled testimony.


The study of crime’s psychological effects, victimology requires thorough analysis of the relationship between offenders and their victims. Criminologists who specialize in victimology often take an extremely wide and nuanced view of this relationship, which can impact individuals and families as well as entire communities. Victimology findings can have positive effects on law enforcement, court system, and corrections operations.

Prevention and Policy

Throughout history, the work of criminologists has informed crime-prevention policies across the United States and around the world. Government leaders, administrations, and agencies commonly look to criminology research to develop data-based strategies, early intervention programs, and organizational frameworks that address various issues related to crime.

What Are the Differences Between Criminology and Criminal Justice?

Beyond their differing definitions and purviews as detailed above, the fields of criminology and criminal justice differ in their primary goals and methods. While the fundamental mission of criminology is to deepen understanding and inform policies, the fundamental mission of criminal justice is to ensure public safety, prevent crime, uphold the law, and rehabilitate offenders. To accomplish their goals, criminologists commonly use methods such as experimentation, statistical analysis, and case study. Conversely, criminal justice professionals are constantly re-inventing and refining methods of crime investigation, arrest, prosecution, and correction.

Theoretical vs. Practical

As previously discussed, criminology is generally theoretical in nature while criminal justice is far more practical. In other words, criminology typically focuses on the “why” of crime, while criminal justice deals with how we address and respond to it.

Proactive vs. Reactive

Consistent with their respective theoretical and practical approaches, criminologists tend to be proactive, emphasizing crime prevention, while criminal justice professionals tend to be reactive, responding to crimes in progress or investigating crimes after they occur.

The Intersection of Criminology and Criminal Justice

The distinct disciplines of criminology and criminal justice cover much of the same academic/professional ground and inform each other in many ways. For instance, the theories of criminologists are constantly informing the practices of criminal justice professionals. In areas that range from crime prevention to court system reform, criminologists and criminal justice professionals work together to better uphold the rights of suspects, victims, and members of the community at large.

Collaboration with Legal Professionals

The fields of criminology and criminal justice intersect quite frequently in the study and practice of law. Beyond defining the foundational theories and the practical frameworks that shape the legal professional’s world, criminologists and criminal justice professionals often collaborate with attorneys and judges on a broad scope of programs and initiatives.

United Desire to Understand the Motive and Psychology of Crime

Criminologists and criminal justice professionals both have a powerful desire to peer into the minds of criminals as well as those who witness or fall victim to crime. By better understanding the various motivations that underlie crime and our reactions to it, we can better address it and, hopefully, stop it before it starts.

Appreciation of Data

The use of statistical information and raw data are extraordinarily important in both criminology and criminal justice pursuits. Examples of criminology and criminal justice technology range from predictive analysis software to real-time crime mapping platforms.

Careers in Criminology vs. Criminal Justice

While the fields of criminology and criminal justice overlap in many areas, the career paths for individuals who pursue employment in these fields are decidedly different. Positions held by criminologists are typically proactive or theoretical. In contrast, criminal justice professionals focus on practical approaches to crime, often dealing with existing criminal activity rather than potential threats.

Criminology Careers

Per employment experts at Indeed, criminologists enjoy relatively secure jobs with reasonably competitive salaries. But the best benefit of a career in this field might be the satisfaction that goes hand in hand with making a positive difference in society. Here are just a few career paths common among criminology majors.

Detective or Criminal Investigator

A common professional goal for criminology and criminal justice students alike, a position as a police detective or a criminal investigator requires a profound understanding of the criminal mind. For this reason, among others, training in criminology can prove extremely valuable.

Jury Consultant

The criminologist’s focus on psychological matters is also an excellent fit for a career as a jury consultant. Employing their specialized knowledge of human thought and behavior, criminologists provide expert advice in areas that relate to the selection and appointment of jurors in criminal court cases.

Loss Prevention Officer

Widely employed by major retailers and other sales organizations, loss prevention professionals concentrate on the prevention of theft and the apprehension of those who steal. Once again, employers of loss prevention officers often turn to criminology graduates for their specialized insights into the criminal mind.

Criminal Justice Careers

Far beyond the standard police officer position, Johnson & Wales University has led students to numerous careers with a master’s in criminal justice down many different rewarding career paths.

Director of Court Services

Responsible for planning and implementing various court programs, a director of court services must have in-depth knowledge of the criminal justice system. Because they are tasked with keeping official records, orchestrating case flow, and managing PR issues, directors of court services must stay abreast of current affairs as well as up to date with standards and practices. The highly practical and reactive approach of criminal justice graduates makes them ideal candidates for this position.

Fraud Investigators

A criminologist can offer valuable insights into the thought processes and motivations of a grifter. However, a criminal justice expert is better equipped to work with departments and investigate fraud cases systematically.

Correctional Officer Supervisor

Criminal justice majors with a particular interest in corrections may want to consider becoming a correctional officer supervisor. Overseeing the activities of correctional officers and other prison staff, these professionals ensure smooth daily operations, maintain strict facility order, and respond immediately to emergencies. To be successful, a correctional officer supervisor must possess strong leadership and organizational skills.

Should I Study Criminology or Criminal Justice?

So, in the “criminal justice vs. criminology” competition, which field ultimately rises victorious? Obviously, the answer to this question will depend on your existing areas of skill/expertise and your overarching professional/career goals. While criminology might appeal to those who seek to transform future society, criminal justice is likely the right path for those who want to make a difference today.

Interested in a Criminal Justice Degree?

At Johnson & Wales University, you can earn your online master’s in Criminal Justice with outstanding career prospects. For more information about completing your degree online, complete the Request Info form, call 855-JWU-1881, or email [email protected].

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