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Criminal Justice vs Criminology: 7 Careers in the Justice System

23 Min Read

The need has never been greater for people who understand the causes of crime and the power of the criminal justice system. In a world of increasingly sophisticated communication technology, law enforcement has more tools at its disposal than ever before, but the justice system also faces bigger challenges. Criminals have more methods to try to evade the law, which is exacerbated when social media and 24 hour news cycles are not able to distinguish police misconduct from police protocol.  Both policy makers and the public may then scrutinize the justice system without proper reasoning.

Law enforcement needs leaders and critical thinkers to navigate the challenges of the 21st century, and today’s learners are tomorrow’s innovators in the field. For those who want to prevent crime and make a positive difference in their country and community, the fields of criminology and criminal justice offer tremendous opportunities.

Criminology and criminal justice are overlapping but distinct fields that emphasize different aspects of law enforcement. The fundamental difference between criminal justice and criminology is that criminology focuses on the criminals themselves, the why and how of their crimes, whereas criminal justice focuses on what society does about crime.

What is criminology?

Criminology is a social science, closely related to psychology and sociology, that focuses on crime and deviant behavior. Criminologists dive into the origins and consequences of crimes and suggest policy solutions to reduce or respond to crime. Criminologists have a hand in solving numerous crimes every day, ranging from sex crimes to drug offenses to human trafficking. Just as importantly, they devise new methods to address the causes of crime, rehabilitate offenders, and advocate for victims.

19th-century French lawman Eugène François Vidocq is widely considered the father of modern criminology. A criminal and fugitive for much of his early life, Vidocq turned to the other side of the law in his mid-30s as a police informant, police officer and private detective. His criminal background gave him deep insight into the mindset, methods, and hiding places of criminals, and based on that knowledge, he created innovative methods of undercover work, interrogation, ballistics, and record-keeping. Vidocq is known in popular culture as the inspiration for both main characters in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables: the reformed criminal Jean Valjean and the detective Inspector Javert.

Modern criminologists may specialize in particular crimes or categories of crimes, such as violent crime, white-collar crimes, or sex crimes. Others specialize in particular age groups, aspects of the criminal justice system, or more conceptual specialties such as environmental criminology, criminal profiling, or forensic psychology. Another notable specialty within criminology is victimology, the study of victimization, victim-offender relationships, and the needs of victims of crime.

From 1940 to 1957 a man known as the Mad Bomber terrorized New York City he set off 32 bombs in public places often in movie theaters for years the New York City Police Department couldn’t solve the case so they asked a psychiatrist to assemble a psychological profile of the unknown bomber the first defender profile was by James bristle and the Mad Bomber case if there were others before him no one who’s looked has been able to find it yet dr. Brussels revolutionary tool helped the FBI create a new method criminal profiling that changed American criminology forever the first bomb was in a con Edison plant on the far west side a coned worker found a bomb in a wooden box on a windowsill on his lunch hour and in that box was a note coned crooks this is for you the notes kept coming the Bombers sent threatening letters to the police newspapers and to con Edison each signed with the initials FP then 11 years after the first bomb was found another exploded in Grand Central Terminal moments later the phone rang in the Grand Central East Irwin was there much damage a man asked his voice had a slight foreign accent after the Grand Central explosion more bombs went off in quick succession he would sit in the orchestra when the lights came down he would take out a cheap penknife and he would rip open the upholstery of an adjacent seat and place his homemade bomb into the upholstery there is one supposedly in the Empire State Building that has never been found and its worst it was similar to 9/11 people were scared to ride the subways scared to go into department stores It was as if his madness was contagious in one case a woman turned her husband into the police over 16 years more than 30 bombs had either exploded or been discovered undetonated and the NYPD was no closer to finding the culprit the police were essentially conducting their work as they had a hundred years earlier roughing up suspects leaning on informants and beating the bushes in many ways the approach to physical evidence was pre-scientific this was pre DNA pre trace fiber analysis most of the people working in crime labs were former police officers they weren’t scientists as the investigation dragged on one team bore the brunt of the dangerous work the New York City bomb squad 10 detectives led by captain Howard Finney patrolled the city’s public spaces in diffused live bombs with the police’s current methods failing finis decided to look for an alternative strategy in desperation ahead of the bomb squad decided to show all of the evidence to psychiatrist in hopes that he might be able to shed some light on what the Bombers motivations were James Brussels was just about as crazy as the bomber was like Sherlock Holmes he was a drug addict he was extremely eccentric he obsessively wrote crossword puzzles with grids that he obsessively drew himself dr. Brussels had worked primarily in public hospital settings some of his work focused specifically on people who were both criminals and mentally ill so that gave him contact with people who had committed crimes in a way that not all psychiatrist said in the 1940s the homicide detectives had little use for psychiatry they thought they knew what mattered about criminal behavior they didn’t think psychiatrists had much to offer coincidentally dr. Brussels had followed the Mad Bomber case from the beginning and had a plan to create a radical new method that would help to catch him Howard Finney came to Dr. Brussels office with satchels of evidence dr. Brussels examined this evidence after about two hours he turned to detective Finney and he said the man that you’re looking for lives in a northern suburb of the city he’s never had a girlfriend he has a history of workplace disputes he comes from a Slavic background he’s somewhat impoverished and the last thing he said was when you catch him he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit and it will definitely be buttoned the reason he got that profile rekt had to do with his being presented evidence that contained usable clues his psychiatric insight to what some of those clues might mean his inference that the killer would be of Slavic origin was based on his knowledge that bombing was favored in middle Europe the use of stabbing was frequent in middle Europe the use of both together implied this person would have been influenced by their ancestors when dr. Brussels analyzed fbiís letters he recognized persistent and logically constructed delusions he saw that FP believed forces were controlling him and plotting against him these characteristics were consistent with paranoid schizophrenia he was correct that the bomber would be neat and properly dressed and that he inferred from the meticulousness of the bomb construction people who are paranoid and see themselves as flawless want others to see them that way so they follow the rules they do precisely what’s expected and they think others should do so too dr. Brussels told captain Finney to publish the criminal profile in the newspaper if FP was the self-righteous paranoid the brussels believed him to be he wouldn’t be able to resist an opportunity to set the record straight a letter was published in the New York Journal American and lo and behold the bomber wrote back and with each letter newspaper would learn a little bit more about the bomber information that they of course would share with the police by triangulating this information they were able to look for a file in the ComEd records of disgruntled former employees they eventually closed in on the file of an employee living in Waterbury Connecticut the police knocked on the door at midnight and the middle-aged man came to the door he fit dr. Russell’s description pretty much exactly when the detective said go get dressed you’re coming downtown with us sure enough he came out of his bedroom with a double-breasted jacket and it was buttoned he turned out to be a man from Lithuania background named George Metesky he was in fact the bomber his motive was revenge against the Consolidated Edison company for a 1931 plant accident he believed gave him tuberculosis now he faced the sanity tests and trial his campaign ended the bomber believed that he was on a moral crusade to right a wrong that had been done to him by the powerful forces in America that he believed were conspiring against him he believed that he was a kind of God and that he was guiding the world in the right way well if you’re going to guide the world in the right way you better be dressed right for that we have all grown up with this idea of thinking that you are either insane or you’re sane what profilers would tell you is that it’s not really like that we’re all a little bit insane and we are all on a spectrum of insanity those who began doing what became known as profiling in their effort to find anyone who had done this before stumbled on brussels book he anticipated the field the pioneers who started to form a systematic approach to profiling john douglas bob Ressler every time they were out somewhere training it stick around an extra day to interview some criminals that that warden would let them in to see these profilers conducted interviews with some of the most notorious violent criminals in American history including Ted Bundy John Wayne Gacy James Earl Ray David Berkowitz and Charles Manson for many offenders who have already been convicted they’re happy to talk about this and of course when those very agents told Tom Harris he wrote Silence of the Lambs inventing clarice starling the young agent who would go out and interview an offender I think eventually there will be major technological advances but I think it’s always going to be important that people who know about psychopathology about human nature and human behavior be at the helm of this consience grass the mind of serial killer or does it take something more than that Dr. Brussels genius was that he could see that it did require science but it required something else and required intuition something mysterious.

What is criminal justice?

Criminal justice is the study of the justice system itself; in other words, they are primarily concerned with how society responds to crime. Students in criminal justice study crime prevention, investigation, and correctional procedures, as well as the origins and organization of the justice system and the various infrastructures dedicated to addressing the causes of crime. Criminal justice professionals are directly involved in fighting crime, whether as police officers, investigators, or other roles within the justice system. A criminal justice degree can also prepare students to advocate for criminal defendants as an attorney, social worker, or other professional.

Criminal justice has existed in some form in every organized society, with historical examples going all the way back to police forces in ancient Egypt. However, the modern academic discipline of criminal justice began with August Vollmer, a police chief in Berkeley, California who founded the criminal justice program at the University of California, Berkeley in 1916. Academic study in criminal justice has played a key role in the professionalization of police forces throughout the United States.

Coursework in criminal justice focuses on how organizations in the justice system monitor, prevent, and address crime. A criminal justice program contains a mix of theory-based courses that explore the relationships between individuals and social infrastructures, and applied courses that cover methods of crime prevention and investigation.

Criminal justice vs. criminology

Think of criminal justice as the application to criminology’s theory. Criminology is primarily concerned with studying crime, understanding why crimes are committed, and proposing solutions to the problem of crime, often with a national or even international perspective. Criminal justice is concerned with the implementation of those solutions on the ground, in affected communities.

Another way to define the difference between criminal justice and criminology is that criminology is primarily concerned with the offenders themselves, whereas criminal justice is focused on how the justice system handles the offenders. Criminology, by and large, is focused on research, understanding, and big-picture thinking, while criminal justice focuses on direct action.

One more key difference between criminology and criminal justice is that the latter, by its nature, is more jurisdiction-specific. Criminology, with its emphasis on theory and the concepts behind crime, equips graduates to “travel” better between jurisdictions, and it may be more applicable to graduate study as well.

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Criminal Justice and Criminology Careers

The criminal justice system is vast, with nearly a million employees at various levels across the country. People with criminal justice and criminology backgrounds may also work in various private sector positions, such as investigative roles at law firms or insurance companies.

Police Officer

Police are on the front lines of responding to and investigating crimes in the communities they protect and serve. A police officer’s job may include arresting offenders, patrolling neighborhoods, enforcing traffic laws, responding to crimes in progress, and providing security presence at community events. Police officers with years of experience may be promoted to leadership roles in their departments or transition to careers in the private sector.

How to pursue this career: A bachelor’s degree in criminology or criminal justice is not strictly required by most law enforcement agencies, but it certainly will make you a stronger candidate. You need to pass a background check with a clean criminal record and achieve a passing score on the entrance exam. Police academy training covers physical conditioning, search and seizure, criminal statutes, traffic laws, and firearms training.

How to succeed in this career: In addition to physical fitness and ability to meet the physical demands of the job, police officers need strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills as well as interpersonal communication skills. Just as importantly, you need strong moral character and a sense of devotion to your community. Moving up the ranks in law enforcement will require experience, positive performance reviews, and additional training

Salary and career outlook: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for police and detectives is projected to be about 7% for the next decade, which is roughly in line with the national average. The median salary for police officers and detectives is $67,290 per year, though this varies significantly between jurisdictions and departments.

Police Detective or Criminal Investigator

Detectives apply their critical thinking and analytical skills and knowledge of criminology to investigate and solve crimes. They gather facts, collect evidence, interview witnesses, interrogate suspects, and use forensic evidence to solve cases. Usually, detectives investigate serious crimes such as assaults, homicides, and sex crimes; in large departments, such as major cities, detectives may further specialize in just one type of crime.

How to pursue this career: Detectives usually need to hold a bachelor’s degree in criminology, criminal justice, or a related field. They need to pass a criminal background check, complete the entrance exam, and go through the police academy, like any other officer. Becoming a detective usually requires at least one to three years of investigative experience.

How to succeed in this career: It goes without saying that attention to detail, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills are critical for detectives. Just as importantly, you need to have strong communication skills to interview witnesses and suspects. Detective work in the 21st century is increasingly dependent on technology (for instance, Dennis Rader, the infamous BTK serial killer, was caught in part through an analysis of metadata in a deleted Microsoft Word file), so detectives who are familiar with computers and technology have a significant advantage.

Salary and career outlook: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for police and detectives is projected to be 7% for the next decade, which is close to the national average across all professions. The median salary for detectives and criminal investigators is $86,940 per year, though this depends on experience and varies between jurisdictions and departments.

Private Investigator

Private investigators find information about personal, financial, and legal matters. The field of investigation is vast; investigators may work independently as contractors or be employed by businesses, attorneys, insurance companies, or government agencies. Depending on the nature of the investigation, this may involve working in an office poring over files and making phone calls, or going out in the field to conduct surveillance.

How to pursue this career: Not all investigation jobs require a degree, but a degree in a field such as criminology or criminal justice will allow you to qualify for more positions. Most states require private investigators to be licensed; the licensing requirements vary from state to state. Certification from a professional organization such as ASIS International or the National Association of Legal Investigators can also strengthen your candidacy for an investigation job.

How to succeed in this career: Much of what an investigator needs to know is learned on the job, with training specific to the field of investigation. In addition to critical thinking, analysis, and attention to detail, investigators need computer skills, as much of their work is done electronically. You also need to be prepared to work irregular hours, since it’s often necessary to contact people or conduct surveillance outside normal business hours, and to work both inside and outside in all types of weather.

Career outlook: Investigation is a fast-growing field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for private detectives and investigators are projected to grow by 13% in the next decade, faster than the national average for all occupations. The median salary is $53,320 per year.

Forensic Psychologist

Forensic psychologists use principles drawn from psychology and criminology to help judges, attorneys, and investigators understand the psychological aspects of a particular criminal case. A forensic psychologist’s most common duty is psychological assessment of people who are involved with the legal system, but they can also be directly involved in criminal investigations.

In one notable example, when the New York City bombings committed by the “Mad Bomber” George Metesky eluded traditional police methods, psychiatrist James Brussel built a “portrait” that accounted for the bomber’s age, skills, residence, nationality, and paranoid psychology. While not all elements of the psychological “portrait” were accurate, Brussel’s insights were a key factor in Metesky’s arrest in 1957—and he correctly predicted that Metesky would wear a buttoned double-breasted suit when he was found.

How to pursue this career: Usually, becoming a forensic psychologist requires a doctoral degree in psychology (a PhD or PsyD), although some related roles may only require a master’s degree. Getting employed as a forensic psychologist usually requires two years of supervised professional experience, including a predoctoral internship, as well as state licensure.

How to succeed in this career: A forensic psychologist’s role most common task is assessment of people involved with the justice system (for instance, determining whether a defendant is legally competent to stand trial). As such, clinical skills such as evaluation and treatment are vital. Forensic psychologists also need to be aware of developments in the broader field of psychology and understand how to apply them to situations relevant to the justice system, such as assessing the reliability of witness testimony based on the psychology of the witness. Because forensic psychology is still a fairly new field, the definition and responsibilities are likely to evolve over the course of an aspiring forensic psychologist’s career.

Salary and career outlook: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for all psychologists (not just forensic psychologists) in the next decade is expected to be about 8%, which is roughly in line with the national average across industries. The American Psychological Association states that forensic psychologists with doctoral degrees can expect a starting salary between $60,000 and $70,000, with the potential for significant salary growth; the median salary for psychologists is $82,180, and those who stay in the field for a long time can earn up to $200,000 to $400,000.

Criminal Justice Attorney

Criminal justice and criminology are ideal undergraduate majors for aspiring attorneys who want to work in the criminal justice system. An attorney with a background in criminal justice may become a prosecutor, public defender, or criminal defense lawyer in private practice. Civil rights attorneys who represent victims of police brutality can also benefit from a background in criminal justice.

How to pursue this career: To become an attorney, you need to be admitted to law school and earn a Juris Doctorate (JD) after completing your undergraduate degree. Most law schools require the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), although that is changing at some schools. After completing your JD, you need to pass the bar exam and complete the other requirements to be admitted to the bar in the state(s) where you intend to practice.

How to succeed in this career: Successful attorneys cultivate communication skills, critical thinking, and organization. Trial experience is a must-have in most types of criminal justice practice. If this is your career path, look for opportunities to gain experience in the court system, such as internships in a prosecutor’s office or public defender’s office.

Salary and career outlook: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for attorneys over the next decade is projected to be about 9%, in line with the national average. The median salary for all lawyers (not just criminal justice) is $126,930 per year. The starting salary for criminal justice attorneys depends on the role and location, but you can expect to make a starting salary of at least $50,000 per year, often significantly more.

Victim Advocate

A victim advocate is a support professional who works with victims of crime, usually violent crimes, sex crimes, or hate crimes, to help them access the services and resources they need to move forward. These services may be directly related to the justice system, such as helping the victim find a lawyer or accompanying them to court hearings. A victim advocate may also help with resources more generally related to the victim’s well-being, such as therapy or healthcare.

How to pursue this career: Becoming a victim advocate requires a bachelor’s degree in criminology, criminal justice, psychology, or a related field; advancement within the field generally requires a master’s degree. While not required, you can become a stronger candidate by pursuing certification through an organization like the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA).

How to succeed in this career: The critical skills for a victim advocate are listening, communication, and empathy. A victim advocate is responsible for people in crisis, and navigating that crisis requires a particular mindset and understanding approach. Organizational and administrative skills are also key, as a victim advocate may be responsible for helping clients plan their schedules and access services. Finally, it’s often necessary to cross cultural and generational barriers; crime affects people from all walks of life, and people from many different backgrounds may need a victim advocate.

Career outlook: The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track employment for victim advocates specifically, but the projected growth for social workers in general is 11% over the next decade, well above the national average. The median salary is $51,760 annually.

Criminal Profiling

Profilers have earned some notoriety for their role in catching infamous criminals such as serial killers, not to mention their portrayal in fiction. While the explicit role of a criminal profiler is quite new in the world of law enforcement, profiling has played a role in solving high-profile crimes for a long time. The 1923 Siskiyou Massacre, a botched train robbery, was solved in part by the pioneering work of Dr. Edward Heinrich, who created a highly accurate description of the three suspects that led to their identification and eventual arrest.

Depending on the agency, profiling may be known as criminal investigative analysis, crime action profiling, or investigative psychology. Regardless, criminal profilers are responsible for analyzing evidence and helping investigators build a description of the offender. They may identify psychological traits, behavior patterns, and demographic variables like age, race, or location. A profiler may help to identify a suspect in the first place or help investigators determine how best to interrogate someone already in custody.

How to pursue this career: There is no single set path to becoming a criminal profiler. It’s not a position that law enforcement agencies advertise; it’s a role that is trained and promoted from within. However, broadly speaking, there are two “tracks” to become a profiler:

The “detective track.” Earn your degree in criminology or criminal justice, then start your career in law enforcement and gain experience investigating major crimes. Once you have several years of experience, you may be able to qualify for a profiling role. Most full-time profilers work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and need to secure a role with the bureau first, although some opportunities may also be found at state agencies or local police departments in the largest cities.

The “psychology track.” Continue your education beyond your criminology degree and earn a doctorate in psychology. Establish your reputation and credentials as a forensic psychologist by working with victims, in prisons, or within the criminal justice system. Ultimately, with the right experience and law enforcement connections, you may be able to move into a profiling role, or a behavioral science support role such as a researcher or analyst.

Career outlook: Criminal profiling is not a career tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, owing to its small and specialized nature. However, law enforcement jobs, in general, are projected to grow at a rate of about 7% in the next decade, about in line with the national average. The median salary for detectives and criminal investigators is $86,940, and the median salary for detectives at the federal level (where most criminal profilers are employed) is $92,080. As the field of criminal profiling is still in its infancy, that outlook may shift significantly over the course of a career.

Make a Difference in the World of Public Safety

Understanding, preventing, and addressing crime is a critical role in protecting and strengthening communities. People with a background in criminology and criminal justice have a much-needed set of skills, and those skills will only become more needed as the world of law enforcement continues to change.

When you know the nature and causes of crime, the way it’s measured, and the methods that work best to serve victims, offenders, and the community, you are well-positioned to make a positive difference in whatever career path you pursue. Start your journey toward that career in public safety with the online BA in Criminology & Criminal Justice degree program at Lindenwood University.

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