Social Justice

What is criminal justice? Investigating its purpose and professions

what is criminal justice

Whether you’re captivated by criminology, fascinated with the legal system or passionate about the rehabilitation of offenders, there’s a lot in the criminal justice field that intrigues you. Individuals from all walks of life are drawn to these professions for many reasons.

But even if you are interested in the field, you may still be wondering: What is criminal justice exactly? And what is the purpose of the criminal justice system?

We spoke with seasoned experts to get the answers to all your questions. If you’re curious about the criminal justice system, read on to learn more. You may discover your future career lies in this field.

What is criminal justice?

Let’s start with a concise criminal justice definition: “Criminal justice is the structure of laws, rules and agencies designed to hold criminals accountable for their misdeeds and help them to restore their victims as much as possible,” explains Lizbeth Meredith, former juvenile probation supervisor and victim advocate.

In the United States, there is no singular criminal justice system. Rather, there are many individual systems working in concert. How they work depends on the jurisdiction in charge — whether it is a city, county, state, federal, tribal government or military installation. Laws, agencies and proceedings can vary among jurisdictions. To complicate matters further, criminal justice systems operate at both the state and federal levels, depending on the location of the crime.

What is the criminal justice system?

When asked of the criminal justice meaning, many people automatically think of police officers, but the field actually encompasses much more than law enforcement. Attorney Michael Hernandez breaks down the three major components of the criminal justice system:

  • Law enforcement: Criminal justice professionals who enforce laws and apprehend violators. This area also includes the programs and efforts designed to prevent criminal activity.
  • The court system: Courts prosecute criminal cases and defend against those prosecutions, while protecting witnesses and victims who come forward to participate in court proceedings. The court system is also responsible for analyzing and creating new laws that prohibit or penalize behavior.
  • Corrections: Correctional agencies are tasked with the housing, punishment and rehabilitation of law offenders.

Many individuals are needed to work across these areas. It takes all kinds of people to keep each branch running smoothly. Keep reading for details about the different career paths within the criminal justice field.

Types of criminal justice professionals

Law enforcement agencies, courts and corrections facilities all rely on dedicated and trained staff. Learn more about the different criminal justice professionals that work to uphold the law, protect citizens and create a just society.

Law enforcement careers

In law enforcement, officers patrol and report any criminal activity they observe in their areas. They arrest offenders, investigate crimes, gather evidence and provide testimony in court. Common types of law enforcement positions include:

  • Police officers
  • Sheriffs
  • Patrolmen
  • Police investigators
  • Police detectives
  • Federal agents

While hiring standards vary, most entry-level police officer jobs require a high school diploma or GED. However, many law enforcement officers choose to pursue a four-year degree in criminal justice because it increases the potential for higher salaries and advancement opportunities.

Court-related careers

Prosecutors, at both the state and federal levels, are lawyers who review evidence and determine whether to file charges against an individual. They bring cases to court, where they present evidence, question witnesses and, above all, carry the burden of proof in their quests for convictions.

Defense lawyers are on the opposite side of the courtroom, representing defendants who have been charged with a crime. These lawyers ensure their clients receive adequate representation throughout the court proceedings. While prosecutors represent the government, defense attorneys represent those who are facing criminal charges.

There are many types of lawyers on both the prosecution and defense sides, including:

  • City attorneys
  • District attorneys
  • Attorneys general
  • United States attorneys
  • County public defenders
  • Alternate public defenders
  • Federal defenders

Beyond lawyers, many other professionals work within the courts to help uphold the criminal justice system, leading and supporting legal proceedings. These positions include the following:

  • Judges
  • Paralegals
  • Court clerks
  • Court reporters
  • Court officers
  • Process servers
  • Victim advocates
  • Witness coordinators

If you’re considering working in the court system, a bachelor’s in legal studies is an ideal degree. This program helps develop skills like critical thinking and fluency in legal concepts that are essential for success. Aspiring paralegals also have the option to pursue a paralegal profession concentration to develop specific skills and knowledge needed to support lawyers by conducting legal research, drafting formal documents and organizing materials for court presentations.

Corrections careers

“Corrections” is the term used to describe the network of agencies overseeing incarcerated individuals and those in rehabilitation, parole or probation. Depending on the severity of the offense and the criminal’s history, the individual may be sent to jail or prison, or they may receive some other form of punitive measures.

In less severe cases, offenders may receive probation in lieu of serving jail time, which includes regular check-ins with their probation officers, and they may be ordered to pay fines or serve community-service hours. Some felons may be released from prison and placed on parole in order to serve the remainder of their sentences under close supervision in their communities.

There are several professionals who dedicate their careers to the corrections branch of criminal justice, where they help oversee and reform convicted offenders. This includes the following positions:

  • Corrections officers
  • Probation officers
  • Parole officers
  • Rehabilitation specialists
  • Corrections counselors
  • Wardens

Because correctional officers are employed by local, state and federal governments, the educational requirements vary. To work in a federal prison, for example, a four-year degree is mandatory. In many states, you can pursue a career in corrections with a high school diploma or GED. But a bachelor’s degree, especially in a relevant field like criminal justice or criminology, will set you apart from those without university experience.

Make a difference in the criminal justice system

So what is criminal justice, exactly? It’s not just about law enforcement. It’s an entire sprawling system overseeing unlawful activity, imposing penalties on those who violate the law and working to ensure the violators don’t reoffend.

You now understand the basic definition of criminal justice and the roles that support the criminal justice system. These professionals enforce and uphold the law and it takes a passionate and valiant person to step up to this level of responsibility.

If you feel a calling to pursue a rewarding career in the criminal justice field, learn more about how UMass Global's bachelor's degree paths in legal studies or criminal justice can get you started on the right track.

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