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What is the difference between criminology and criminal justice?

If you asked a hundred students what they think criminology is, you would probably receive a hundred different responses. With the popularity of programmes such as CSI the term criminology, for many people, calls to mind modern forensic investigations and drug cartels. However, criminology was around long before these scientific approaches.

By Cara Fielder. Published 11 February 2019. Last updated 13 June 2023.

What is the difference between criminology and criminal justice?

Criminology originated in the eighteenth century. Cesare Beccaria in his book, On Crimes and Punishments (1764), argued that because criminal laws place restrictions on individual freedoms, the individuals involved should be presumed innocent. Criminology is as old as the modern legal system and was originally a critique of the law. It places less of an emphasis on the running of the criminal justice system and instead takes a critical approach to both the law and how it is used.

Criminology is a critique of the law, while Criminal Justice studies the implementation of the law. Criminal justice looks at how the system operates and tends to be less critical of the law, focusing on aspects such as evidence gathering, and evidence based forensic science. Understanding the sociological and psychological behaviours of criminals to identify why they commit crimes is a cornerstone of criminology, whilst criminal justice focuses on the operation of the legal and justice systems.

Criminology and Criminal Justice prepare students for careers in a wide range of areas, both within criminal justice and beyond. A degree in either subject could lead to a career in probation for example. However, where a criminal justice student may view it as a way of upholding the law, a criminology student may see an opportunity to support people victimised by the same system.

What are the career options with criminology and criminal justice degrees?

Below is a list of just a few of the career options a degree in either criminology or criminal justice offers. This is by no means all of them but illustrates the wide range of options these degrees facilitate.

  • Community safety
  • Crime prevention
  • Youth offender teams
  • The Home Office
  • Fraud investigation
  • Investigative data analyst
  • Police officer
  • Probation officer
  • Youth offending support officer
  • Emergency planning officer
  • Offender case administrator
  • Adult guidance worker
  • Charity officer
  • Data scientist
  • Forensic computer analyst
  • Housing manager/officer
  • Local government officer
  • Paralegal
  • Social researcher
  • Solicitor
  • Customs
  • Immigration

Both courses also prepare students for future postgraduate study should they wish to remain in academia.

The law is an immensely powerful tool, but if it’s used by people who don’t respect it or use it to further their own ends, it becomes a dangerous one. An insight into the law and how it is used against some communities and marginalised groups is essential for those who wish to affect change or work within the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system increasingly impacts our daily lives, so a working knowledge of the system helps to keep it in check and is necessary to bring about change to make the system fairer for all.


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