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Criminology vs. Criminal Justice

While the typical image of a uniformed police officer securing their hometown through field work might be the first to come to mind when considering the law enforcement process, there are a wide variety of different ways to contribute to our country’s domestic safety.

The American system of justice is a complicated, intricate assemblage of institutions and personnel, each of them fulfilling a unique function in the pursuit of a safer nation. Some of those functions involve dedicated police investigation and field work, certainly, but others are more supportive or scientific, offering the parties responsible for enforcement of the law detailed insight into the behavior of criminals. These findings can contribute to a body of knowledge that keeps officers safe and contributes to the building penal institutions that discourage criminal activity while ensuring the safety and health of the incarcerated.

This is the essential separation between criminology, or the study of criminals, and criminal justice, the actions taken by officers and agents to uphold the law. This represents a common point of confusion among those who are either new to law enforcement or have only been exposed to one facet of the field.

What is Criminology?

Criminology is a branch of sociology that extends back to 18th century Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, who was one of the first to speak against penal systems that he considered to be both cruel and arbitrary in their punishments. After applied study, he suggested that the law should be standardized so that the powers given to justices couldn’t be abused, and even proposed a system through which sentences could be determined that had a significant impact on how criminals were treated.

His study prompted the continued exploration of how best to prevent criminal behavior, and set the foundations for the expansion of criminology as a field of study. Today, criminologists study the ways in which a number of factors – from gender to socioeconomic status – influence an individual’s behavior to understand the motivations of those who commit crimes. However, criminologists also continue in Beccaria’s footsteps by examining the system itself, including the ways in which these same factors might result in biased sentencing or contribute to other larger societal problems.

These discoveries can go on to shape the law enforcement system in significant ways, educating the policies of police precincts, legislators, and correctional facilities across the country.

Criminology vs. Criminal Justice

Criminal justice, on the other hand, is a general term for the application of the law through police, courts, and prisons. This broad categorization includes those at every level of law enforcement; from attorneys and justices to prison wardens and police officers. These facets of the justice system are the practical realization of criminological study, adhering to the most immediate findings of scientific research to protect civilians, prevent crime, and adequately (but fairly) punish offenders.

This forms the fundamental distinction between criminology and criminal justice. One is an academic discipline, the other is the enforcement of the law in a manner that respects that study.

If you’re interested in becoming a leader in criminology, criminal justice, or in other areas of the U.S. justice system, explore the online Master of Science in Criminal Justice at University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

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