What’s the Difference Between Criminal Justice and Criminal Law?

Email from Jake in Illinois: What’s the difference between Criminal Justice and Criminal Law?

I can’t believe I didn’t think of answering this age-old question back when I started my blog. However, it’s never too late to tackle this one so I’ll give it my best shot.

Criminal Justice vs. Criminal Law

So you’re thinking about majoring in something. Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, and other criminally interesting degree programs come to mind. So what the heck is the difference between Criminal Law and Criminal Justice? They both have “criminal” in them and they both pertain to the criminal justice system. Yes, but they are totally different from one another.

Criminal Justice refers to the universal and policy aspects of the field, including the exploration of policing, courts, corrections, and other daily applications. For example when I studied Criminal Justice at Boston University, I had the opportunity to explore the criminal justice system from the perspective of a victim and the criminal ( Victimology ) or the historic relevance of the death penalty. I learned how today’s police departments have to adhere to the demands of the communities they serve and how terrorism and the proliferation of the Internet changed the policing landscape. You can pick a Criminal Justice major at any academic level. Whether it is an Associate’s, a Bachelor’s, or a graduate degree, you’re sure to find a program you like.

Criminal Law can be studied in depth at the graduate level (after completion of a Bachelor’s degree). It is a concentration that is available at most law schools in the United States and mainly leads to a career as a lawyer. Criminal Law is not as versatile as Criminal Justice, although both majors are applied to the criminal justice field. When taking Criminal Law you’ll be focusing on the legal ramifications of crime rather than on the social aspects of it. You will be immersed in a research intensive environment where pristine writing skills are very important and a keen eye to detail is a must. Besides a law degree – aka JD or Juris Doctor degree – you can study Criminal Law from a historical standpoint on any academic level, but such programs are seldom seen.

Criminal Justice and Criminal Law Careers

With a degree in Criminal Justice you can gear your career seeking efforts towards law enforcement (Police, Sheriff, Federal Agent – FBI, DEA, CIA, Diplomatic Security Special Agent, ICE, and etc.). If you have an advanced degree, like a Master’s or a Doctorate in Criminal Justice or Criminology, you may seek consulting and academic careers.

A Law Degree with the Criminal Law concentration is most definitely going to propel you towards a career as a lawyer, perhaps even a judge, but since it is an advanced degree, you will be able to obtain jobs in the law enforcement, consulting, and academic fields as well.

A common term for a lawyer that specializes in Criminal Law is a defense attorney. Defense attorneys are lawyers who represent clients in court in exchange for money. Some defense lawyers work on a pro bono basis, which in layman’s terms means for free.

pro bono publico – a.k.a. pro bono –  is derived from Latin and literarilly means for the public good

A prosecutor most likely studied Criminal Law in college as well and is the proverbial adversary of the defense attorney. Prosecutors go after the criminals by preparing cases which most often don’t go to trial. In most court cases, the defense attorney and the prosecutor present the case in front of a judge who will subsequently make the decision on the outcome of the case. If a criminal case goes to trial, you can expect the usual charade that you see on Court TV and your local news, but mostly without all the drama.

For more information on the different careers available to you please see the criminal justice careers page where there are many more interesting jobs that didn’t get listed here. As always feel free to comment and ask questions. Till next time, take care.

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Article written by Radek Gadek

Radek holds a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Boston University. He is currently doing consulting work and runs this blog to provide relevant information on criminal justice degrees, colleges and related careers.

5 comments… add one
  • Oakland Criminal Defense Attorney

    I work as a legal assistant for a criminal defense attorney in the San Francisco bay area. I’d like to point out that very few criminal defense attorneys work on a pro bono basis. This is because the government provides a free defense attorney for anyone who is accused of a crime and can’t afford to hire a private attorney. The government attorney is called the public defender. Each county has a different policy that specifies who is eligible and who is not eligible for a public defender. Generally, they are available for those who are unemployed.

  • asdsad

    Actually I talked to an actual FBI agent today and she said that students with Law degrees have a much higher advantage of being selected to join the FBI over students with CJUS degrees. When you are competing for one of the most selective jobs its almost necessary to gain every edge. Military is a huge plus she added.

  • Katie

    hey i really liked this article it helped me ALOT!… i actually want to be an FBI agent one day, Ive never talked to one… so i hope to talk to one soon! so if anyone would like to tell me how to get in touch with one that would really help too… i have alot of questions!…thx :)

  • Dr.K.Choudhary,Ph.D,LL.B.

    I have more than thirty years experience in the Toxicology Division in Forensic science Laboratory and also inclination to law.
    Can any one suggest a good firm where I can work as Medico legal expert?

  • pamela

    WOW!!! I have learned a lot from this blog…I will be a student at NorthEast comm. college this fall my major is Criminal Justice….but Im also interested in Criminal Law! Thats what i want to become!! thats my dream..

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