The Differences Between Criminology and Criminal Justice

Man pointing to a crime map from the Portland Police Bureau Crime Analysis Unit

If you’ve ever watched an episode of the hit TV show Law & Order, you know each episode is based on a two-part formula: one half examines what led to the crime, and the other focuses on what happens to the criminal in court. When it comes to the study of criminal activity, Law & Order, like any dramatization, has its inaccuracies, and we certainly wouldn’t recommend it as serious study material. However, its formula does help to illustrate the difference between criminology and criminal justice, two pillars of knowledge necessary for a greater understanding of crime and effective responses to it.

Occasionally, criminology and criminal justice incorrectly treated interchangeably in public forums. Despite certain shared characteristics, the two areas of study differ in several ways. Criminology is by definition the study of crime. It’s a social science that shares characteristics with sociology. Criminologists are “question askers” and information seekers, always searching for the reason behind why crimes are committed and how they can be prevented in the future. Criminology involves extensive research and analysis, and ideally that research and analysis helps create more appropriate and effective social responses to crime.

Criminal justice, on the other hand, is more closely focused on how the law is made and enforcement and how punishment is carried out. It examines the workings of the justice system at all stages, from the moment a crime is detected, to police, to the courts, and all the way through corrections. More simply, criminal justice studies center on what happens after a crime is committed and how the legal system functions in legislating, enforcing laws, punishing offenders, responding to victims, and ultimately impacts crime.


Both areas of study require a comprehensive understanding of the legal system as a whole and how crime impacts our society. Criminology and criminal justice are not mutually exclusive areas of study. Ideally, they should be used in tandem to create a knowledge base that provides unique insight into the social determinants of crime and how the justice system better address it. However, certain professions draw more on one area of study than the other. Criminology might prove more suitable for those interested in a career in education and research about crime, or those who are interested in working in high levels of criminal justice agencies. For those gravitating toward more skill-based roles in forensic science and crime scene investigation, or law enforcement roles in security, customs, or police work, criminal justice would be more suitable.

Criminology and criminal justice are distinct yet complementary areas of study that, when paired together, provide great career flexibility in criminal justice professions. Knowledge from both areas can be applied in a variety of settings, and separately they can be used to home in on specialized careers. Knowing the difference can help you choose the focus will suit you best.

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