Criminal Justice vs. Criminology: What Are the Differences?

December 21, 2022

 A suspect is handcuffed by police.

Criminal Justice vs. Criminology: What Are the Differences?

 A suspect is handcuffed by police.

On a basic level, criminal justice and criminology careers share a focus on people who break the law. How that focus manifests itself in real-world scenarios, however, is quite different.

Criminal justice is true to its name in that the goal is to apprehend criminals and dispense the justice society deems fit in response to the laws that were broken. Criminologists, on the other hand, seek to understand the entire system, from the motivations of criminals to the effectiveness of laws and law enforcement.

A common misconception about criminology is that criminologists train to become law enforcement officers, when in fact criminology is a social science that studies behavior. Criminologists seldom visit crime scenes or actively try to apprehend suspects, but their research in the field forms the foundation of the work done by professionals in the criminal justice system, from police officers to FBI agents to prison wardens to prosecutors and defense attorneys.

What’s the difference in definition of criminal justice vs. criminology, and how earning a bachelor’s degree can help prepare an individual for a career in either field? Here’s an overview.

What Is Criminal Justice?

Criminal justice is the structure society uses to determine the guilt or innocence of people accused of committing crimes and to apply justice in the form of punishment and rehabilitation efforts.

This system comprises many different jobs and steps, including the police officers and other law enforcement officials who identify crimes and find the people suspected of committing them, magistrates who may issue arrest warrants, guards and other corrections officers who oversee jails or prisons if someone is incarcerated, attorneys who prosecute cases or defend the accused in trials, and probation officers.

What Is Criminology?

Criminology deals with crime in a much broader way. Criminologists are highly specialized sociologists who compile data through research in hopes of understanding what leads to criminal activity and how crimes can potentially be prevented.

This research can be on a macro level, such as studying what societal and cultural influences may contribute to criminal behavior on a large or small scale. It can also be tightly focused on understanding why an individual committed a crime or profiling the characteristics of a person who has committed a crime to help investigators narrow their search. Many criminologists work as profilers for law enforcement agencies.

Criminologists work to figure out the causes of crime, how crime can be prevented, and how those convicted of crimes should be punished and rehabilitated. They may also examine the responsiveness and effectiveness of society’s criminal justice system. As the Houston Chronicle notes, an example of criminology at work would be using scientific research to design rehabilitation programs effective enough to reduce the number of convicted criminals who commit more crimes.

What Are the Similarities Between Criminal Justice and Criminology?

The biggest similarity between criminal justice and criminology is professionals in both fields are experts on the criminal justice system. They possess advanced knowledge of laws, law enforcement, the court system, and criminals and criminal behavior, and they work to make their communities safer.

Criminal justice and criminology also share several other goals. These include:

What Sets Criminal Justice and Criminology Apart?

As much as criminal justice and criminology have in common, the two fields are different in many significant ways. The central difference is that criminal justice operates within the existing justice system to understand and enforce its established laws using established methods, while criminology is more focused on studying and understanding the system as a whole from the outside and advocating for changes to improve it.

Criminal justice and criminology also stand apart in the following ways:

Fight Crime Your Way

Whether you’re interested in catching criminals, studying the justice system, or something in between, Athens State University’s online Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice can help you answer the question of criminal justice vs. criminology as a career choice. The curriculum is focused on training graduates to find ethical solutions through real-world experiences while providing a well-rounded understanding of how the many parts of the criminal justice system work together as a whole.

If you aspire to help make your community safer and more just either through direct participation in criminal justice or through research and analysis of ways to make the system better, discover how Athens State’s criminal justice program can get you started in the right direction.


Fair Punishment, “Criminal Justice vs. Criminology HeinOnline, “Criminal Justice and Criminology”

Houston Chronicle, “Reasons to Be a Criminologist

Houston Chronicle, “What Can You Do With a Criminology Degree?"

Legal Scoops, “What Is the Difference Between Criminology and Criminal Justice”

Payscale, Average Criminologist Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Police and Detectives

Related Articles: