What Is Criminal Justice? - Definition, Fields & Theories

Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Learn what constitutes criminal justice. Review the definition of criminal justice, as well as its various fields. Finally, examine criminal justice theories.


Just turn on the television and you'll find a multitude of shows that incorporate criminal justice themes: CSI, Cold Case, Law and Order, and more. All of the cases in these shows cover different components of criminal justice, but all are involved in similar goals. Criminal justice is an intertwining of agencies and processes which seek to achieve control of crime, minimization of crime, and the imposition of penalties for the commission of crimes.

There are various levels of criminal justice systems in the United States, including a state level, a federal level, and a local level. For example, when looking for police agencies, you might find state police, town police, or federal agencies such as the F.B.I. All of these agencies are police and are in pursuit of the same goal, but each operate on a different governmental level.


Criminal justice encompasses a variety of areas, or fields, that are each essential.

The first area is the police. Sometimes referred to as law enforcement, this field is the initial contact with the actual criminal activity. The functions of the police include taking statements after incidents, gathering evidence, performing investigations, arresting offenders, and providing testimony in court.

This brings us to the next field, which is the prosecution. Prosecution is the legal field where criminals are faced with the consequences of their crimes; hence, this is the field where lawyers do their work. The lawyers are known as prosecutors. Prosecutors represent the states where they work and file charges against criminal offenders. Charges are the formal laws that an offender has broken when committing a crime.

The next field in criminal justice is the court system. Once charges are filed, there is a formal legal case against the criminal offender. The court system includes judges who preside over the cases, often during trial. Sentencing also occurs at the court level. Sentencing is the phase of a case where a criminal offender receives the penalty for committing a crime. For example, an offender could receive a sentence of five years of jail time and a $5,000.00 fine.

The next field of criminal justice is known as corrections. In corrections, there are individuals known as correction officers who work with individuals who are in jail, on probation or on parole. These officers ensure that the offenders are following their release plans, obtaining employment if necessary, and obtaining any court-ordered counseling. Corrections officers may also serve other functions, depending upon the circumstances of each case.


Criminal justice is a field containing numerous theories as to how and why people commit crimes in the first place. The first common theory is known as social disorganization theory. Under social disorganization theory, the reason why an individual makes a certain choice is due to their environment. Thus, the reason why a person chooses to commit a crime is due to the environment in which they live.

The next criminal justice theory is known as rational choice theory. Under this theory, individuals usually put themselves first and make choices based upon self-interest. Therefore, when making a choice to commit a crime, a person weighs the pros and cons of doing so.

Another popular criminal justice theory is known as strain theory. This theory is based upon the idea that when people fail, they may resort to criminal activity to achieve their goals.

Finally, another criminal justice theory is known as social learning theory. Social learning theory is based upon the idea that individuals learn criminal activity from other criminally active people they associate with.

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