The Similarities Between Criminology and Criminal Defense

Crime has been a part of the human experience for thousands if not millions of years. In the modern world, that means a wide variety of careers are now available that have something to do with crime or criminals. These typically break down into two major groups: criminology and criminal defense or – more correctly – criminal justice.

Each has some similarities as well as differences, and the individual who chooses one of these careers often needs a particular set of skills and attributes. However, with such wide latitude in the two groups, there is also plenty of room for individual preferences and personal qualities.

Criminology vs. Criminal Defense/Criminal Justice

Criminology in the purest sense is the study of crime, according to Portland State University. It is a social science and many practitioners of criminology are trained in disciplines like sociology, anthropology, and psychology as well as law. The focus of the criminologist is to determine why crimes are committed and how they can be prevented, and on ways to create social responses to crime that are effective and appropriate.

Criminal defense or criminal justice is the field focused on how laws are created and enforced, and how the punishment system works. Criminal justice is related to how the legal system functions. A sociologist who studies how poverty affects criminal behavior is a good example of someone in a criminology-oriented career, while police officers, lawyers or judges are examples of individuals in criminal justice careers.

How Criminology and Criminal Justice are Similar

Criminology and criminal justice are fields that intersect in many ways. Those who study and work in these fields must have a comprehensive understanding of how the criminal justice system works and the impacts crime can have on a society. Common fields of study include such topics as the most common crimes, location, and timing of crimes, how laws are developed and enforced, and how the legal system works at both a national and local level. People in these occupations must understand how to relate to criminals while not allowing themselves to be manipulated.

Either group may need to feel comfortable going out in the field, whether to study a crime scene, interview criminals or arrest perpetrators. Empathy helps promote understanding of criminals and their behavior. It must be balanced, however, with professional standards and knowledge to ensure that the end goals of preventing or deterring crime and protecting both individuals and society at large are met as often as possible.

Necessary Skills, Characteristics, and Attributes

Certain personal characteristics and attributes can be useful in both fields. For example, ethical standards are vitally important. Accurate, honest research in criminology is required to understand why crime happens, what factors may precipitate crime and how punishment may or may not deter certain kinds of crimes. The police officer on the beat or the judge in the court room should not be susceptible to bribery, graft, or corruption, as otherwise justice can easily go by the wayside.

Detail orientation is necessary to ensure accurate data collection and reporting for research, to interview witnesses or to conduct the examination of a crime scene. The ability to communicate, both with other practitioners in the field and with the layperson or criminal, is a key skill for occupations in both criminology and criminal justice. People in both fields should be able to deal well with high levels of stress and to work with criminals who have a history of violent behavior. Critical thinking skills and the ability to reason logically are also necessary in both fields.

Job- or Career-Specific Requirements

Although there is great variation per the specific career, criminology and criminal justice occupations have specific requirements that vary widely. Police officers, for example, must be physically fit. Law enforcement officers also typically need skills such as the ability to shoot accurately or to drive a car in a high-speed chase. Physical fitness, while beneficial for overall health, is less important for a lawyer or judge – at least as it affects the primary responsibilities of the job.

Physical fitness is less likely to be an issue in criminology, and in fact, some research positions in the field may be suitable for those with physical disabilities that would hamper them in the pursuit of a criminal justice occupation. Criminologists – especially those who perform research – are more likely to need higher level mathematics skills such as statistics and computer skills that allow them to create mathematical models for research. Research skills are another requirement for criminologists, who typically need to write scientific analyses and papers.

Educational Requirements

A criminologist might complete a degree in one of several social or behavioral sciences, such as psychology or sociology, or in a field such as law. In all cases, a bachelor’s degree will be the minimum educational requirement and in most cases, a master’s degree is more likely to be required. To perform independent research, a PhD is necessary. However, some criminology careers may need no more than an associate degree.

Rasmussen College notes that approximately 28 percent of criminologists hold a master’s degree, while 62 percent have a doctorate or professional degree like an MD or JD. In criminal justice careers, educational requirements vary from an associate degree or post-secondary certificate for a position like a paralegal or court reporter, to a professional degree like a JD for a lawyer or judge.

Specific Careers in Criminology

Some possible careers in criminology include:

Counseling – substance abuse and mental health counselors often work with criminals or those dealing with complex life issues that may foster criminal behavior. An associate degree and on-job training are usually preferred or required.

Social Worker – works with individuals or groups to help them solve or cope with mental and emotional issues as well as with basic life needs such as education, jobs, and health care. A bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement for a social worker, while licensed clinical social workers must have a master’s degree.

Forensic Psychologist – assesses criminals’ behavior to determine such issues as competency to stand trial or the motivations for a criminal act. A PhD is required, as is a license to practice.

Criminal Psychologist – the classic criminal psychologist is the FBI profiler, who studies historical information such as case files, serial killers, crime scenes and similar topics to build profiles of individuals. A PhD is typical.

Specific Careers in Criminal Justice

Careers in criminal justice include:

Law enforcement – people in these occupations may be police officers, sheriff’s deputies, marshals, game wardens, bailiffs, corrections officers, or DEA, Social Service, or FBI agents. Educational requirements vary, but in most states an associate degree is preferred and additional training provided in an institution like a police academy is also required. DEA, FBI and Social Service agents usually need a bachelor’s degree, and many have “beat” experience as a police officer as well.

Paralegals and Legal Secretaries – people in these occupations provide support services to lawyers. They may help research or investigate cases, develop legal documents, or provide basic secretarial services. An associate degree is usually the minimum educational requirement and in some cases, a bachelor’s degree may be preferred or required.

Attorney – more often called lawyers, these professionals advise clients and organizations, represent them in legal matters and before courts, research and analyze legal problems and interpret laws, rulings, or regulations. They also prepare and file legal documents such as wills, contracts, or deeds.

Judge – a judge oversees the legal process in a court and interprets the law to determine how a trial will proceed. The judge must ensure fairness in the trial process and protect the legal rights of all parties, as well as determine whether an individual accused of crime should be held or released until trial. A judge must have a legal degree (which means both a bachelor’s degree and a JD) and work experience as a lawyer. Many judges have worked in the district attorney’s office as criminal prosecutors or as criminal lawyers prior to going on the bench.

In conclusion, the fields of criminology and criminal justice are broad, even though there are similarities. Individuals interested in either kind of occupation should have many options in deciding about a particular career pursuit. Both offer opportunities beyond an entrance level career – the paralegal might go on for a law degree, while a police officer might become a lawyer and ultimately a judge. Nor are the two fields mutually exclusive. A social worker might become a law officer and vice versa. A forensic or criminal psychologist might also hold a law degree. No matter what an individual’s interests, talents or skills, criminology and criminal justice have something to offer.

About the Author

Houston defense lawyer Greg Tsioros provides legal advice and aggressive representation for clients charged with misdemeanors and felonies at both the state and federal level.

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