The mood and temper of the public with regard to the treatment of crime and criminals
is the most unfailing test of the civilization of any country
(Sir Winston Churchill)

    Welcome to the academic discipline of criminal justice, an interdisciplinary, liberal arts field of study that began in the late 1920s when August Vollmer and others convinced the University of California to offer courses on the subject.  Vollmer was a police chief in Berkeley, California, and is considered the founder of the discipline.  One might refer to these early years (1930-50) as the "Police Science Era" since policing was the main focus.  Vollmer’s work was carried on throughout the U.S. by a number of proteges such as O.W. Wilson, William Wiltberger, and V. A. Leonard.  For many years, undergraduate education in criminal justice mostly followed a Wiltbergian model which emphasized police-oriented specializations.  Criminology, an older 19th century discipline, was quickly embraced by police scientists until criminology became dominated by sociology in the 1940s.  However, then as now, the only course criminal justice usually borrows from another discipline is the methods of research (or statistics) course.  Doing so has helped to add scientific rigor and research directions.

    During the late 1960s and early 70s, in the so-called "great transformation" which made college education accessible to most Americans, the focus of criminal justice broadened dramatically.  It was one of the first majors installed in community colleges across the nation.  At four-year schools, it was one of many programs (along with military science) that students protested against at college campuses across America.  Subsequently, courses in criminal justice (as well as criminology) fell into the hands of Sociology or Political Science departments during the 1960s (and some are still "encapsulated" in such fields).  All that changed around 1974 when the federal government subsidized colleges and universities (to the tune of about $100,000 apiece) to start financial aid (LEEP) and research programs (LEAA) for the study of criminal justice.  Many police-oriented programs remained part of the country's community college system, but over 600 four-year colleges created new liberal arts-based criminal justice curricula or programs of study.  Today, criminal justice is well-established as a broad-based academic discipline, with over 1500 Associate (2-year) degree programs, 900 Bachelors (4-year) degree programs, 90 Masters (2-year) degree programs, and 18 Ph.D. (3-year) programs.


    Criminal justice is the study of criminal (penal) law, social control, constitutional law, criminal procedure and evidence, criminology, victimology, components that make up the loose array of institutions and activities we call a system (policing, courts, corrections, and community services), politics, and the idealistic notion of "truth in action" we call administration of justice.  Each area of study is equally important, and will be explained briefly.  A penal law is one that has a provision for punishment. Hence, we are primarily concerned with laws that legislators pass which have penalties.  Social control involves the range of pressures brought to bear on people to establish conformity.  It can range from customs and folkways (dirty looks) to norms and mores (more aggressive responses to deviants).  Constitutional law is the study of that balancing act between public order and individual rights, since a constitution is, after all, a contract between a society and the individual.  Criminal procedure and evidence point to the notion of justice as both process and outcome.  Justice as process means treating people fairly; justice as outcome means giving people what they deserve.  Criminology and Victimology have long had a separate academic base, and best represent the infusion of interdisciplinary content.  The system components (sometimes called the three Cs: Cops, Courts, and Corrections - although "cops" is a pejorative word) form the basis of cultural literacy in the field.  Politics is what criminal justice is inseparably linked to, from decisions about what should be considered "crime" to policy analysis of crime control legislation.  Administration of justice is the study of workplace and organizational factors along with a focus on ethical and discretionary decision-making (justice in action).

    More definitions exist, and the problem, of course, is that justice means different things to different people.  A victim of crime would be interested in outcome (punishment, desert, retribution, or getting even).  A person accused of crime would be interested in process, and want to be treated fairly and impartially.  True justice is, in fact, both process and outcome, or as Schmidtz (2006) puts it, a constellation of elements (desert, reciprocity, equality, and need) that exhibit a certain degree of integration and unity that help us to map the universe.  Indeed, justice is many things, any many people simply want to believe in a just world where it all "works out," and they receive due appreciation (equity) for their efforts, abilities, or needs.  If one consults a dictionary, one finds such terms as righteousness and honorableness (making the sublime out of the profane), truthfulness (never lying), fairness (impartiality or neutrality), and scrupulousness (attention to detail).  Given such noble and idealistic definitions, one might easily ask if it is indeed possible or realistic to establish "justice for all?"

    A related term, justice studies, can be looked at several ways.  I prefer to look at it as bridging the gap between the real and ideal, by implementing as many types of justice as possible in this world.  My preferences overlap, however, with the concerns of other justice conceptions.  Social justice, for example, embraces aspects of civilized life, cultural beliefs about right and wrong, fundamental relationships of human dignity, and ideals of personal and societal development.  Since I technically have a Masters in Social Justice, allow me to expand on that a bit.

Definitions of Social Justice

     While both "justice studies" and "social justice" are concerned with the fulfillment of human potential, social justice, at its core, is devoted to equalization of relationships between all people. That may sound a little like some communist utopia where citizens call everyone else "comrade" but social justice is NOT about that at all. It's not even the same as the justice as fairness approach championed by John Rawls (1971). Social justice is the basis of international law, at least according to the Treaty of Versailles of 1919.  In modern criminal justice, social justice is infused in police ethics, criminology, terrorism understanding, homeland security, constitutional and civil lawsuits, and a number of other places, but essentially the problem is that there are some who argue that it can only be achieved at the individual level, one-by-one, as the police in society are entrusted to do, OR if social justice can only be achieved at the institutional level, by rearranging the institutions of society to accomplish greater participation from ALL segments of the electorate toward justice as parity (the sameness of value and worth), assuming greater participation is done in an equitable way which means in social settings governed by socially acceptable norms. The main goal is greater fulfillment of a happy life and the satisfaction of being an active contributor to one's community. A list of structural reforms that are usually associated with social justice include: education, healthcare, taxation, regulations, labor rights, and equal opportunity. 

    Civil justice concerns itself with private relationships, contractual obligations, equality of treatment, and ideal remedies that reflect a basic understanding of right and wrong.  Civil justice and social justice have in common the desire to avoid gross inequalities of outcome.  I could go on an on, but suffice it to say there are many, many conceptions of justice, mostly revolving around the notions of equality (measurability), equity (the smell, taste, or feel of justice), fairness (sportsmanship), and blindness (dispassionateness), to name a few.  One might easily ask if criminal justice can even be achieved in the absence of social and civil justice?  Some good reads on this topic are Lakoff (2002), Crank (2003), and Owen et al. (2011).  In fact, borrowing from Lakoff (2002), here's a good list of all the different models of JUSTICE AS FAIRNESS (which is a conception originating in the philosophy of John Rawls and in large part concerned with the question of how to distribute things of value):

1) Equal distribution: one child, one cookie
2) Equal opportunity: one person, one raffle ticket
3) Procedural distribution: Playing by the rules determines what you get
4) Rights-based fairness: You get what you have a right to
5) Need-based fairness: The more you need, the more you have a right to
6) Scalar distribution: The more you work, the more you get
7) Contractual distribution: You get what you agree to
8) Equal distribution of responsibility: We share the burden equally
9) Scalar distribution of responsibility: The greater your abilities, the greater your responsibilities
10)Equal distribution of power: one person, one vote


    There are many ways to model or represent the process of criminal justice in America.  Models exist with as few as eight steps in them and as many as fifteen steps.  Here, we use a ten-step model to be consistent with most textbooks.  There are also different ways to diagram the criminal justice system.  Some sources have diagrams that look like a big machine gun with multiple barrels, and others utilize what looks like a multi-layered wedding cake or a funnel turned sideways.  Regardless of the model chosen, it's important to remember that these are more analytical tools than a reflection of reality.  The purpose is to try and present the loose array of multi-jurisdictional agencies, institutions, and procedures ("non-system") as an aggregate, comprehensive whole ("system").  Admittedly, the notion of a coordinated, perfectly harmonious system is more fiction than reality.

1. INVESTIGATION and ARREST -- The process begins with the police discovering something or having it discovered for them.  This is known as proactive or reactive policing, respectively.  Most policing is reactive, with the police diligently following up, or probing, the truthfulness of any allegations or complaints.  Someone becomes a "subject" of investigation when they are someone police are looking into, and someone becomes a "target" of investigation when it is likely they will be charged with a crime.  Although there are special procedures for when somebody formally becomes a "suspect", all investigative procedures at this level are characterized by suspicion.  Police always work up from a state of being naturally suspicious.  That's what police do.  When they arrest somebody, they have worked up to probable cause.  There are many constitutional safeguards at this step of the process, but nobody questions the right of police to investigate and make arrests.

2. BOOKING -- This is a part of the process that involves custody, detainment, deprivation of liberty, and other personal intrusions, up to and including body cavity searches.  Someone is "booked" when their picture and fingerprints are taken.  An administrative record is made of the arrest, and it's at this step of the process when the suspect finds out the details of what they are being charged with and fills out a form that they have been advised of their rights.  This step is characterized by accuracy of identification and records.  Interrogation and confession can also occur at this stage.  

3. FIRST APPEARANCE -- Within hours of being booked, suspects are either brought before a magistrate, have their cases heard before a magistrate, or have the going rate determined by a magistrate, all for the purpose of setting the amount of bail.  Bail bondsmen and appointed counsel also become initially involved at this step, depending upon a person's financial circumstances.  This step is characterized by something that makes the justice system look bad - how much money a person has.

4. PRELIMINARY HEARING -- The purpose of a prelim is for a hearing judge to look into the probable cause that police used and determine if jacked-up probable cause exists for continuing with legal proceedings.  A hearing judge considers the sufficiency of evidence, whether a nexus, or connection, exists between the statutory elements of the crime and what police say the person did, and whether the proper jurisdiction exists.  This step is characterized by discovery and disclosure, which means that a number of people share information about the suspect in their respective advocacy roles (prosecution, defense).  It's the step one often hears about in terms of the myth that the case is thrown out if the suspect shows up and the police do not (the truth is it depends upon the evidence and presentation of witnesses).  Upon completion of this step, a suspect has either cleared themself, is declared incompetent to stand trial, or formally becomes a defendant for trial.

5. INFORMATION or INDICTMENT -- The word information refers to a form the prosecutor files with a court to declare his or her intention to prosecute the case.  An information is only filed upon completion of a successful preliminary hearing.  A prosecutor also has the option (and is required in some states) to go before a Grand jury, which is best seen as a standing committee of honorable citizens.  Defendants and their attorneys are not allowed in Grand jury proceedings, and any majority vote by the Grand jury to proceed with prosecution is known as a True bill, resulting in a different form, called an indictment, filed with a court.  As a general rule, felonies are usually handled by indictments and misdemeanors by information.  This step is characterized by power, as it should be obvious that prosecutors have an enormous amount of resources and decision-making authority at this point.

6. ARRAIGNMENT -- This is the first public appearance of the defendant in open court, a court that has the jurisdiction to conduct a trial.  The accused must stand and listen as the indictment or information is read, although they should have already been given a copy.  Their identification is confirmed, and they are asked if they have been informed of the charges and their legal rights.  The judge may also inquire as to whether the defendant has legal counsel, and why or why not, but this is not required and many judges prefer not to go into it.  An arraignment is generally a brief process where the judge only wants to hear one of three things: guilty, not guilty, or no-contest (nolo contendere, an admission of guilt that cannot be used as an admission of guilt in civil justice).  This is known as the plea, and the defendant must utter one of those with no room for explanation or elaboration.  If the defendant pleads guilty or no-contest, they are sentenced on the spot.  If they plead not guilty, or give the court any static, they are scheduled for trial and/or ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation.  A defendant who stands mute has a plea of not guilty entered on their behalf.  Most defendants will have had their defense attorney arrange a plea bargain beforehand, so that the act of pleading guilty is openly noted as a negotiated plea to which the judge has or does not have prior knowledge of, but in all cases must consent to.  Some 90% of all criminal cases are resolved with plea bargains, but they can't go on at the last minute during arraignment.  A judge can reject a plea of guilty if they think it was made under duress, non-intelligently, or if the bargain is too last-minute or lenient.  This step of the process is characterized by speed.

7. ADJUDICATION -- This is an open or closed trial in which matters of fact and law are examined for the purpose of reaching a judgment of conviction or acquittal.  A jury is usually the trier of fact (did they do it) and the judge the trier of law (admissibility of evidence and penalties).  Less serious offenses don't require a jury, and even in serious cases (if state law allows), the defendant can waive his or her right to a jury trial.  Such proceedings are called bench trials where the judge serves as both trier of fact and law.  The adjudication stage is ruled by strict rules of procedure, evidence, and precedent.  An adversarial system is also adhered to where both sides (prosecution, defense) argue vociferously within boundaries set by professional ethics.  The standard for conviction is beyond a reasonable doubt.  This step is characterized by being enormously expensive, time-consuming, and stressful.  There are many salaries to be paid.  Private attorneys, for example, make $800 an hour for time spent in the courtroom (public defenders make less, about $40 an hour).  Add DNA testing or forensic analysis, and each modern trial in America easily costs millions of dollars.  

8. SENTENCING -- This is a hearing held after a judgment of conviction where a judge imposes some form of punishment.  Prior to this hearing, the judge may order a presentence investigation on the defendant's family history, economic circumstances, emotional state, social background, and criminal history.  A judge has considerable discretion in sentencing, although some state and federal laws now place limits on that discretion.  Offenders found guilty on more than one charge can serve sentences consecutively (one at a time) or concurrently (all at the same time).  Sentencing is also used to order court costs and victim reparations be paid by the offender.  Many sentences are appealed, but the appeals process is complex.  This step is characterized by the court's desire to settle everything. 

9. CORRECTIONS -- This is the process of doing time in prison, being classified according to local procedures, being housed in an appropriate facility, and being assigned to an adequate treatment program.  Also called institutional corrections, prisons are generally places characterized by violence, overcrowded conditions, and minimal opportunities for treatment.  There are no luxuries, and prison life is becoming less and less attractive with the elimination of privileges like smoking, cable TV, weightlifting, boxing, and martial arts.  At a cost of about $25,000 per year to house and feed two million inmates, corrections today is a relative bargain.  

10. PROBATION and PAROLE -- Not all convicted persons wind up in prison, and most of those that do eventually get released back into the community.  Traditionally, probation occurs as an alternative to prison and parole as a form of supervision after prison, but things such as shock probation (a taste of prison life before probation) and shock parole (a taste of prison life after parole) have become commonplace.  Also called community corrections, probation and parole involve monitoring readjustment to society under strict rules or conditions.  Violators of those conditions are called technical violators, and those kind of violators far outnumber the few who commit new crimes while out in the community.  A large number of people are on probation or parole.  Adding them to the correctional count (calling it the number under some form of correctional care) comes out to about 6 million.


    Although criminal justice is primarily a state and local function that (judicially) processes about one million people (felons) a year, the practice of it is severely constrained by the U.S. Constitution, particularly the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights.  These are not ideals, but fundamental rights guaranteed to each and every individual.  They are best seen as due process rights, which is a matter of procedural fairness.  From time to time, the Supreme Court clarifies, expands, or retracts these rights.  They are as follows:

Right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty
Right against unreasonable searches & seizures
Right against arrest without probable cause
Right against self-incrimination
Right to fair questioning by police
Right to protection from physical harm throughout the process
Right to an attorney
Right to trial by jury
Right to know the charges
Right to cross-examine witnesses
Right to speak and present witnesses
Right not to be tried twice for same offense
Right against cruel & unusual punishment
Right to due process
Right to speedy trial
Right against excessive bail & fines
Right to be treated the same as others

    The notion of due process (as individual rights) is in constant tension with the notion of crime control (as individual responsibility).  One of the first to point this out was Herbert Packer in his 1968 book, The Limits of the Criminal Sanction, published by Stanford University Press. It remains a definitive work in the field. It's mentioned in all the introductory textbooks; it's mentioned in class by many instructors; analysis of it is commonly given out as assignments; and professors wish more students would grasp Packer's ideas.  However, this 385-page book is hard to find and hard to read, so here's my review of it.

    [Review of Packer's crime control model]: Packer starts out explaining that he's an utilitarian and not a retributivist. This means he's more concerning with preventing crime than with punishing criminals. He also doesn't believe in rehabilitation. He believes in limiting the reach of the law to observable conduct and offenses where there are clear examples of moral and secular outrage on the part of the community. He offers drug offenses, the crimes of attempt, conspiracy, and solicitation (inchoate offenses), and the insanity defense as examples of "hands-off" areas in criminal justice.  He analyzes the "strain" on the system (as he calls it) of using the criminal sanction indiscriminately. He proposes that no law be passed unless it can be enforced even-handedly, his favorite example (p. 289) being the "St. Patrick's Day Effect," where police concentrate in one area (the parade route) while the criminals are active in another area. It's in this context that he presents his model of criminal justice as caught up in the conflicting, dual goals of crime control and due process which is only resolved at the practitioner level.  At this level, it's a philosophy or attitude of ambivalence (sometimes you feel like a "tough" and sometimes you don't), and it's this attitude that criminal justice professors wish their students would pick up.  Working in criminal justice is like that, being part angel and being part devil, at times not knowing which part is right, but knowing both parts anyway.  Packer outlined polar ends of the spectrum, the point being that regardless of how much society embraces either end during its pendulum swing, it's the human practitioners of justice who make remain balanced and make both values operative in real life.  The pendulum swing, which occurs at the macro-societal level, is the notion of public sentiment or mood moving back and forth along a continuum, because whenever you have impossible ideals as endpoints, you always see societies go thru some cyclic, back-and-forth process.  The customary representation of Packer's endpoints is as follows:

(assembly-line justice)
(obstacle-course justice):
Efficiency (of operation) Error (possibility of mistake)
Magnitude (speed and finality) Quality control (no emphasis on finality)
Expertness (few restrictions on fact finding) Skepticism (moral, utilitarian restrictions)
Factual guilt (we know you did it) Legal guilt (prove it in a court of law)
Presumption of guilt (a mood of confidence) Presumption of innocence (a mood of doubt)

    More than anything, Packer would like to see a mood of equality, an even-handed embracing of the need for crime control (the necessity of efficiency) and a sensitivity to claims of injustice (everyone with their day of justice).  If we take away the right to air one's side of the story (even for criminals we know are manipulating) and have no skepticism in our minds about the morality of it all, we risk jeopardizing the whole set of fundamental freedoms and constitutional guarantees that we all want to enjoy.  That is what makes the criminal justice system so special, and that is what makes those who work in it the guardians of civil and human rights.


    It is sometimes said the U.S. has 51 criminal justice systems, one for each state and a federal one (Walker 1998).  There are a total of about 50,000 agencies in federal, state, and local government that serve criminal justice functions.  Most of these are police agencies, employing about 940,000 people with annual expenditures of $53 billion.  Second in size is corrections, employing about 650,000 people at $41 billion.  Ranking third in size are the courts, employing about 75,000 people at $26 billion.  

    The field of private security employs about 2 million people at an annual cost of $104 billion.  America's private law enforcement system has always been twice the size of public law enforcement, and it's growing at a faster rate.  The field of national security employs an undisclosed number of people across 56 different intelligence agencies.  The field of forensic science is also rapidly growing, as each state and large local authority has its own forensic laboratory, in addition to the 120 private labs and the chain of state, federal, and private psychiatric hospitals. 

    The variety of job titles in CJ is amazing.  It makes little sense to ask if criminal justice is a "growth industry" as it always is.  Visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Projections to find out the hiring and salary trends at least five years into the future. This site will also give you information about qualifications and job responsibilities.  Every college student, faculty, and administrator ought to bookmark this site.

    For criminal justice job descriptions, visit my Employment Mega-Site.  Be careful in looking for federal job information. Use free sites like Government Jobs or the federal government itself, and it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the federal applications like form OF-612. Most job-seekers have a copy of OF-612 downloaded, filled out, and are constantly editing and updating it.  Specialized sites exist for the Courts and Corrections, but not many. One devoted to finding paralegal and legal assistant work is The Legal Employment Search Site.  For jobs in the corrections field, The Corrections Connection Career Center is darn good.  Super-Sites in Forensic Science include: Carpenter's Forensic Science Resources, Zeno's Forensic Page.

    The average level of education among criminal justice workers is only 2.5 years of college according to LEMAS (Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics) data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), but that average is rising.  If you are in a 4-year college program and get the urge or opportunity to quit school and work in the system, my advice is don't do it.  Stay in school.  Although you won't need a 4-year or graduate degree for most careers in CJ (unlike other fields like psychology or sociology where you'll almost need a Masters or Doctorate), the educational requirements are rising.  Studies have found that college-educated workers have enhanced written and verbal skills, are better able to communicate effectively with the public (especially minority groups), are less likely to have disciplinary problems, generate fewer citizen complaints, and are more likely to be promoted than their less-educated peers.  Supervisors often report their more educated employees to be more reliable, flexible, and exhibit more initiative in job performance. Citizens report that educated workers in CJ excel in the use of good judgment and problem solving.

    Doctorates and doctoral programs in CJ are vastly needed.  There's a real shortage of criminal justice professors.  See Dr. O'Connor's Graduate School Mega-Site for links to all the grad schools and practical advice on going this far with your education. Links there are also provided for law Schools and graduate programs in homeland security.  Every year at about any given time (although the main hiring seasons are March and November), there are about 300 criminal justice professor vacancies open.  Many of these go unfilled because no one has the right credentials, as is a problematic situation in almost every profession.  Education is sometimes seen by practitioners as superfluous, and training is sometimes seen by educators as kindergardenish.  Despite all its problems and prospects, criminal justice is a growth area with an urgent need for good people.

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Kappeler, V. et. al. (2002). The mythology of crime and criminal justice. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.
Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral politics. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
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Schmidtz, D. (2006). Elements of justice. NY: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Walker, S. (1998). Sense and nonsense about crime and drugs. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Last updated: Apr. 3, 2014
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
O'Connor, T.  (2014). "What is Criminal Justice?" MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://www.drtomoconnor.com/1010/1010lect01.htm.