In a time when the U.S. criminal justice system is under a microscope, criminologists are playing a key role in establishing a more equitable, science-based understanding of crime, policy, and social justice. Applying their theoretical knowledge and practical experience, professionals in this field support and strengthen the work of law enforcement agencies and legal professionals.
But what is criminology, really? This article will explore the many components of this rapidly evolving discipline and offer insights on how to pursue a variety of criminology careers.
Criminology definition and history
Criminology is the study of crime and criminal behavior, informed by principles of sociology and other non-legal fields, including psychology, economics, statistics, and anthropology.
The roots of criminology trace back to a movement to reform criminal justice and penal systems more than 200 years ago. The first collection and use of crime statistics in the 19th century then laid the groundwork for generations of increasingly sophisticated tools and methods, leading to our modern use of descriptive statistics, case studies, typologies, and predictive analytics.
Punishments for crimes should be “public, prompt, necessary, the minimum possible under the given circumstances, and established by law.”
Punishments are intended to deter the offender from further criminal activity.
Severity is based on the level of harm caused by the offense rather than the intent of the offender.
The legal reference website JRank highlights the work of Beccaria and Jeremy Benthem: The motivation for people’s choices is to seek pleasure or avoid pain. Punishment for a crime should deter potential choices to break the law by ensuring that the pain of potential punishment is greater than the pleasure derived from committing the crime. This idea spurred the first efforts in the U.S. and Europe to codify and standardize the law.
Mid-20th century development of modern criminology
The mid-20th century development of “modern” criminology involved seeking to understand crime’s causes by studying sociological, psychological, and economic conditions. The American Law Institute’s work on the Model Penal Code was a 10-year effort completed in 1962. The code established new standards of criminal liability that considered the mental elements of crime.
The code served as a model for penal code revisions in several states. It was also instrumental in charting the federal penal code for the first time. The code inspired other efforts to reform criminal law through criminology research application.
“New Criminology” and the impact of social upheaval on crime
In contrast, control theory focuses on training people to behave appropriately by encouraging law-abiding behavior. Control theory’s basis is the belief that personal bonds give rise to our internal controls, such as conscience and guilt, and our external controls, such as shame, that deter us from breaking the law.
A multidisciplinary approach to criminology
In their research, criminologists consider many perspectives on crime’s causes and effects. This multidisciplinary approach of criminologists accepts there is no single answer to why people commit crimes. JRank notes attempts to control bad behavior date back to the earliest civilizations. Today, factors may be biological, psychological, economic, or social. Criminals are motivated by greed, anger, jealousy, pride, and other emotions. They seek material gain; they want control, revenge, or power.
Potential causes of or motivations for criminal activity include:
Hereditary and brain activity
Drugs and alcohol
Criminology and the legal perspective
Criminologists study crime as an illegal action society punishes through the government’s legal system. Researchers focus on the causes, prevention, and correction of crime generally. By contrast, the legal industry’s perspective of crime emphasizes specific crimes and punishments governed by statutes and regulations, as well as established legal processes.
The legal definition of a crime is an offense against public law, as UpCounsel explains. To qualify as a crime, the offense must be punishable, whether by fine, loss of freedom, or other method. Criminologists have broadened the definition of crime to include conduct that doesn’t violate existing law, as JRank reports. This includes economic exploitation, racial discrimination, and unsafe or unhealthy work environments.
Criminology Theories: Classical, Positivist, and Chicago School
Research into criminology theories is primarily sociological or psychological. Sociological theories of criminology perceive crime as a normal human response to social conditions that are “abnormal and criminogenic,” according to JRank.
Psychological theories of criminology date back to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Crime results from a failure to form healthy and loving attachments to parents. Behavioral psychology introduced the concept of rewards and punishments: A rewarded crime is repeated; a punished crime is not.
Three principal approaches to criminology
Today, three criminology theories predominate: the Classical, Positivist, and Chicago schools.
The Classical School argues that people freely choose to engage in crime. Bentham’s utilitarianism theory states they are driven either by a desire for pleasure or by aversion to pain, as the Oxford University Press states.
The Positivist School applies scientific theory to criminology. It focuses on factors that compel people to commit crimes.
The Chicago School states that crime results from “social disorganization,” which is defined in the Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice as “the inability of a community to realize common values and maintain effective social controls.”
Criminology’s impact on reducing and preventing crimes
The Uniform Crime Reporting program (UCR) collects information from law enforcement agencies across the country on dozens of crimes. It is intended to assist researchers in studying crime among neighboring jurisdictions and those with similar populations or other characteristics.
The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) analyzes crime incidents, victims, and trends. It collects data on reported and unreported crimes and provides researchers with demographic data on perpetrators and victims.
Deterrence is most effective for preplanned crimes.
Making already-long prison sentences even longer does little to deter crime.
Increasing the likelihood of getting caught is a more effective crime deterrent than increasing punishment.
Criminology and society’s treatment of criminals and victims
Little attention was paid to the needs of crime victims until the 1970s, when the DOJ’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ) determined that a primary reason for unsuccessful prosecutions was the poor treatment of witnesses and victims by the criminal justice system. Since that time, legislation and law enforcement programs, including the Violence Against Women Act of 1990, have worked to protect and assist victims and witnesses.
Similarly, criminology research has affected how criminals are treated in custody. The American Bar Association (ABA) has developed Standards on Treatment of Prisoners that describe correctional policies and professional standards that comply with constitutional and statutory law.
Criminology has also highlighted the real cost of crimes on individuals, families, and communities. The 2017 report “Costs of Crime” from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that new study methods will improve the accuracy of crime cost estimates, particularly in the area of compensating victims for their pain and suffering.
Criminology vs. criminal justice: what’s the difference?
The primary distinction when it comes to criminology vs criminal justice is the former’s emphasis on the study of crime and the latter’s focus on society’s response to crime, as the Balance Careers explains. Criminal justice applies principles and concepts developed by criminologists to enforcing laws and investigating crimes, as well as to the trial, punishment, and rehabilitation of criminals.
By contrast, its definition of criminology emphasizes the scientific and academic aspects of the field’s study of crime, criminal behavior, and law enforcement. Criminal justice includes the work of:
Prisons and other correctional institutions
Juvenile justice systems
Criminal justice and effective law enforcement
In the 20th century, the field of criminal justice arose as an effort to improve the effectiveness of law enforcement in light of expanding due process and other rights for criminal defendants, as Encyclopedia Britannica explains. The study of criminal justice expanded in the 1980s and 1990s in the form of qualitative descriptive analyses of the operations of specific criminal justice agencies.
More recent research in criminal justice emphasizes quantitative studies about the effectiveness of particular crime-fighting strategies and approaches. Researchers have studied whether an abusive spouse’s arrest prevents future incidents of abuse, and whether prison rehabilitation programs are effective in reducing recidivism.
One area of criminal justice research proven to be ineffective is the effort to predict which offenders are most likely to commit other crimes. Not only were models unable to identify habitual offenders, but researchers were questioned about whether such efforts violated people’s constitutional rights. The fear is that offenders may be punished not for what they had done but for what they might do in the future.
Such issues are at the forefront of modern discussions about the relationships between civil rights and law enforcement. With numerous studies indicating a need to address systemic racism in many corners of the justice system, future criminologists will play an important part in creating a more equitable framework for crime prevention.
Criminology and criminal justice work together to fight crime
Criminal justice and criminology are distinct fields, but they’re closely linked, theoretically and practically. From the viewpoint of potential criminologists and law enforcement professionals, the big difference is criminology’s focus on science and research, and criminal justice’s emphasis on application and administration.
For example, criminologists respond to a rise in homicides by studying underlying economic, sociological, and psychological conditions. By contrast, criminal justice officials respond by working to prevent future homicides and capture the perpetrators.
The two fields merge in applied criminology, which studies “real-world” problems relating to crime and criminal justice. It applies criminology concepts to actual criminal justice policy and practice. The goal is to make criminology relevant in addressing crime, victimization, and the relationship between “governmental agendas and knowledge production.”
Typical employers of criminologists include law enforcement and other government agencies, university research labs, and other research institutions, as PayScale.com explains. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines criminologists or penologists as sociologists who specialize in the study of crime. They investigate the social influences of crime on individuals, groups, and organizations.
Career options for criminologists
The Balance Careers distinguishes criminology positions as being more academic than those in criminal justice, although there is a great degree of overlap between the two fields. For example, people typically earn a bachelor’s degree in criminology followed by a master’s degree in criminal justice, or vice versa.
Among the daily tasks of criminologists are collecting and examining evidence, visiting crime scenes, attending autopsies, and exploring the psychological aspects of a crime from investigation through conviction and rehabilitation. These tasks require the ability to organize data and evidence, conduct statistical analysis, and write reports.
The range of positions available to criminologists include jobs with federal, state, and local law enforcement, as well as public and private research organizations, think tanks, legislative bodies, and public policy bodies, as the Balance Careers reports. Criminologists strive to improve police operations via innovative programs, such as community-oriented policing and predictive policing.
Criminology Positions: Salaries and Employment Outlook
The BLS forecasts that the number of jobs for all sociologists, the category that includes criminologists, will increase by 9% between 2018 and 2028, which is faster than the average growth projected for all occupations. PayScale.com reports that the median annual criminology salary is around $44,000.
These are among the career options available to criminologists.
Forensic Science Technician
Forensic science technicians assist in criminal investigations. They collect and analyze evidence, including fingerprints, weapons, and body fluids. They photograph and sketch crime scenes, and they catalog and preserve evidence before it is transferred to crime labs. They also work in labs, investigate possible suspects, and consult with experts in forensic medicine.
The BLS reports that the median annual salary of forensic science technicians as of May 2019 was $59,150. The number of jobs is forecast to increase by 14% between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than the average projected for all occupations.
Supervise probationers and parolees, including visiting their homes and meeting with their families
Collaborate with church groups and community organizations
Monitor probationers and parolees electronically
Perform pretrial investigations, submit sentencing recommendations, and testify in court
Prepare status reports on probationers and parolees, and assist them in job training and job searches
The median annual salary for police officers and detectives as of May 2019 was $65,170, according to the BLS. Jobs for police officers and detectives are expected to increase by 5% between 2018 and 2028, which is equal to the average projected for all occupations.
Police officers are tasked with protecting the lives and property of community residents. The BLS explains the duties of police officers:
Respond to emergency and nonemergency situations
Patrol specific areas
Issue citations and conduct traffic stops
Use computers in the field to search for warrants and vehicle registrations
Conduct investigations at crime scenes
Collect and secure evidence
Prepare cases and testify in court
The median annual salary of corrections officers as of May 2019 was $47,830, according to BLS figures. The number of positions for corrections officers is forecast to decline by 7% between 2018 and 2028 as a result of expected reductions in prison populations.
Corrections officers oversee people who have been arrested and are awaiting a hearing or trial, as well as people who have been convicted and sentenced to serve time in jail or prison. The BLS notes the duties of corrections officers:
Maintain order in jails and prisons by enforcing rules
Inspect facilities to ensure they meet safety and security standards
Supervise inmate activities and search them for contraband
Escort and transport inmates, and report on inmate conduct
Loss Prevention Manager
PayScale.com reports the median annual salary for loss prevention managers is around $52,000. The most common tasks of loss prevention managers are security risk management, safety compliance, inventory control, theft prevention, and security policies and procedures.
Conduct interviews with crime victims, witnesses, suspects, and relevant experts
Examine police and other records
Monitor the activities of suspects and participate in raids and arrests
Write reports, prepare cases for trial, and testify during court proceedings
The median annual salary for detectives and criminal investigators as of May 2019 was $83,170, according to BLS figures. The number of jobs for police officers and detectives is forecast to increase by 5% between 2018 and 2028, which is equal to the average for all occupations.
The BLS reports that the median annual salary for fish and game wardens as of May 2019 was $57,500. The number of jobs for fish and game wardens is expected to increase by 2% between 2018 and 2028, which is below the average projected for all occupations.
Conduct interviews with complainants, witnesses, and suspects
Patrol fishing and hunting areas
Participate in search and rescue efforts
Monitor people suspected of violating regulations relating to fishing and hunting
Educate the public about laws governing outdoor activities
The median annual salary for private detectives and investigators as of May 2019 was $50,510, according to BLS figures. The number of jobs for private investigators is forecast to grow by 8% between 2018 and 2028, which is faster than the average growth projected for all occupations.
The work done by private investigators for businesses and individuals mirrors that done by criminal investigators for public law enforcement agencies. These professionals examine records and conduct other research relating to legal, financial, and personal matters. The BLS lists the duties of private detectives and investigators:
Conduct criminal and other background checks and verify statements made by individuals
Interview suspects, witnesses, and experts and perform other research into missing persons
Search for evidence in online, public, and court records
Perform surveillance and collect other evidence for clients
Insurance Fraud Investigator
The BLS reports that the median annual salary for claims adjusters, examiners, and investigators was $66,790 as of May 2019. The agency expects the number of jobs for the category to decline by 4% between 2018 and 2028 due to automation of claims processing.
The position of insurance fraud investigator is included in the broad category of claims adjusters, appraisers, examiners, and investigators who evaluate insurance claims. These are among the principle duties of insurance fraud investigators, as listed by the BLS:
Examine and research insurance claims to confirm that they are legitimate
Conduct interviews with claimants’ doctors, employers, and others to review suspicious claims
Work with attorneys and other legal professionals to verify information related to claims
Perform surveillance to identify fraudulent claims resulting from staged accidents, arson, unnecessary medical treatments, and other criminal activity
The article describes the challenge in determining whether cannabis use increases or reduces crime levels. Various analyses of crime rate trends in states where cannabis has been legalized have come to conflicting conclusions, pointing to the complexity of arriving at a definitive answer about what contributes to criminal activity. Criminologists use a variety of sources and techniques to try to provide statistics that can accurately portray crime trends and inform criminal policies.
How criminologists support law enforcement
Two of the DOJ’s most effective statistical analysis tools for assisting local crime-fighting efforts are the FBI’s UCR system and Bureau of Justice Statistics’ NCVS, both of which are described above. The systems share a shortcoming: Local jurisdictions disagree on what constitutes a crime. Some jurisdictions only report offenses that involve incarceration, while others include fined infractions.
Criminologists have developed a range of statistics-based tools that support federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.
The Survey of Sexual Victimization (formerly the Survey of Sexual Violence) collects data on sexual assaults in correctional facilities, including state prisons, state juvenile correction facilities, federal prisons, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities, and the U.S. military.
The work of criminologists touches nearly all aspects of social life. Crime investigation calls for specialized skills and training, sophisticated number-crunching ability, and a great deal of fieldwork interacting with colleagues within and outside criminal justice, and with the public.