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What is criminology? The study of crime and the criminal mind

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.

Illustration of a magnifying glass looking at a fingerprint superimposed on a man’s head

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.

Criminologists examine a variety of related areas, including:

  • Characteristics of people who commit crimes
  • Reasons why people commit crimes
  • Effects of crime on individuals and communities
  • Methods for preventing crime

Origins of criminology

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.

18th-century origins of criminal theory

Cesare Beccaria’s “On Crime and Punishments,” published in 1764, called for fitting the punishment to the severity of the crimes, as explained by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

  • 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 the 20th century, new approaches to criminology focused on the causes of crime, such as conflicts between social and economic classes leading to social upheaval, as JRank explains. Social-process criminology emphasizes criminal behavior as something people learn through interaction with others, usually in small groups.

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:

  • Parental relations
  • Hereditary and brain activity
  • Hormones
  • Education
  • Peer influence
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Easy opportunity

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 resources

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

Two statistical programs run by the DOJ demonstrate the impact that criminological studies have had on responding to, 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.

Research conducted by the Minnesota House Research Department studied the effectiveness of the theory of criminal deterrence, which dates back to the 18th century. It reached three conclusions:

  • 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 theory resources

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.

Criminal justice definition

The Legal Dictionary defines criminal justice as a set of procedures:

  • Investigating criminal conduct
  • Gathering evidence of the crime
  • Making arrests
  • Bringing charges in court
  • Raising defenses
  • Conducting trials
  • Rendering sentences
  • Carrying out punishments

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:

  • Police
  • Criminal courts
  • 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.”

Criminologists promote crime-fighting efforts via tools such as the New York Police Department’s CompStat system, which is now used by police departments across the country to combine crime analysis and geographic information system technologies. Their work suggests innovative ways to improve law enforcement and instill trust in the criminal justice system.

Criminology vs. Criminal Justice: Additional Resources

Criminologists possess a range of skills in research, public policy, and social sciences

Careers in Criminology: Salary and Job Outlook

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.

Criminologists’ job duties include researching crimes and identifying causes of crime, while forensic scientists collect and analyze physical evidence of crimes

Probation and Community Control Officer

According to BLS figures, the median annual salary for probation officers and correctional treatment specialists was $54,290 as of May 2019. The number of jobs for the position is forecast to increase by 3% between 2018 and 2028, which is lower than the average projected for all occupations.

Probation and community control officers help former offenders transition to productive lives after incarceration. The Balance Careers lists the duties of probation and community control officers.

  • 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

Police Officer

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

Corrections Officer

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.

A loss prevention manager’s primary responsibility is to prevent business losses due to internal or external theft, fraud, accidents, mishandling, or other causes, as PayScale.com explains. Other duties of loss prevention managers appear on O*Net Online:

  • Investigate employee theft and other violations of the company’s loss-prevention policies
  • Develop and implement programs to manage inventory, promote safety, and minimize losses
  • Ensure that prevention exception reports and cash discrepancies follow corporate guidelines
  • Train staff and managers on loss prevention strategies and techniques
  • Interview people suspected of shoplifting and other forms of theft

Detective/Criminal Investigator

Also referred to as detectives, criminal investigators are police officers who gather facts and collect evidence in criminal cases. The BLS notes that criminal investigators often specialize in a single category of crime, such as fraud or homicide. These are the primary duties of criminal investigators:

  • 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.

Job duties for detectives include collecting and analyzing evidence in criminal investigations, and FBI agents are responsible for investigating major crimes including terrorism and organized crime

Fish and Game Warden

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.

Fish and game wardens are responsible for enforcing laws related to hunting, fishing, and boating, as the BLS describes. These are among their primary duties:

  • 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

Private Investigator

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

Crime statistics and key insights

An important role played by criminologists is compiling and reporting on crime statistics. The New Yorker highlights both the importance of crime statistics in formulating crime-prevention strategies and enforcement policies and the difficulty criminologists encounter in accurately measuring crime.

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.

Other organizations involved in the collection, analysis, and dissemination of information about police activities include the Center for Policing Equity’s COMSTAT for Justice, which is intended to identify bias in policing, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, whose 2019 report titled “Police Use of Force: An Examination of Modern Policing Practices” recommended that more data on the use of force by police be made available to law enforcement agencies, and that police be trained in de-escalation techniques, cultural differences, and anti-bias mechanisms.

Criminology’s impact by the numbers

Many of the statistics used and shared by the DOJ and the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention are compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Other sources of information on the impact of criminology research in law enforcement include the Historical Violence Database maintained by Ohio State University Criminal Justice Research Center, the University of Michigan’s National Archive of Criminal Justice Data, the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, and the University at Albany’s Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics.

Criminologists: Serving Communities and Society

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.

Infographic Sources

The Balance Careers, “What Does a Criminologist Do?”

PayScale, “Average Criminologist Salary”

PayScale, “Average FBI Agent Salary”

PayScale, “Average Forensic Scientist Salary”

PayScale, “Average Police Detective Salary”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, “Detectives and Criminal Investigators”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Forensic Science Technicians”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Police and Detectives”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Sociologists”