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What Is Criminal Justice? How Technology Is Rewiring the Field

In the information age, the criminal justice system — and those who practice within it — has had to adjust to cover the growing digital environment. The vastness of the internet is providing criminals with new ways to commit offenses, and social platforms and technologies are giving rise to significant privacy concerns. At the same time, this increased access to technology is also changing how criminal justice professionals do their jobs. So what is criminal justice, especially in this digital age?

Traditionally speaking, criminal justice is the system within the government that focuses on all legal proceedings — ranging from law enforcement and the court system to corrections and rehabilitation — related to criminal law. Students of criminal justice often study aspects of criminology, the police, criminal courts, and correctional institutions from a theoretical perspective, as well as explore the functions of those who operate within these bodies. Those studying in this field can move into a variety of careers related to the law and its enforcement, and graduates need to be prepared to work within a constantly changing digital environment. However, digital technology, such as the internet, has dramatically impacted modern criminal justice.

criminal justice professional with tablet

To better understand what criminal justice is today, the following are some of the technological challenges and opportunities facing criminal justice professionals today.

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Cybercrime

The challenge: The list of internet-related crimes is long: identity theft, computer hacking, and the buying and selling of illegal goods are just a few of the many prevalent digital crimes. Those working in criminal justice-related jobs as law enforcement officers, probation officers, or computer forensics investigators need to have a strong working knowledge of how information is disseminated through the internet, who may be at risk of crimes, and how to protect the public against criminal activity.

The opportunity: The same tools available to criminals are also available to those responsible for investigating the crimes. A computer forensics investigator, for example, may be able to access the computer of an alleged criminal to recover evidence, and a police officer could operate undercover online to bust a ring of criminals using the internet to traffic illegal goods.

Social Media, Smartphones, and a More Connected Public

The challenge: In 2016, 77 percent of adult Americans had a smartphone — an already staggering percentage that’s likely increased since then. This level of connectivity gives rise to multiple civil liberties issues that may not have previously been considered. While looking into a suspected criminal’s social history on Facebook and Twitter may be helpful for law enforcement officers in their investigations, is it ethical? Are police body cameras an invasion of innocent citizens’ privacy, or do they ensure police accountability? Should police have the right to access a person’s locked phone or private social accounts if the individual is suspected of a crime? These are just a few of the privacy-related issues new technology poses to those working in the criminal justice system.

The opportunity: As people begin to live more and more of their daily lives online, criminal justice professionals are better able to reach the public. Law enforcement professionals can build relationships and trust in their communities by being open and transparent online through their own social channels, and the public can also be mobilized to assist in investigations. Take Amber Alerts, for example. Investigators seeking a missing child may post information about the child and the alleged abductor on social media, which can then be disseminated rapidly across the country — or even globally. The more people who are on the lookout for the missing child, the more likely it is that the child will be found.

Leaks, Livestreams, and Real-Time Information

The challenge: While a computer forensics investigator may be able to retrieve helpful information from a computer, a tech-savvy criminal or activist can use the same skills to hack into government or corporate databases and disseminate private information. Information released through WikiLeaks, such as the Panama Papers, may expose alleged wrongdoing, but the leaks may also violate laws, such as the Espionage Act. Additionally, the fact that most of the American public owns a smartphone means that there are a significant number of cameras out on the streets. People can livestream events or protests, or film interactions with law enforcement officials. Because information can travel easily online, criminal justice professionals need to have an understanding of how to handle leaks, hacks, and the dissemination of potentially sensitive information in an efficient and ethical fashion.

The opportunity: Videos or photos taken by the public can potentially contribute to painting a fuller picture of an alleged incident, and they can also present a different perspective on an event or situation being investigated. In that regard, the technology available today may benefit both the public and criminal justice professionals. It brings greater investigative capabilities to law enforcement and criminal investigations and also introduces an element of transparency and accountability.

Technology and a wide range of social trends have dramatically impacted modern criminal justice. For those who are interested in exploring modern criminal justice further in the hopes of working in the field, consider enrolling in Maryville University’s online criminal justice/criminology program as a first step. Learn more about how Maryville’s program can help a student to prepare for a lifelong career in criminal justice.

Now that you have a better understanding of what is criminal justice in the modern world, discover popular criminal justice careers.

Sources:

Pew Research

The Guardian

RAND Review

RAND Research Reports

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press