By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski  |  11/14/2023

what is criminal justice


With more than 25 years in criminal justice, I have found that this field continuously evolves to meet society's needs. Laws are amended, technology advancements change law enforcement operations, and new case laws influence the way policing is conducted. Earning a degree in criminal justice can help provide a deeper understanding of how criminal justice professionals work on a daily basis.


What Can I Learn from a Criminal Justice Degree?        

A criminal justice degree provides valuable insight into the criminal justice system. Furthermore, students deepen their understanding of how the government functions.

Learners who complete a criminal justice degree gain insight into the three pillars of the criminal justice system, which are the police, courts, and corrections. Each of these components must work efficiently together, and none is more important than the others.

Students who decide to study criminal justice will find that the field is complex, as it is responsible for keeping citizens safe, holding accountable those who commit crime, and ensuring citizen rights are properly protected. The criminal justice system encompasses local, state, and federal law enforcement – as well as jails and prisons around the United States – along with criminal court proceedings.

Students who pursue a criminal justice degree learn about criminal laws. In particular, they gain insight into constitutional amendments that directly impact the criminal justice system.

For instance, these amendments include:

  • Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure
  • Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination
  • Sixth Amendment rights involving the right to face your accuser, the right to an impartial jury, the right to a speedy trial, and other due process protections for defendants

Criminal justice students are likely to gain a deeper understanding of case laws that influence police actions every day. One such example of case law is Miranda v. Arizona. This case involves the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination: the Supreme Court established that a person's rights against self-incrimination, commonly referred to as Miranda Warnings, must be given any time a suspect is in a custodial situation and is going to be asked questions that may elicit a response implicating the person to a crime. Students will likely learn the exceptions to Miranda Warnings and when statements may be admissible in court, such as "spontaneous utterances."

Another important case law that is often taught in criminal justice courses is Carroll v. United States, which involves search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. In this case law, the Supreme Court held that police may search a vehicle through a warrantless search when probable cause exists.

A third example of a case law that has left a lasting impact on police departments is Terry v. Ohio, which also involves search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. In Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court held that officers may conduct a pat-down of someone when reasonable suspicion exists that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime and may be armed and dangerous.

Additionally, criminal justice courses often explore trends at correctional institutions and within the American judicial system. Students typically learn about the differences in federal, state, and civil courts.

Degree programs usually introduce learners to legal terminology and the different types of motions that may be filed within the court system. Some of the common legal terms students may grow familiar with include:

  • Admissibility
  • Acquittal
  • Conviction
  • Guilty and not guilty
  • No contest
  • Bail
  • Exculpatory evidence
  • Public defender
  • Felony
  • Misdemeanor
  • Indictment
  • Impeached testimony
  • Jurisdiction
  • Mistrial

Common motions that students may learn about include a motion to suppress, motion for discovery, motion in limine, motion for discovery, and motion to dismiss.

Related: Criminal Justice Degrees and Using Real-World Experience


What Is a Criminal Justice Degree?

For this field, it's useful to consider pursue your education beyond a high school diploma and attain a college degree. Criminal justice degrees are available at the undergraduate degree and graduate degree level. Undergraduates may study the discipline as part of an associate degree program or a bachelor's degree.

Graduate-level students may also pursue a master's degree and a doctoral degree in criminal justice. Certificates that provide knowledge and skills in a specific area of criminal justice are also available, such as the Law Enforcement Leadership Certificate.

The field of criminal justice itself is very broad. Degrees can involve many different concentrations or areas of criminal justice. Some common concentrations that fall under a criminal justice degree include homeland security, computer forensics, criminal law, juvenile crime, research in criminal justice, crime scene investigations, prison management, and many other important concentrations.

Criminal justice degrees provide valuable knowledge and information that can help prepare students with the necessary knowledge and skills for this challenging field. Before selecting a criminal justice major, students may wish to consider their own academic interests and the goals they’d like to achieve after earning a degree.

In my experience, as a police officer, I benefited from earning a criminal justice degree early in my career. It was helpful for me as a police officer because it enforced what I learned in the police academy and provided deeper context into criminal behavior, forensic science, forensic psychology, and the laws that govern police actions on a daily basis.

Even students who do not intend to pursue a career in criminal justice may benefit from gaining a deeper understanding of the justice system and how it works to protect citizens through mitigating crime. Gaining deeper insight into the criminal justice system helps citizens understand the decisions of the court systems, the rules that govern police activity, crime prevention, and factors associated with public safety.

Understanding the criminal justice system provides insight into the capabilities and limitations of police officers. With a deeper understanding of the functions of police officers within the community, citizens can gain insight into criminal behavior and how law enforcement responds to it to keep the community safe. Understanding criminal law is important because it informs citizens of their rights.


Criminal Justice Degree Options

Criminal justice degree programs are available both online and through traditional brick-and-mortar institutions. As a student, I completed my bachelor's degree, master's degree, and doctorate degree in criminal justice through online programs.

I earned my master's degree at the University and benefited from the flexibility of its classes, as well as the knowledge that our criminal justice professors brought to the classroom. Each of the criminal justice programs that I completed provided me with a better knowledge of homeland security, constitutional law, juvenile justice, criminal psychology, law enforcement operations, and the judicial system, all of which help our society operate safely.

Upon completion of my master's degree, I knew that I wished to teach criminal justice courses, which led me to my decision to pursue a Ph.D. in criminal justice. For me, I found that each criminal justice degree program I finished proved very useful, both as a police officer and in homeland security. My doctorate also opened the door for me to publish peer-reviewed scholarly research and to provide training and consultancy work globally.

While no degree guarantees employment, some common job titles associated with criminal justice degrees include:

  • Corrections officer
  • Crime scene technician
  • Parole officer
  • Probation officer
  • Border patrol agent
  • Federal agent
  • Insurance investigator
  • Law enforcement leader
  • Crime scene investigator
  • Supervisor in law enforcement or corrections


What Skills Will You Learn from A Criminal Justice Education?

There are various skills that can be learned by pursuing a criminal justice degree such as a bachelor's degree. In my law enforcement career, I found that my ability to apply criminal law to real-world situations like crime scenes was strengthened through my education.

My education in criminal justice helped me with serving society by providing me with a basic understanding of emergency management, criminal procedure, emergency management, and crisis management. My education also helped to strengthen my knowledge of criminological theory, crime prevention and solutions, forensic science, and the support of crime victims. Through my coursework, I learned crime prevention strategies that included hot-spot policing, community policing, problem-solving policing, directed patrol, and other patrol methodologies.

When I responded to crime scenes, each level of my university education provided valuable insight into forensic science, computer forensics, and crime scene reconstruction, helping me to solve crimes. In addition to gaining confidence in the field of law enforcement through the knowledge I gained in my criminal justice education, my experience in completing criminal justice degrees also helped to strengthen my writing, communication, and problem-solving skills.


Criminal Justice Research

One of the greatest benefits of completing my advanced degrees in criminal justice was the opportunity to strengthen my research skills. While earning my master's degree in criminal justice at the University, I learned about various research methods and criminological theories. I developed skills in research that helped me while working in law enforcement.

For example, I learned how to research case law, state statutes, trends associated with committing crimes, and criminological behavior. Advancing my skills in research also proved useful as I was conducting complex criminal investigations.

During my master's capstone project and doctoral dissertation, I continued to further develop advanced research skills. In particular, the doctoral dissertation provided the opportunity to conduct a scholarly study on one of the most pressing issues in the field of criminal justice at the time, which was the topic of mitigating police stress and how it can impact an officer's career. I took this experience from my education and began providing presentations on effectively managing police stress at conferences in different locations in the United States and Central America.

Earning a doctorate in criminal justice has helped me exponentially. My Ph.D. has been essential for teaching at the university level.

It enables me to leverage both my formal education and my law enforcement knowledge – especially as it relates to conducting a crime scene investigation – to deliver an engaging learning experience in the classroom. Receiving my doctorate has also opened up opportunities to conduct research in Europe, Central America, and South America. Earning a doctorate enables someone to be recognized as an expert in their field.

Related: Recruiting and Hiring the Next Generation of Police Officers


Are You Ready to Find a School That's Aligned with Your Interests?

When exploring criminal justice majors, be sure to find a school that is properly accredited and that offers a criminal justice curriculum that will meet your learning needs. Taking introductory courses in criminal justice beyond general education courses may be helpful for students to explore this field and ensure that it is a good fit for them.

I have met many criminal justice personnel who have earned a degree. Whether you intend to work as a police officer, correctional officer, private investigator, or any other job in the field of criminal justice, you are likely to have a busy schedule as they maintain a balance between their work, family, and education responsibilities. It is vital to find a criminal justice program that offers flexibility.

The University offers an online associate of arts in criminal justice, as well as two bachelor’s degree programs (an online bachelor of science in criminal justice and an online bachelor of arts in criminal justice). The University also offers an online master of arts in criminal justice.

Earning a degree in criminal justice is a challenging and rewarding experience. It often requires developing strong time management skills and the prioritization of coursework over other non-essential activities.

As I worked toward my degree, I found that setting time aside each day enabled me to meet my course obligations without falling behind. Organizational skills are also important and can help students successfully pursue their educational goals.

But whatever type of criminal justice degree you choose to pursue – whether it is an associate degree, a bachelor's degree, or a master's in criminal justice – the knowledge and skills you gain will be useful.

About the Author
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

Next Steps

Courses Start Monthly
Next Courses Start Aug 5
Register By Aug 2
Man working on computer