Many law-abiding people who have no desire to commit crimes themselves are nevertheless fascinated by the psychology and behavior of criminals. Someone who is obsessed with crime fiction or true-crime stories may want to consider a degree in criminology.
What Criminology Is and Why Someone Might Study It
Criminology is a social science that focuses on understanding where, how and why crime happens, and what policies will discourage potential criminals from hurting others. It is the study of crime’s causes and effects, how to prevent it, who does it, why people participate in criminal activity and what makes someone vulnerable to becoming a crime victim.
Research in criminology often explores questions surrounding what should be done after a crime occurs, so scholars in this discipline often debate what types of criminal punishments are most appropriate. Criminologists discuss how crime victims and their families should be treated, how the hurt of victimized individuals can be properly accounted for and redressed by criminal laws, and the proper balance between justice and mercy.
Criminology sometimes involves discussion of how to redirect people who may be tempted to commit crime, and it includes research about which rehabilitation strategies may work best with prisoners and paroled individuals.
For some who pursue a degree in criminology, interest in the field is driven by curiosity about the criminal justice system and a desire to make it better. Prospective criminology students may also want to learn about the mentality of criminals so that they can use the insight to deal with crime empathetically and appropriately.
Austin Handle, a former police officer who has a bachelor’s degree in criminology, says the lessons he learned from his degree helped him convey compassion during conversations with members of the Georgia community where he served as a law enforcement officer by “just talking to people in a way that shows that the system may be black and white but that we do care about their story.”
Handle — who Whistleblower News Network identified as a “Whistleblower of the Week” in early September because of his public comments on a scandal at his former police department — says a criminology degree provides a big-picture perspective on the criminal justice system, which can inform policy choices.
“It helps us identify issues in the system and how we can fix that going forward,” says Handle, the founder of Apollo A.I., a Georgia-based technology company that provides tools that can be used by first responders. It recently won a national prize from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Handle notes that the study of criminology illuminates why police misconduct occurs and how to mitigate it. He says that knowledge of criminology can clarify why and how rogue police officers might violate their police department’s policies. Handle adds that principles of criminology could also be used by corporate executives and business managers who are trying to understand rule-breaking by employees.
Criminology vs. Criminal Justice: What’s the Difference?
Experts say that although criminology degrees are somewhat similar to criminal justice degrees, there are some differences.
Handle explains that while criminal justice tends to focus on law, criminal procedure and criminal statistics, criminology is typically more focused on “the study of the offender” and why criminals act the way they do.
He says that questions about why reality looks a certain way are pivotal in criminology, since the field clarifies which factors most increase the probability of criminal activity.
Texas-based attorney Joseph Hoelscher, who specializes in criminal defense and child welfare law, explains that criminology tends to be more theoretical while criminal justice is application-oriented.
“Criminology is more abstract, creating greater depth of theoretical knowledge and may help graduates be more flexible in adapting to the jurisdiction in which they are hired,” Hoelscher, who is on the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association board of directors, wrote in an email. “Applied knowledge doesn’t travel as well because every jurisdiction will have different ways of doing things. Really, there’s a lot of overlap but criminology should be where anyone who intends to progress to higher degrees should start.”
There are a wide range of degrees in criminology, including associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Doctorates in the field are designed for future researchers, and a master’s can accelerate someone’s path to management. While an associate degree may be sufficient for some criminal justice jobs, many jobs in this sector require a bachelor’s.
Because an understanding of how and why crime occurs is useful in many contexts, a criminology degree is helpful in various jobs, including:
— Criminal defense attorney.
— Criminal investigator.
— Criminal profiler.
— Criminal prosecutor.
— Criminology professor or researcher.
— City administrator.
— Correctional officer.
— Field investigator.
— Fire inspector.
— Forensic psychologist.
— Investigative reporter.
— Investigative analyst.
— Internal affairs investigator.
— Police officer.
— Loss prevention specialist.
— Manager of an investigations unit.
— Parole officer.
— Policy analyst.
— Private investigator.
— Social worker.
“One of the most overlooked placement areas for criminology graduates is within insurance companies,” Stacey Giulianti, chief legal officer and corporate secretary with Florida Peninsula Holdings, wrote in an email.
“Every state requires insurance companies to maintain and staff special investigative units, better known as the SIU Department,” adds Giulianti, whose company has two subsidiary insurance companies.
[See: Best Criminology Schools.]
Giulianti explained in a phone interview that because insurance fraud amounts to billions of dollars annually, there is enormous demand for criminology degree holders within the insurance industry. He notes that regardless of what a criminology degree recipient does, whether in the public or private sector, there is generally a component of public service.
“They’re providing their insights to provide action plans to stop crime,” he says.
Salaries and Career Outlook in Criminology Fields
Since criminology grads have a wide array of career options, the route taken will affect earning potential.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage among U.S. police and detectives, for example, was $65,170 in May 2019. Employment in those jobs is projected to grow 5% by 2029, according to the bureau.
How to Decide if a Criminology Degree Is Worth Pursuing
Hoelscher says criminology degrees don’t typically lead to astronomical salaries, so people who pursue a degree in the field generally view it as a personal calling rather than a way to make big money.
“People rarely become wealthy working in criminal justice, so the ones that last have a connection to the work itself,” he says. Criminology degree recipients who become expert witnesses may be generously compensated, but those jobs are very hard to obtain, he adds.
Salaries vary depending on where a criminology grad works, according to Hoelscher. “Income varies by jurisdiction because government pay sets the floor for private sector wages.”
Hoelscher notes that a desire to serve others is necessary to flourish in any position that relates to criminology or the criminal justice system.
“Don’t get into criminal justice unless you want to help the people you are working with,” he says. “They can be frustrating, but they deserve to be treated with as much respect as anyone.”
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