December 20, 2023

Exploring Law Enforcement Careers: The Difference Between Criminal Justice and Forensic Science

By B&SC Blog Team

Exploring Law Enforcement Careers: The Difference Between Criminal Justice and Forensic Science

Many people are captivated by the idea of working in law enforcement. There’s something enticing and exciting about working to ensure the law is upheld and justice is served. For those who are beginning to research law enforcement careers, it’s important to differentiate between the criminal justice and forensic science fields.

What Is Criminal Justice?

The field of criminal justice revolves around implementing law enforcement policies and protocols – and delivering justice when an individual is charged with a crime. Criminal justice degree programs provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to become a specialist in the industry. Coursework often focuses on layers of the criminal justice system, the psychology behind criminal behavior, preventing criminal behavior, and the best techniques and tactics to use when responding to a criminal report.

What Is Forensic Science?

Forensic science is a niche area within the law enforcement industry focused on analyzing and testing evidence and criminal data in order to accurately investigate a crime. The field of forensic science relies heavily on the scientific method, ensuring that forensic experts lean on a data-based and evidence-based approach to investigation. This industry blends chemistry, biology, sociology, and psychology into the world of criminal justice.

3 Components of Criminal Justice

The structure of the criminal justice system in the United States can be broken down into three key components:


Police officers and other law enforcement officials are considered the first layer of the criminal justice system, largely because this is the first component of the system with which any individual citizen will interact. Police officers and other law enforcement professionals are visible in every community and at the local, state, and national levels. Police officers work to enforce the laws in a given region, respond to criminal reports, make arrests when necessary, maintain accurate reporting, and investigate crimes when needed.


The second layer of the criminal justice system is the courts. In the U.S., an individual who has been charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty, and the court system works to determine whether an individual has committed the crime with which they have been charged. In the event that a person is convicted of a crime by a jury of their peers, the court system will impose a sentence on them that is relative to the crime committed.


The third layer of the criminal justice system is corrections. In the U.S., individuals who have been arrested may spend time in jail while they await formal charges. If they are sentenced for a crime, they may have to serve a term in prison. Those who have been released from prison may be subject to ongoing parole to monitor their progress and ideally determine that they have reformed their ways.

Branches of Forensic Science

The forensic science field is growing exponentially, particularly as law enforcement officers are looking for refined evidence and data-based analysis as they complete their investigations.
These are some of the most well-known branches of the forensic science field:

Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is one of the newest branches of forensic science, according to the American Psychological Association. Forensic psychology is defined as the practice of implementing clinical psychological practice within the layers of the criminal justice system, with most forensic psychologists working to perform psychological assessments of any individuals involved with the criminal justice system.

Forensic Anthropology

Forensic anthropology is a subset of the anthropology field. Forensic anthropologists often study human remains that are collected from crime scenes to determine the cause of death or identify any trauma that occurred to the body. These professionals also work to estimate when exactly the individual died, based on the evidence collected from the remains.

Digital Forensics

In today’s virtual world, digital evidence has become a critical component of nearly every type of criminal investigation. Digital forensics is an up-and-coming branch of forensic science focused on collecting, identifying, analyzing, and reporting on electronic data related to a criminal investigation. The goal of digital forensics investigations is to harvest all relevant data from involved devices and ensure the data can be utilized within the courtroom.

Forensic Accounting

Forensic accounting is a branch of forensic science that requires professionals to have a background in accounting as well as an advanced understanding of criminal justice. Forensic accountants work to investigate financial crimes, explain financial criminal activity to the courts, and assist with asset recovery efforts.

Forensic Toxicology

Forensic toxicology is the study of how chemicals are involved in a particular crime. For example, a forensic toxicologist may work to determine if a person was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time a crime was committed. Toxicology findings often play a vital role in an investigation and can have a significant impact on the courts findings.

And Many More!

Additional branches within the field of forensic science include:

• Forensic engineering

• Forensic pathology

• Forensic entomology

• Forensic odontology

Criminal Justice Careers

Within the criminal justice industry, there are numerous career opportunities. These are some of the job positions for which you may be qualified if you earn a degree in criminal justice.

Law Enforcement Officer

Sheriffs, police officers, and other law enforcement professionals are common roles that graduates with a criminal justice degree pursue. A law enforcement officer is charged with ensuring that the laws of the local municipality, county, or state are abided by. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that law enforcement officers take on a wide range of responsibilities – like patrolling, directing traffic, investigating accidents or criminal reports, arresting suspects, and working to make sure the duties of the court are carried out effectively.

Correctional Officer

A correctional officer is a law enforcement professional who works to maintain order and enforce security protocols at a correctional facility, such as a jail or prison. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), correctional officers often come into direct contact with criminals, which can increase the danger or risk of the position. They are typically responsible for guarding the facility.


A bailiff strives to maintain order and enforce security protocols within a courtroom. In any courtroom, there is a bailiff standing guard to ensure the judge is protected and that the matters of the court can continue in an orderly fashion. If a person acts out in court, the bailiff has the ability to apprehend the individual and remove them from the courtroom. A bailiff also may assist with bringing the defendant into and out of the courtroom.

Juvenile Probation Officer

Juvenile probation officers are specialized law enforcement professionals who work with minors under the age of 18 who have been charged with a crime or otherwise involved in the criminal justice system. They are responsible for monitoring the young people whose cases they manage and ensuring they remain in compliance with court orders. This can include regular visits to the individual’s home or school, but the frequency will vary based on the individual case.

Security Guard

A security guard typically works for a private security company and provides protection for a particular facility or an individual client. Security guards play an integral role in preventing crime and protecting their clients, and their responsibilities can include patrolling, monitoring the entrances or exits of a facility, monitoring for suspicious behavior, and responding in the event that an alarm goes off.

Forensic Science Careers

After earning a criminal justice associate degree, you may find that you want to continue your studies in order to become a forensic scientist. Although a specialized degree program may be necessary to work in this field, you will find that the effort is worthwhile. These are some opportunities available for forensic scientists:

Forensic Investigator

Forensic investigators generally arrive at crime scenes alongside law enforcement officers to begin collecting evidence scientifically so it can later be preserved and presented in the courtroom. The job responsibilities of forensic investigators can include taking photographs of the crime scene as well as collecting fingerprints or bodily fluids from the scene. Forensic investigators often work to analyze evidence in forensic laboratories.

Evidence Technician

Similar to forensic investigators, evidence technicians arrive at the scene of the crime to collect and preserve evidence. Their job is to use precise collection methods in order to be sure all evidence is properly saved so it can be used in court. In addition, evidence technicians may be responsible for properly storing evidence.

Computer Forensic Analyst

Computer forensic analysts are tasked with collecting, analyzing, and preserving digital data related to a specific crime. Computer forensic analysts work to retrieve data from physical and virtual devices that may be found at a crime scene, process and preserve all digital data related to a crime, reconstruct the series of events that led to the crime, and work to develop preventive measures to protect an individual or organization from further criminal activity.

Fingerprint Technician

Fingerprint technicians are forensic scientists who work to analyze, interpret, and compare fingerprint data to determine who was involved in a crime. A fingerprint technician position is ideal for a forensic science professional who would prefer not to work directly at crime scenes.

Forensic Pathologist

A forensic pathologist is not only a forensic scientist but also a medical doctor. Professionals in this role are responsible for performing autopsies after a suspicious, unnatural, or unexpected death occurs. As their work involves both medical and legal elements, they often work closely with examiners during an investigation.

What About Criminology?

While criminal justice focuses on the practical application of law enforcement, criminology emphasizes the academic understanding of criminal behavior. According to Indeed, students who pursue a degree in criminology will complete coursework about the psychology or sociology behind criminal behavior and the factors that may lead a person toward a life of crime. Criminologists may also work in law enforcement settings, but they often take on a more research-based, organizational role in the workplace.

Start Your Journey in Criminal Justice by Enrolling at Bryant & Stratton

At Bryant & Stratton College, we can provide you with the foundation you need to launch a dynamic career in law enforcement. These criminal justice programs include an associate degree in criminal justice studies, a Criminal Justice and Security Services diploma, and a variety of human and legal services programs. Our strength lies in offering skills-based, career-focused degree programs and certificates, allowing you to quickly launch your career and begin carving your path forward.

Related News