What is the Criminal Justice System?

EKU Online > What is the Criminal Justice System?

Criminal justice in the United States is not represented by a single organization or institution. Rather, it is broken down into a three pillar system including law enforcement, the courts and corrections.

Law Enforcement

Each pillar of the system deals with a specific aspect or stage of criminality.  Law enforcement focuses on upholding the law, investigating crime and arresting suspected offenders. Careers in this area include police officers, sheriffs and deputies, federal agents and park rangers. 

Court System

It is the responsibility of the court system to determine if an individual committed a crime and to ensure that person’s rights are upheld and a fair trial takes place. If it is determined that a crime has been committed the courts will hand down an appropriate punishment, or sentence.  Careers in this area include pretrial officers, bailiffs, defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges. 


Corrections ensures that convicted offenders serve the sentence handed down by the court. Corrections involves the supervision of, and care for, inmates housed in prisons and jails, or released on parole or probation. The process involves reform and rehabilitation programs to prepare eligible inmates for reentry and reintegration into society as free individuals. Careers in this area include correctional officers, probation officers and parole officers.

Federal and State Jurisdictions

Each pillar of the system also contains federal and state jurisdictional levels. Each level has its own laws, court and prison system. Federal law applies to the nation as a whole and in all fifty states. Federal courts deal with limited types of cases. Typically those dealing with federal law and with a national scope, such as lawsuits against the United States, cases between citizens of different states, and cases dealing with bankruptcy, copyright, patent and maritime law.

State law only applies within a particular state. State courts have a broad jurisdiction and handle crimes that have taken place or, in certain situations, have evident involvement in the state. Often hearing cases involving traffic violations, robberies, civil disputes, and violations of state laws.

Each of these aspects of the criminal justice system are critical to the effective functioning of the larger system as a whole.

Interested in being a part of the criminal justice system? Complete the form to learn more about how you can earn your bachelor’s in Criminal Justice and pick up an in-demand certificate long the way, giving yourself a competitive edge in the job market.

Learn more about EKU Online’s Criminal Justice Program.

Learn More