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Why Is Criminal Justice Important?

Written by: East Carolina University®   •  Jun 4, 2024

Three Criminal Justice Professionals Look at a Brief on a Laptop.

Why Is Criminal Justice Important?

Criminal justice is the process by which the government enforces laws, punishes those who violate them, and keeps community members safe. This may sound straightforward, but victims, suspects, and individuals who have broken the law all have rights that must be respected, and balancing those rights is integral to preserving true justice at every level. This makes it crucial that individuals working in criminal justice have training, expertise, and education.

But why is criminal justice important to maintaining this balance? And how is the system designed to do so?

The Three Pillars of the U.S. Criminal Justice System

To understand how the criminal justice system protects everyone’s rights, it’s important to understand its three sectors: law enforcement, the court system, and corrections. Cases involving disputes between people or organizations are deemed civil cases, which are bound by different rules and result in different outcomes.

Police and Law Enforcement

Law enforcement agencies protect the public and uphold the laws in their jurisdictions. The scope of any individual law enforcement officer’s duties depends wholly on the type of agency they work for.

In the United States, there are three main types of law enforcement agencies:

  • Local law enforcement agencies. Officers in these agencies patrol their local jurisdictions, respond to crises, and investigate crimes. Officers who work at the local level include sheriffs, deputies, detectives, and uniformed patrol officers.

  • State law enforcement agencies. Officers in state agencies handle crimes that span multiple jurisdictions. They also aid local agencies in complex investigations and share resources with them such as forensic laboratories.

  • Federal law enforcement agencies. Examples of federal law enforcement agencies include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Department of Homeland Security. These agencies have specific areas of focus but often handle crimes that occur across multiple states and violate federal law. These include incidents of human trafficking, cybercrime , domestic terrorism, and white collar crime.

When a law enforcement officer arrests a suspect, they must clearly advise them of their Miranda rights, which include the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent. This is important to preserving a suspect’s constitutional rights. If suspects are not read their rights, prosecutors may not be able to use anything they say in court.

The Court System

Courts operate at the federal and state level, with most criminal cases handled by state courts, according to the Court Statistics Project and U.S. Courts. In 2022, there were about 10.8 million new state cases and only about 71,000 new federal cases. At both levels, the type of court most involved with criminal cases is the trial court.

In trial courts, people accused of crimes, called defendants, have the opportunity to argue against the accusations. They are represented by defense attorneys. Prosecutors representing the government attempt to prove the defendants’ guilt. Both sides can use physical evidence, witnesses, and other means to make their cases.

Defendants have the right to have their cases presented before a jury. However, they can waive this right and opt to have a judge decide their case instead. If defendants are found guilty, the judge sentences them based on mandatory sentencing laws, information from the trial, and input from prosecutors.

If a defendant thinks their trial or sentence is unjust, they can make an appeal before an appellate court. Common reasons for appeal include the exclusion of key evidence and jury misconduct. This application of criminal justice is important to ensuring punishments are administered fairly and consistently.


After a judge has determined a defendant’s sentence in a criminal case, that sentence is carried out by the third element of the justice system: the corrections system. People convicted of crimes generally receive one of two types of sentences.


The type of sentence most common in criminal cases is incarceration. People given short sentences often serve time in city or county jails. Those given longer sentences for more serious crimes typically serve their sentences in prisons. Each state operates prisons for inmates convicted by their own courts. The federal government does the same.


Individuals who have broken the law for the first time and people convicted of less serious crimes are often sentenced to probation. Probationers are free to go about their daily lives but must adhere to certain rules. This often includes maintaining employment, performing community service, and submitting to drug tests.

If a probationer doesn’t adhere to the terms of their probation, they may face incarceration. Probation officers oversee this process. Officers can also connect probationers to substance misuse recovery programs and other resources that promote the successful completion of probation.

The Importance of Criminal Justice a Just Society

The main reason that criminal justice is important is that it protects the public. But this is only one way to meet this goal. The different sectors of the criminal justice system also protect society by fostering justice in other meaningful ways.

For example, in 2021, the Raleigh Police Department created a task force composed of police officers and social workers. When possible, the team connects people experiencing mental illness, houselessness, or other chronic issues with relevant resources. In its first year and a half, the team helped over 500 people in crisis who may have otherwise been arrested then released, and gone without help.

A needs-based approach can be equally powerful in the corrections sector. According to a 2023 study published in The American Journal of Criminal Justice, inmates who participate in prison education programs are often much less likely to reoffend upon their release. For instance, those who participated in vocational training programs were 15.6% less likely to reoffend. Those who took college courses while incarcerated were 41.5% less likely to reoffend.

The court system plays its part by connecting people with public defenders, victims’ rights advocates, and other specialized personnel. Along with the appeal system, this ensures proceedings are fair and that courts can be held accountable for their decisions.

Find Your Role in Creating a More Just Society

For the criminal justice system to work effectively, everyone from corrections officers to forensic investigators must take a critical approach to their duties. The online Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice degree completion program at East Carolina University® prepares students to do just that.

Through core classes that focus on research and the mechanics of the criminal justice system, students enrolled in the program can develop a deep understanding of how the system works and the most pressing issues it faces. On this foundation, students build their skill set by learning about topics such as juvenile justice, white collar crime, and justice administration.

ECU’s evidence-based curriculum is designed to help students prepare to enter any sector of the criminal justice system. And with a flexible online format, more students than ever can complete the program and launch a criminal justice career, where they can play an important role in making society safer and more just. To find out what that means for your own future, explore ECU’s evidence-based curriculum and your financial aid options , and request more information today.


American Journal of Criminal Justice, “Are Schools in Prison Worth It? The Effects and Economic Returns of Prison Education”

Court Statistics Project, CSP STAT Criminal

United States Courts, Court Role and Structure

United States Courts, Federal Judicial Caseload Statistics 2022

WRAL, “Gentle Policing: Social Workers Team Up With Raleigh Officers to Successfully Respond to Over 1,000 Calls”