Criminal Justice vs. Public Administration - What’s the Difference?

A man who works in public administration is standing outside of San Diego City Hall. He is wearing a blue button down and is talking to a man wearing a black suit.

If you love your community and feel a calling to help it flourish and stay safe, you may consider criminal justice or public administration as your career path. Both fields emphasize bringing justice and safety to your community but do so in different ways. Follow along to learn more about each major and which one fits your interest best.

What is criminal justice?

Criminal Justice improves your community by directly guiding the application of crime-preventing guidelines and strategies. It ensures punishment is issued for appropriate infractions, but also emphasizes restorative justice, which helps potential or convicted offenders reintegrate into society with support, rehabilitation, and preventative measures. This career pathway is categorized into three groups, law enforcement, corrections, and court.

1. Law Enforcement

This trajectory in the criminal justice system is the most hands-on as you are likely a police officer, agent, sheriff, or investigator.  You are working to enforce the law and prevent crime by enhancing safety and reducing the vulnerability of all citizens. Depending on your career path, some of your day-to-day roles can be responding to emergency scenes, patrolling an area, collecting evidence, detaining individuals, and more. 

If you are thinking about this pathway you will need to be confident in your interpersonal skills, such as:

  • Negotiation
  • Active-listening 
  • Problem-solving
  • Teamwork
  • Empathy

Although these are typical law enforcement jobs there are other options to consider, such as transit and railroad police, criminal analysis, or a scene and evidence investigator. There are a variety of positions in law enforcement, and each job requires protocols and safety measures uniquely tailored to their area of influence. 

If you are truly interested in law enforcement, it may be best to reach out to your local police department and see if they have info sessions or ride-alongs, that way you can ask true professionals about their day-to-day. No matter the option, if you choose to pursue law enforcement, you must be responsible and committed to making your community safe.

2. Corrections

Corrections is the next group in criminal justice. Officers, counselors, and corrections workers supervise people on probation, parole, or incarceration for public safety and rehabilitation. Some dominant skills you will need are:

  • Calmness
  • Observation
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Negotiation

3. Court

The last branch of criminal justice is the court. In court, you will be assigned to a trial which can take anywhere from 3–7 days but may vary depending on the offense. During the trial, you present evidence to the judge and jury and have a strong closing statement. The judge will read  the jury’s decision and determine consequences for the defendant, if applicable.  

Although you can be accepted into law school with a variety of degrees, studying criminal justice will help you to become familiar with criminology and the criminal justice system. 

To work in court you will likely be an attorney, lawyer, or judge. However, there are other jobs to consider that do not require extra schooling, such as legal secretary, court reporter, and more.

What is public administration?

In public administration, you’ll be working to find new policies to create to improve your community. Within this job, you will be working with the government, city, or nonprofits to improve policies on public spending, housing, health and safety, and more. 

For example, you may work towards a solution for homelessness by providing an objective and properly executing it. Some skills you will need to possess for a public administration degree are:

  • Problem-solving
  • Decision making
  • Communication 
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Leadership
  • Time management

Some common public administration jobs are:

  • Urban planning
  • City management
  • Budget analyst
  • Nonprofit director
  • Fundraising specialist
  • Human resources specialist

If you are interested in the management and development of your city, public administration might be the best course for you. Moving forward, you should receive your bachelor’s and master's degrees in this field so you can have the highest earning potential and obtain more leadership and delegation in the policy you create. 

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Criminal justice vs. public administration

Now that you know the summary of each career path, let’s compare them in detail so you can identify which one suits you best. 

As we know, criminal justice tends to work directly with potential or convicted offenders, which means you will likely need specialized training. If you want to be a police officer, you need to go through a police academy which will test your physical and mental ability. You will also undergo a background check, medical exams, psychological tests, and more. 

Police academies typically last six months, and upon graduation, you will be an official officer and do field work for a few months before being assigned an area to cover. If you want to be an FBI agent, lawyer, or investigator you will still need to undergo additional training, school, and tests.

On the other hand, public administration does not require extra schooling. In fact, you can start working for the government after earning your bachelor's degree. With a public administration degree, you attend city council meetings, committee meetings, community events, and more. 

If you choose to go the nonprofit route, you can work for a variety of local, national, and international organizations, such as the American Red Cross, Feeding America, and more. You can work on many levels in these organizations, like management, finance, publicity, lobbying, and more. Whether you are organizing campaigns, media coverage, ribbon cuttings, and more, the work you do each day is meaningful as it impacts your society.

Although the two programs may not work side by side, they undergo similar study of the government, society, and law. Also, both fields are for the public good and provide consequential impacts on people’s daily lives.

How do I know which to choose?

If you are still trying to choose between a degree in criminal justice and public administration here are some ways to choose the right career path. One way to directly figure this out is to know what your body and mind are capable of. While public administration gives you more of an office setting where you aren’t providing direct law enforcement.

Another way to clearly decide which career option to choose is looking at both degree programs’ course lists. If you are interested in criminal justice you may take classes such as race and ethnicity, criminology, criminal law, and victimology. For public administration, you may be looking at budgeting and grants writing, communication and culture, and U.S. democracy. 

After thoroughly looking at the courses required, you should have a clear understanding of which ones fascinate you the most. You can also email professors and discuss the program and classes with them.

Taking the final steps

Now that you have extensive knowledge of these two degrees, you can confidently choose your career option. From there, you will have counselors, mentors, and professors helping to ensure you reach your dream goal and job. 

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