Criminal Justice Terms You Need to Know

criminal justice students earning their degree

Criminal justice is a popular major in part because it offers versatility. With a criminal justice degree, you may decide to pursue a career in law enforcement, the court system or the corrections system. Wherever your path takes you, a career serving your community can be personally fulfilling. If you are just getting started exploring criminal justice degree options or if you are already an enrolled student, there are some criminal justice terms you need to become familiar with.


An accessory is someone who intentionally helps another person to violate criminal law. In many cases, an accessory will help to conceal evidence. An accessory is not present at the actual crime, whereas an accomplice to a crime is present.


An alibi is evidence that an accused individual could not have committed a crime. As an example, John is accused of vandalizing the apartment of his ex-girlfriend, Jane. John asserts that at the time of the crime he was at the movies with a friend. The surveillance footage at the movie theater confirms that John was there and could not have committed the crime. John is cleared of all allegations because of his alibi.


Allegations are claims or accusations that have not been proven. For example, a police officer taking an alleged victim’s statement may hear the allegation that the accused punched the victim. However, that statement will need to be proven in court before it can be deemed truthful or not.


The arraignment is the first appearance an accused individual will make in court, and it usually takes place within 48 hours of the arrest. During this hearing, the accused hears their legal rights, enters a “guilty” or “not guilty” plea and learns whether bail is set.


In a criminal case, the defendant is the person accused of a crime. Similarly, in a civil case, a lawsuit is filed against a defendant, who is accused of being legally negligent in some manner.


An exhibit is any document or physical evidence that an attorney or prosecutor may present to the court during a trial. For example, an attorney might present a weapon that was used to commit a crime.


An infraction is a lesser offense that is also sometimes referred to as a “violation.” Infractions do not typically result in arrests or jail time. Rather, they are punishable by fines. For example, a person who is pulled over for speeding will be issued a ticket, but not arrested.

Misdemeanors and Felonies

Misdemeanors and felonies are classifications of crimes. A misdemeanor is less serious than a felony and carries less severe legal penalties upon conviction. A prosecutor decides whether to charge a defendant with a misdemeanor or a felony based on the facts of the case and the defendant’s criminal history, if there is any. For example, a person may be charged with a misdemeanor for driving while intoxicated if it is their first offense. Alternatively, a person who has already been convicted of DUI twice before may be charged with a felony on the next occurrence.


A convicted offender may be released from prison before serving their full sentence. When this happens, the offender is required to serve the rest of the sentence on parole. They are released into the community but subject to strict conditions.


Probation is similar to parole. However, it is included as part of the original sentence. A defendant may be sentenced to a jail term followed by probation. Alternatively, a defendant may be sentenced to probation instead of jail time. Individuals on probation must abide by strict conditions.

Standard of Proof

The standard or burden of proof is the extent to which the evidence must be proven. The burden of proof is different for criminal and civil cases. In criminal cases, a defendant must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, there is no possibility that the defendant is innocent. However, in civil cases, a defendant may be found liable by clear and convincing evidence that they are more likely to have been negligent of the law than not.


During criminal trials, the defense and prosecution may call a witness to testify. An eyewitness testifies as to what they directly saw, heard, experienced or otherwise observed. In contrast, expert witnesses are called to provide their expert opinion about the facts of the case. For example, in a medical malpractice lawsuit, a cardiologist may be called to testify that the defendant was negligent in his or her treatment of the injured patient.

Prepare for your future in law enforcement, corrections or the court system by becoming a student at Grand Canyon University. The Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies degree program equips graduates with the foundational knowledge and skills needed to pursue a career in the criminal justice field. To learn more about College of Humanities and Social Sciences, click on Request Info at the top of your screen.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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