Criminal Justice Terms and Definitions

If you are exploring the options of working in corrections, it is important to understand the world of criminal justice, as well as common terms and definitions used. While it’s impossible to cover every term that can be found in a criminal justice degree program, here are the basics that anyone who is thinking of becoming a correctional officer should comprehend. 

What is Criminal Justice?

Criminal justice is a broad term referring to the laws, procedures, policies and institutions that are occurring before, after, and during the commission of a crime. There are two main ideas in the concept of criminal justice: Criminals and victims of crimes both have rights; and criminal conduct must be prosecuted and punished by the state, following the law. 

What Is a Crime?

crime is any act, omission or behavior that is punishable by law as a public offense. Most crimes require an element of intent, but minor crimes may be committed even if the offender did not intend to commit a crime (i.e., a parking violation is still a crime, even though the person committing that crime might not have intended to do so). 

Crimes are prosecuted by attorneys who are appointed or hired by the government. These prosecutors represent a county, city, state or federal government. 

Certain crimes are considered to be mala prohibita (“bad because prohibited”). These types of crimes are prohibited by statute, but in and of themselves, are not necessarily “evil.” Mala prohibita crimes usually do not harm people nor property. The illegal possession of a firearm is an example of a mala prohibita crime. 

Other crimes are considered to be mala in se (“bad in themselves”). These crimes are considered inherently evil under common standards and law. Mala in se crimes usually harm people and property. Murder and rape, for example, are considered mala in se. Mala in se crimes generally carry heavier penalties than mala prohibita crimes. 

Classifications of Crimes

Crimes are classified according to their severity, degree, or the amount of damage resulting from the crime. We will examine the three types of crimes here. 


felony is the most serious type of crime. Classes of felonies are decided by each state based upon the magnitude of the crime. Punishments for felonies also vary from state to state. Felonies usually involve physical or financial harm, are violent crimes or property crimes, and may carry a prison sentence of one year or greater. Examples of felonies include murder, rape, kidnapping and arson. 

Within each state are classes of felonies, typically from Class A to Class E or Class 1 to Class 5, with Classes A and 1 being more severe felonies than Classes E or 5. 


misdemeanor is a less serious crime than a felony. Examples include petty theft, simple assault and battery, and driving under the influence without causing harm to person or property. Misdemeanors may be punishable by a fine or short term of imprisonment, or both. They are also classified by each state from most to least severe. 


An infraction is a violation, breach, or infringement of law, contract, duty or right. It is the least serious of the three classifications of crimes. Examples of infractions are running a stop sign and littering.

Parties to a Crime

Every crime has its own parties, or those who are involved in violating the law. Each party may be held responsible and accountable, and may have penalties imposed upon them if found guilty of the crime. 


principal is the person who commits a crime. If a crime involves two or more principals, each principal assumes the same legal liability for the crime. 


An accomplice is a person who assists the principal in committing a crime. They may assist through behaviors such as driving a getaway car or being a lookout. They are usually held responsible for their part in the crime. 

Accessory Before the Fact

An accessory before the fact is a person who is involved in designing and planning a crime. It includes people such as an individual who has planned a strategy for a pyramid scheme. These people may be subject to the same penalties as the principals or accomplices. 

Accessory After the Fact

An accessory after the fact is a person who is involved after a crime has been committed, and has given the principal, accomplice or accessory before the fact an unfair advantage. This could be someone who assists in an offender’s escape after a crime has been committed. They may be subject to penalties as well.

Consequences of Crimes 

Offenders are subject to consequences when they commit crimes. These consequences are dependent upon the severity of the crime committed, with felonies garnering stricter sentences than misdemeanors. 

Death Penalty

The death penalty, also called capital punishment, is still a potential consequence for certain crimes in certain areas. As of 2021, 24 states still have the death penalty as a potential sentence for serious felonies. Twenty-three states have no death penalty, and three states have a governor-imposed moratorium on the death penalty. In addition, the U.S. military and the federal government may still impose the death penalty for crimes committed against them. 


Imprisonment is a possible sentence for misdemeanors and felonies. Offenders who are convicted of serious felonies could be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.


Fines may be imposed for those committing misdemeanors or felonies. The amounts of these fines vary, and may include paying restitution to victims of their crimes or victims’ families. 


Probation is defined as a sentence in which an offender is not confined to jail or prison but remains under the supervision of the court for a period of time. This may be given in lieu of a jail or prison sentence or may be the result of a suspended prison sentence if the offender has demonstrated good behavior.


Parole is defined as the conditional release of a person convicted of a crime prior to the expiration of that person’s term of imprisonment, subject to supervision of correctional authorities for the remainder of the term. If conditions of parole are violated, the offender may be sent back to prison. 

Rights and Obligations of Offenders

It might sound counter-intuitive, but believe it or not, offenders do have rights in the American criminal justice system. This is designed to protect their basic human rights, freedoms and certain rights that they are granted under the U.S. Constitution. Offenders have the following rights:

  • The right to remain silent
  • The right to an attorney
  • The right to be heard
  • The right to due process
  • The right to a fair trial
  • The right to privacy
  • The right to equal protection
  • The right to fair treatment

The obligations that offenders may have include:

  • Telling the whole truth
  • Submitting to penalties and punishments
  • Providing victim with reparations

Rights and Responsibilities of Victims 

Victims of crimes have certain rights and responsibilities, too. Under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, their rights include:

  • The right to be heard
  • The right to privacy
  • The right to be treated with fairness and dignity
  • The right to reasonable protection from offenders
  • The right to be immediately notified of and to attend any public court proceedings affecting offenders’ plea, sentencing or release
  • The right to restitution

Responsibilities of victims include:

  • Reporting a crime in an accurate and timely manner
  • Being present during the trial, especially when summoned to testify
  • Providing full cooperation with the law in bringing offenders to justice

Rights and Responsibilities of Witnesses

Witnesses to a crime also carry rights and responsibilities. The rights of a witness include:

  • The right to be free from threats
  • The right to understand the criminal case in which they are involved
  • The right to be reimbursed for any expenses they incur as a witness

Responsibilities of witnesses include:

  • Attending criminal proceedings and witness conferences
  • Testifying under oath in court

Lying under oath or giving inaccurate or exaggerated statements will lead to a witness being charged with perjury.