20 Criminal Justice Vocabulary Words Defined by Rasmussen College Faculty

Remember in elementary school when you would get the weekly vocabulary list to bring home and memorize the definitions and spellings? In our daily lives, we are constantly learning new words and phrases, and as a student studying or looking to study in the field of criminal justice, there are some need-to-know criminal justice vocabulary words. In order to assist you in learning more about the criminal justice system, we compiled a list of 20 criminal justice vocabulary words and asked our faculty in the Rasmussen College School of Justice Studies to define them in their own words. 

1. Actus Reus

Definition: It is the physical action of the criminal act. However, sometimes the actus reus can be failing to act, such as our legal responsibility to care for our children or report our involvement in an auto accident.

[Defined by Rose Pogatshnik, School of Justice Studies Program Coordinator, St. Cloud, Minn.]

2. Acquittal

Definition: a finding of not guilty by a judge or jury.

[Defined by Emily Little, School of Justice Studies Instructor, Lake Elmo/Woodbury, Minn.]

3. Alibi

Definition: a defense to a criminal act that purports the defendant was somewhere other than the place of the crime at the time the crime occurred. 

[Defined by Rose Pogatshnik, School of Justice Studies Program Coordinator, St. Cloud, Minn.]

4. Appeal

Definition: The loser at a trial asks a higher court to rule the trial judge made an error. The result may be the trial court is affirmed (the winner still wins), reversed (the loser now wins), or reversed and remanded (trial court has more work to do and has to follow the rule of law established by the appeals court).

[Defined by Kirk Olson, School of Justice Studies Instructor, Twin Cities]

5. Arson

Definition: a category of crime that consists of setting a fire with the intent of causing some type of harm (excludes accidental fires).

[Defined by Rose Pogatshnik, School of Justice Studies Program Coordinator, St. Cloud, Minn.]

6. Barrister

Definition: primarily British term – a lawyer.

[Defined by Rose Pogatshnik, School of Justice Studies Program Coordinator, St. Cloud, Minn.]

7. Due Diligence

Definition: Due diligence is the details; taking the time to make sure all of the details have been examined. For example, when processing a crime scene, officers should use due diligence to ensure all components of the crime scene have been examined.

[Defined by Jason Weber, School of Justice Studies Program Coordinator, Bloomington, Minn.]

8. Evidentiary

Definition: If something has evidentiary value in a case, then it is an item that can be used to prove guilt or innocence of a subject. In addition, items [that have] evidentiary value show a crime did in fact take place. If an item does not have evidentiary value, then it is an item that has been ruled out from assisting in an investigation.

[Defined by Jason Weber, School of Justice Studies Program Coordinator, Bloomington, Minn.]

9. Miranda Rights

Definition: Miranda Rights are required whenever you are interrogating someone who is in police custody (arrested/detained) about a crime. It is important to note you do not have to read someone their Miranda Rights if you are gathering initial information. However, once you start asking crime specific or detailed questions, then Miranda has to be read.

[Defined by Jason Weber, School of Justice Studies Program Coordinator, Bloomington, Minn.]

10. Misdemeanor

Definition: A crime with a lower penalty than a felony.

[Defined by Kirk Olson, School of Justice Studies Instructor, Twin Cities]

11. Nolo Contendere

Definition: During an arraignment, it’s a defendant's plea of no contest.

[Defined by Shauna Froelich, School of Justice Studies Program Coordinator, Green Bay, Wisc.]

12. Organized Crime

Definition: […*] a group (3 or more) of individuals who conspire and act out activities that our justice system deems illegal. Some examples of organized crime groups include the Italian Mob groups, drug cartels, gangs, and other drug smuggling groups.

[Defined by Jason Weber, School of Justice Studies Program Coordinator, Bloomington, Minn.]

13. Parole

Definition: An inmate's early release from prison upon good behavior, as well as meeting conditions throughout the early release.

[Defined by Shauna Froelich, School of Justice Studies Program Coordinator, Green Bay, Wisc.]

14. Plea Bargaining

Definition: A Defendant's voluntary guilty plea to an offense charge.

[Defined by Shauna Froelich, School of Justice Studies Program Coordinator, Green Bay, Wisc.]

15. Prosecution

Definition: Government action against an accused person's criminal conduct.

[Defined by Shauna Froelich, School of Justice Studies Program Coordinator, Green Bay, Wisc.]

16. Public Policy

Definition: This is the underlying idea behind a new law. What is the legislature of a state trying to accomplish?

[Defined by Kirk Olson, School of Justice Studies Instructor, Twin Cities]

17. Recidivism

Definition: Reoffending [to do the same crime twice*].

[Defined by Emily Little, School of Justice Studies Instructor, Lake Elmo/Woodbury, Minn.]

18. Summons

Definition: an order to appear in court.

[Defined by Emily Little, School of Justice Studies Instructor, Lake Elmo/Woodbury, Minn.]

19. Vigilante

Definition: someone who takes the law into their own hands, ignoring the criminal justice process.

[Defined by Emily Little, School of Justice Studies Instructor, Lake Elmo/Woodbury, Minn.]

20. Visible Crime

Definition: Street crimes and other crimes that involve visible physical actions. There are crimes that are “invisible” in that they may involve an industry failing to file correct paperwork about past events such as hazardous activities or excessive pollutants discharged into the air and water.

[Defined by Kirk Olson, School of Justice Studies Instructor, Twin Cities]

With this list of 20 criminal justice vocabulary words to know defined by our Rasmussen College School of Justice Studies faculty, which ones came up that you didn’t know or maybe haven’t heard of before? Share with us in our comments section below.

*Note: The author, Kendall Bird, edited or added this portion of the definition.

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Kendall Bird is an Online Community Specialist for Rasmussen College. With her Bachelor’s degree in public relations and a passion for social media, she enjoys writing motivating and enthusiastic blog content to encourage future, current and former students to learn more about their discipline of study. Kendall’s ultimate goal is to generate a positive community through blogging to promote learning and change lives.

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