Criminologists may work in the criminal justice system, serve as expert witnesses or develop programs designed to combat criminal behavior or stop it before it starts. They may also use their training to become attorneys, sociologists, social workers or psychologists. Your primary guide for a criminology research paper should be your professor's writing prompt and your specific class's topic. For example, a paper on the psychology of criminal behavior might not be appropriate for a class on the legal system.
Courts and the Legal System
An analysis of how the legal system affects criminal behavior and helps -- or harms -- victims can help you gain insight into the larger field of criminology. Research penalties other than jail, such as drug courts or mandated counseling, or write about the ways personal factors such as appearance can affect the likelihood of a conviction. Alternatively, consider tracing the progression of an actual criminal case, or addressing the legal issues -- such as probable cause, unauthorized searches and gathering of evidence -- that can affect conviction rates within the system.
The Penological System
When a convicted criminal enters jail or prison, a variety of social and penological factors can affect how long he remains in the system and whether he gets better or worse while there. Prison rape and violence are popular topics, with President Barack Obama speaking out against the high rate of violence in prisons. You might also consider researching ways to make prison life more therapeutic and rehabilitative, or address ways correctional officers can control inmate behavior without resorting to force. Relationships among prisoners -- including prison hierarchies, romantic relationships and the emergence of leaders, "lawyers" and chaplains among prisoners -- can also create compelling papers.
Psychological and Sociological Forces
There's no single way to become a criminal. Instead, individual, environmental and societal factors can all conspire to make criminal behavior seem like the best -- or even the only -- option. Consider writing about the correlation between poverty and mental illness, or examine the history of disproportionate criminal prosecution of African-Americans. You might also address why some psychological conditions can increase the likelihood of criminal behavior, or examine what interventions can prevent people from engaging in criminal acts.
Criminology is inherently political because district attorneys and judges are elected officials. The laws that determine what constitutes criminal behavior are products of a specific political climate, so consider researching why similar behaviors often have different penalties; alcohol, for example, is legal while marijuana is not. You might also address hot political topics such as the death penalty, minimum sentences, "three strikes" laws or the effects of long-term probation.
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