The CSI Effect: Exposing Myths of Fictional Criminal Justice Careers

By Richard Holloway, J.D., Program Director of Criminal Justice

CTU Criminal Justice Degree - CSI EffectThere is a seemingly unlimited supply of crime shows today.  Whatever your tastes, you can probably find a show to suit them.  But for some reason, unlike with other genres, it seems as if the average viewer – including many prospective Criminal Justice (CJ) students – believes everything he or she sees on crime shows.  In CJ Education, we call this the CSI effect.  While I personally love the series (and if I had to choose, “CSI: Miami” would be my favorite), I know that it doesn't accurately reflect reality.  So my message to prospective students (and to potential jurors as well) is not to be disappointed when you're forced to deal with real-life crime.

The typical crime drama wraps up in one hour what can actually take days, weeks, months or even years to accomplish.  The wheels of justice on television move at nearly the speed of light.  Crime scenes are processed within minutes, with detailed theories about the crime developed on the spot.  Key witnesses either come forward voluntarily or are found in the nick of time.  Evidence is analyzed quickly, and DNA and fingerprint matches take only as long as a quick push of the "Enter" button on a high-tech computer system.  Every television-based agency has the latest in 22nd-century technology with little regard for realistic government budgets.  That’s fine for television, but in real life most agencies can't afford wall-size LED screens attached to SMART Boards where investigators effortlessly swipe documents and pictures around with instant access to every traffic and private surveillance camera in the area.

Last gripe: On the show, the crime-scene investigator gets a call, shows up on the scene, gets briefed on the crime, joins the team searching for evidence, finds the key piece of evidence that will solve the case, takes that evidence back to the lab, dons a lab coat, analyzes the critical evidence, determines the identity of the criminal mastermind and then goes out to make the arrest.  After a car chase followed by a shootout and/or fistfight, she makes the arrest and then testifies flawlessly in court (describing a high-tech animation she created for the trial).  That one character on television assumed the duties of about eight to 10 different people in real life – and a few that don't even exist.

So what's wrong with “CSI” and other crime shows?  Nothing, if you need entertainment - but if you’re looking for reality, everything.  Unfortunately, many potential jurors expect the high-tech displays that most cities and counties can't afford – and many prospective students expect the same.

Every session, dozens of students tell me they want to be a crime-scene investigator, but when I ask why, most can't answer.  I suspect it’s because the majority don't want to say it's because of what they've seen on television.  Whatever the motivation, though, if you're thinking about investing money, time and effort in pursuing a degree in Criminal Justice, you owe it to yourself to find out the truth about the career path you're considering.  You need to know what professionals in that job do on a day-to-day basis, so you can determine if it fits your strengths, interests and career goals.  Prospective CJ students, get the truth before you begin. It will only improve your chances of success.

CTU Faculty - Rich HollowayRichard Holloway, J.D., practiced both criminal and civil law in the Chicago area for nearly a decade before he began teaching as an adjunct professor in Business Law and Criminal Justice.

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Image Credit: Flickr/Amber DeGrace