Civil Law vs. Criminal Law: What Are The Differences?

  • Criminal Justice
  • March 11, 2024
  • 3 min read
Gavel resting on a gavel-stand, handcuffs and American flag.

If you are considering a career in law, one of the first questions you might find yourself asking is “what is the difference between criminal and civil law.” Criminal and civil law form two of the main pillars of the U.S legal systems, but surprisingly most people don’t know the difference between them. To make things a little clearer, we’ve put together this simple guide to the main differences between criminal and civil law.

The Basic Idea

At its most basic form, civil law governs disputes between one entity and another, from conflicts between neighbors to disputes between huge multinational corporations. Civil cases can be brought about by the public as well as private parties.

Criminal, law, on the other hand, comes into play when an individual breaks a law set down by a state or federal government. Only the government can initiate the prosecution in criminal cases and how they are conducted in regulated by the penal code.

The Conduct In Question

The conduct that brings about a civil or criminal case also differs significantly. Criminal cases might cover offenses such as murder, theft, drug possession, and firearms violations, while civil cases might cover negligence or failure to abide by guidelines such as the Business and Professions Code or the Health and Safety Code.

The Burden Of Proof

One of the most significant differences between criminal and civil law is the burden of proof required to win a case. Because of the potentially harsher punishments under criminal law, up to and including the death penalty in individual states, the prosecution must prove their case “beyond reasonable doubt.” In a civil case, the burden of proof is slightly lighter, requiring only a “preponderance of the evidence,” which is a requirement that more than 50% of the evidence points to what one of the entities in a civil case is attempting to prove.


While both criminal and civil can result in the defendant being incarcerated, criminal cases are far more likely to result in prison time than civil cases. Because of the personal nature of civil cases, the outcome is far more likely to be a financial penalty, such as a fine.

Join Our Criminal Justice School Today!

Qualifying from our Criminal Justice School puts you in an excellent position to access a variety of employment opportunities as you look for one that suits your skills and interests. At Northwest Career College, our Criminal Justice instructors include licensed, practicing attorneys and degree instructors able to teach, not only the law but also to guide our students in the many ways a criminal justice graduate integrates into a Las Vegas legal profession.

As part of our Criminal Justice Program, you’ll visit courts, jails, meditation centers and more to experience first-hand the law in action which will make your criminal justice training applicable to the Las Vegas legal system.

Northwest offers a flexible blended program with all criminal justice degree in Las Vegas law classes taught on campus by an attorney and general education courses offered online. Our experienced instructors are on-campus to review and support your learning experience at all times.

Call us at (702) 403-1592 to speak to one of our enrollment team about joining our Criminal Justice Program today!    

Lisa Myers
General Education Department Director

Beginning her career as a Paralegal, Lisa soon advanced to the role of Senior Paralegal for various Family Law, Personal Injury and Corporate law firms in the Las Vegas community. She obtained her Juris Doctor and LL.M, completing her fellowship…Read Full Bio