I’m interested in studying criminal justice. What can you tell me?
Criminal justice is the study of how to prevent crime and deal with people who break the law. Most criminal justice professionals become police officers, probation officers, lawyers and judges. If you are interested in a career in law enforcement, corrections or the judicial system, you should consider studying criminal justice.
A degree in criminal justice can prepare you for a variety of professions, so the level of education that you will need depends on the career path that you choose to follow. For instance, you can become a police officer with just a high school diploma and 6 months of police academy training. But if you want to become an attorney, you should plan for at least 3 years of graduate school after you earn your bachelors degree.
Finally, if you want to work in criminal justice, keep in mind that you may need to make significant sacrifices for your career. Lawyers keep demanding work schedules that are often unpredictable, while police and correctional officers have some of the highest rates of on-the-job injuries among all occupations.
Let’s hear some other perspectives
Jennifer L. Wege
Student, Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice, American Intercontinental University
“In order to succeed in an online criminal justice program, a student should have an open mind. People frequently have their minds made up about how people should behave and why things happen, but there is so much more involved.”
Student, Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice, California Lutheran University
“Criminal justice majors really need to stay on top of their courses, particularly those which involve the memorization of complicated terminology.”
Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Washington State University
“I would caution people that this field is not just about handcuffing people and putting them away, so to speak. You will need to remain open-minded so that you can put yourself into the shoes of criminals in order to find out why they commit crimes and how we can address that social problem.”
Criminal Justice Professional Overview
What exactly is a criminal justice professional?
Criminal justice professionals attempt to prevent crime, to stop crime when it does occur and to rehabilitate people who commit crimes. They try to protect public welfare by arresting suspected criminals and removing them from the community if they are found guilty. Although careers in criminal justice are varied, they can be grouped into 3 general categories:
Law Enforcement Officers
Law enforcement professionals investigate crimes and arrest criminal suspects. They respond to emergency calls and reach out to the community. Law enforcement professionals include police officers, detectives, private investigators and special agents who work for government agencies like the ATF and the FBI.
Corrections officers supervise convicted criminals. Some make sure that criminals who are serving time in correctional facilities like jails and prisons behave well. In addition, parole and probation officers track offenders who have been released from jail to make sure that they adjust well to society and do not commit new crimes.
Legal professionals work in the judicial system, which means that they participate in criminal trials. They either defend or prosecute accused criminals, or negotiate plea bargains so that the accused can avoid going to trial. They work for the courts, at private law firms and at government offices. Some examples of legal professionals are judges, lawyers and paralegals.
Let’s hear some other perspectives
Caseworker, King County Community Center for Alternative Programs, Seattle, WA
“It takes a very special kind of person to do this job. You have to have very good interpersonal communication skills, and you need to know how to work with people who don’t have good boundaries.”
Making the Right Choice
Is there anything else I should consider in deciding if criminal justice is the right choice for me?
Criminal Justice vs. Criminology
Before you decide to pursue a career in criminal justice, you should note the differences between this field and the related subject of criminology. Although both subjects are concerned with crime prevention and criminal rehabilitation, they lead to different professions. Criminal justice professionals are directly involved with protecting the public and property by enforcing laws and detaining people that break those laws. They typically become police officers, correctional workers, lawyers and judges. On the other hand, criminologists are concerned with crime as a social problem. They investigate the causes of crime and the way that it affects society from a theoretical perspective.
Criminal Justice Professions
What professions can I choose?
The majority of students who pursue criminal justice degrees eventually continue their education in other related fields. The list below includes not only the professions you can pursue with a criminal justice degree, but also the professions you can pursue after obtaining supplemental education.
Police academy training (6 months); associates (2 years) recommended
Police officers protect the community by arresting people who break laws. They patrol areas that are assigned to them, investigate suspicious activity and report the incidents that they observe. Police officers also respond to calls for help and interact with the community to encourage citizens to prevent and report criminal activity.
Associates (2 years) recommended
Detectives investigate criminal activity. As part of the investigation process, detectives prepare search and arrest warrants, interview witnesses, conduct research and collect evidence from crime scenes. They usually specialize in specific types of criminal cases like narcotics, fraud or homicide.
Bachelors (4 years)
Correctional treatment specialists work with jailed offenders to assess whether they are fit to rejoin society. They evaluate individual cases and judge how likely inmates are to commit more crimes. If they believe offenders can be safely released, treatment specialists help them adjust to society by providing them with opportunities for job training, counseling or education.
Bachelors (4 years)
Government agencies, correctional facilities
Probation officers supervise offenders who are put on probation instead of serving jail time. They ensure that people on probation fulfill basic duties like getting a job and obeying laws. They also investigate the history of the offenders who they supervise and make recommendations to the courts about sentencing.
Bachelors (4 years) plus experience in law enforcement (2 – 3 years)
$43,440 base pay; increases according to location and experience
Federal agents work for government agencies like the ATF, the FBI, the CBP and the Department of Homeland Security. They investigate serious offenses such as organized crime, murder, kidnapping, national security threats and drug trafficking. During their investigations, special agents collect evidence and analyze it in laboratories. They also prepare detailed reports on their findings and testify in court.
Bachelors (4 years) and law degree (3 years of law school)
Criminal and civil courts
Judges oversee the legal process in courts and apply the law to specific situations. They decide whether or not evidence can be used in a case, instruct jurors on the law, read case documents and conduct legal research to help them make final decisions in trials. Judges are employed by local, state and federal governments.
Bachelors (4 years) and law degree (3 years of law school)
Government agencies, law firms, criminal and civil courts
Attorneys advocate for their clients in legal disputes and advise them in business and personal matters. When advising clients, they research legal issues and write legal documents as they develop persuasive arguments to use in court. Prosecuting attorneys work for the government, whereas defense attorneys are private practice lawyers who are hired to defend an individual. Attorneys must pass state bar exams before they can practice law.
Associates (2 years) or bachelors (4 years) and paralegal certificate (1 year)
$46,700 (Lowest 10% earned less than $29,260; highest 10% earned more than $73,450)
Government agencies, law firms
Paralegals help lawyers prepare for meetings, trials and negotiations. They investigate cases and prepare written reports for attorneys. They also draft legal documents and assist attorneys during trials. Although they perform some of the same functions as attorneys, they cannot give legal advice or present cases in court.
Associates (2 years) and court reporting certificate (1 year)
$49,710 (Lowest 10% earned less than $25,360; highest 10% earned more than $83,500)
Criminal and civil courts
Court reporters are responsible for producing complete and accurate legal records that attorneys and judges can use as references during a case. Court reporters are present for legal proceedings, where they listen to the statements that are made at pretrial and trial proceedings. As they listen, court reporters type transcripts of the proceedings and provide them to the court.
What is the job outlook for criminal justice professionals?
Detectives and Criminal Investigators
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for criminal justice professionals in general is positive. But since criminal justice is a broad field that includes many occupations, it is best to examine the job outlook of the profession that you are most interested in below:
- Police officers and detectives held 794,300 jobs in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They are expected to experience 7% growth through 2020, which is slower than the average for all occupations.
- Lawyers are expected to face strong competition for jobs as employment increases by 10% in the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2010, there were about 728,200 lawyers. Job prospects will be best for law school graduates who are willing to relocate.
- Paralegals and legal assistants should have good job prospects through 2012 as their employment is predicted to increase by 18%, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics states is about average for all occupations. There were about 256,000 paralegals and legal assistants employed in 2010.
How long would it take me to become a criminal justice professional?
The time that it takes to start a career in criminal justice varies from less than a year to more than a decade, depending on the profession that you want to pursue. For example, to become a police officer, you may only need 6 months of police academy training, although many police departments prefer applicants who have an associates degree, which typically takes 2 years to earn.
If you want to start a legal career, you can become a lawyer or a paralegal. To become a lawyer, you will have to earn a law degree, which requires at least 3 years of law school after earning a bachelors degree. Paralegals or legal assistants can start their careers after 2 to 4 years of study, although they have less responsibility than lawyers.
Finally, you will need extensive preparation to become a judge. Judges are either elected by the public or appointed by government officials. Therefore, future judges must develop strong reputations as practicing lawyers before they can become judges, which usually takes more than 5 years.
What can I expect to learn while pursuing criminal justice?
As a criminal justice student, you can expect to gain both knowledge and skills.
Criminal laws are sets of rules that societies use to control behavior that threatens public safety. Criminal law in the United States encompasses all federal, state and local laws. Study of this subject covers topics like theories of punishment, the lawmaking process and causes and effects of common crimes.
Criminal Justice Process
The criminal justice process is the way that suspected criminals are detained, judged and either released or removed from society. Study of the criminal justice system includes knowledge of the responsibilities of police, the right to fair trial and the role of correctional facilities like jails. It also discusses the main branches of the criminal justice system, which includes law enforcement, courts and corrections.
Forensic science is the intersection of science and the law. It relies on principles of biology, chemistry and genetics to find criminal evidence. Topics include techniques for crime scene investigation, collection and preservation of physical evidence and providing scientific testimony in a court of law.
Crime theories explore who commits crimes, what factors motivate criminals to break laws and which methods are most effective in preventing them from committing crimes. In addition, it discusses ethical issues like whether offenders should be rehabilitated or simply separated from the community.
Police ethics discusses controversial issues that police encounter in the workforce and in the field. Some of the ethical topics that this subject addresses include the responsibility of police to society, citizens’ rights and how to use discretion. It also analyzes subjects like affirmative action, profiling and the use of physical force.
Legal Research Methods
Your criminal justice program will train you to conduct legal research using a variety of methods. You will learn to gather information from computers, written documents, interviews and direct observation. You will also be trained to evaluate the relevance of information that you find in primary and secondary sources.
As you progress through your criminal justice curriculum, you will learn how to examine numerical data to find meaningful patterns and relationships. As you practice gathering data, you will understand the factors that influence the reliability of statistics. You will also learn how to use computers to create digital models of statistical data.
Your criminal justice classes will teach you the art of negotiation, which you will use frequently if you choose to pursue a legal career or a job in law enforcement. You will learn to diffuse conflict by learning as much as you can about the problem, evaluating your leverage and choosing appropriate tactics to speak with your opponent.
While studying criminal justice, you will learn critical thinking skills that help you to solve problems using logic rather than emotion. You will be trained to look at problems relating to crime and criminal behavior from different angles so that you can use logic and reasoning to find the best solution to a problem based on the evidence in front of you.
Studying criminal justice will help you acquire communication skills that you will need in order to forge relationships with the people who you encounter in the criminal justice system. Interpersonal skills include controlling your body language, setting boundaries between yourself and offenders and actively listening to conversations.
What academic levels are available in the field of criminal justice?
You can earn criminal justice degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Associates, bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees are all available in criminal justice. You can also earn undergraduate and graduate certificates.
Select the degree level you are interested in:
If you are interested in criminal justice but you do not want to earn a full degree, you can enroll in criminal justice certificate programs. A certificate in criminal justice is a shorter course of study than most degree programs. You can earn a certificate at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
What are the different types of certificates?
An undergraduate certificate in criminal justice introduces you to the subject, but it does not prepare you to work in the field. This option is best if you are considering a degree in criminal justice or a related field and you want to know more about it.
A graduate certificate in criminal justice offers graduate classes in a specific focus of criminal justice. This is a good option if you are a criminal justice professional and you want to earn a promotion or enhance your resume.
How long will I have to study to earn my certificate?
Undergraduate certificates in criminal justice usually require students to complete about 12 credits. Most certificate programs can be completed in 6 months to a year.
Graduate certificates in criminal justice typically require that students complete 12 to 21 credit hours, depending on the length and depth of the program. Students can normally complete graduate certificate programs in about a year.
What types of courses will I take while studying for my certificate?
In an undergraduate certificate program, you will take classes that teach you the foundations of criminal justice. Classes vary by school, but you are likely to take courses about policing, correctional facilities and the criminal justice and courts system.
Graduate certificate programs usually include courses about public policy, policing, corrections and research methods. In addition, you may take courses that are specific to your focus. Depending on your program, you might also take courses in administration, forensics or criminology.
What types of jobs can I hope to secure with a certificate?
An undergraduate certificate will not prepare you for any jobs in the field, but you can transfer your credits into a bachelors degree program if you decide to earn a degree.
A graduate certificate can help you find a job in a district attorney’s office, adult halfway house or correctional facility. It may also help you advance in certain criminal justice positions. However, a graduate certificate alone will not qualify you to work in criminal justice.
What should I consider when deciding on a school to earn my certificate?
If you want to earn a graduate certificate, you should look for programs that offer internships at local criminal justice agencies. Internships will show you what the job entails and they will help you to make valuable contacts in the field.
What are the requirements for admission to a graduate certificate program?
To enroll in a graduate certificate program, you need to earn a bachelors degree in any field from an accredited school.
What about getting an online certificate in criminal justice?
There is no harm in pursuing your criminal justice certificate online. Most courses in comparable programs at brick-and-mortar schools are theory-based, so you would not lose much from the academic experience by taking those courses through an online certificate program. However, if you decide to earn your criminal justice certificate online, you should compare the courses to those that are offered in a traditional program. If they are similar, you know that your online criminal justice certificate program offers a quality education.
An associates degree in criminal justice will help you find a position as a police officer, and it is required for many detective, paralegal and court reporter jobs. In addition, an associates degree will give you the chance to learn more about the criminal justice system, and you can later transfer to a bachelors degree program if you want to continue your education.
What are the different types of associates degrees?
ASSOCIATE OF ARTS AA
An AA in criminal justice has more liberal arts classes to give you a broad education. The AA prepares you for entry-level criminal justice jobs or to continue your education in a bachelors program.
ASSOCIATE OF SCIENCE AS
An AS in criminal justice introduces students to the practical skills required for each area of the criminal justice system. The AS is also a good choice if you want to start an entry-level criminal justice job.
ASSOCIATE OF APPLIED SCIENCE AAS
An AAS in criminal justice focuses on practical training in a specific branch of criminal justice. The AAS is the best choice if you want to start working in the criminal justice system immediately after graduation.
How long will I have to study to earn my associates degree?
An associates degree usually requires students to complete 60 to 65 credit hours. Students generally take 2 years to earn associates degrees.
What types of courses will I take while studying for my associates degree?
To earn an associates degree in criminal justice, you will take courses that teach you the theoretical and practical foundations of the field. Your classes will include criminal law, criminal investigation techniques, the justice system, forensic science, psychology and corrections.
What types of jobs can I hope to secure with an associates degree?
An associates degree will help you to secure a position as a detective or police officer. You can also transfer credits from your associates degree program toward a bachelors degree.
What should I consider when deciding on a school to earn my associates degree?
If you decide to earn an associates degree, you should find a school that allows you to transfer your credits into a bachelors degree program. Even if you plan to become a police officer after you earn your associates degree, you may decide to continue your education later. If your credits are not transferable, you will have to repeat 2 years of education.
What about getting an online associates degree in criminal justice?
Online criminal justice associates degrees are offered by some schools. Keep in mind that associates degrees alone will not qualify you for many jobs in the field. Even if you want to be a police officer, you still need to attend job-specific training for about 6 months. Therefore, it may not be a bad idea to attend an online criminal justice school so that you can learn the theories of criminal justice. However, if you plan to start working right after graduation, you should only attend an online criminal justice school if it guarantees you an internship where you can learn hands-on skills. And if you plan to earn more education, you need to make sure that you can transfer your online criminal justice associates degree credits into another program.
A bachelors degree in criminal justice is sufficient to help you start a career as a federal agent or private investigator. However, many criminal justice students continue on to graduate school and earn advanced degrees in related fields like sociology, criminology or law.
What are the different types of bachelors degrees?
BACHELOR OF ARTS BA
A BA in criminal justice has more classes in the humanities, so you will study other disciplines as well as criminal justice. This option is preferable if you want to apply to graduate school.
BACHELOR OF SCIENCE BS
A BS in criminal justice has more technical courses, where you will learn practical skills for working in the field. This option is best if you want to enter the workforce after graduation.
How long will I have to study to earn my bachelors degree?
A bachelors degree requires students to complete 120 to 128 credit hours. It usually takes students about 4 years to complete this degree.
What types of courses will I take while studying for my bachelors degree?
The exact course requirements will vary between schools, but most undergraduate criminal justice programs require students to complete core criminal justice courses like an introduction to the criminal justice system, sociology and criminal law. You can also choose elective classes on topics like policing, corrections, juvenile offenders and private security.
What types of jobs can I hope to secure with a bachelors degree?
A bachelors degree will qualify you for most careers in the criminal justice field, including local, state and federal law enforcement. You will also be more qualified for supervisor positions in the police department and correctional facilities, although work experience is also highly regarded. Individuals with a bachelors degree in criminal justice also work with agencies that provide services to inmates and their families.
What about getting an online bachelors degree in criminal justice?
An online criminal justice bachelors degree is an option, but it is not recommended unless it provides you with an internship. The main reason to not attend online criminal justice schools is that some skills are best learned in person. For example, brick-and-mortar schools train criminal justice students in interpersonal skills such as how to interact with criminal suspects and victims of crime. Those skills would be difficult to learn through an online criminal justice program. But if you must earn your criminal justice bachelors degree online, you should only consider programs that offer internships. By interning with law enforcement agencies, courts or correctional facilities, you can make connections in the field and gain a realistic idea of what working in criminal justice will be like.
A masters degree is not required for most criminal justice careers. The main exceptions are research positions with government agencies or outside organizations that are interested in the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system. Masters degree holders can also continue their education by earning doctorates in criminal justice.
What are the different types of masters degrees?
MASTER OF ARTS MA
The MA in criminal justice teaches students to analyze law enforcement, the court system, corrections and the causes of crime. The strong emphasis on research makes the MA a good choice if you want to continue to earn a doctoral degree or begin a research career.
MASTER OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE MCJ
The MCJ degree focuses on the practical application of criminal justice theories to professional careers in law enforcement, the judicial system and corrections. The MCJ is preferable if you are interested in working in the criminal justice system, although you can also go on to earn a doctoral degree.
How long will I have to study to earn my masters degree?
Masters in criminal justice programs typically require about 30 credit hours. It usually takes students 2 to 3 years to complete masters degrees.
What types of courses will I take while studying for my masters degree?
The exact course requirements will vary depending on whether you choose to earn an MA or MCJ, but most masters degree programs in criminal justice require students to complete courses like criminal procedure, criminal law, research methods and statistics. You may also elect to take courses like criminology, corrections administration, judicial administration, investigative techniques and white collar crime. Finally, most masters degree programs require students to complete a final thesis paper or capstone project.
What types of jobs can I hope to secure with a masters degree?
A masters degree will help you find a research-based position in a government agency or private organization. Aside from research positions, a masters degree does not open up many more career opportunities than you would have with a bachelors degree, although it can help advance your career in law enforcement, courts and corrections.
What should I consider when deciding on a school to earn my masters degree?
When considering schools for your masters degree, look for programs that match your career interests in either research or professional experience. Most programs have a thesis option, which is ideal if you are interested in continuing your academic careers or working as a researcher. But if you are sure that you do not want to earn a PhD, consider programs that have the option of completing a capstone project instead of writing a thesis.
What are the requirements for admission to a masters degree program?
Masters programs in criminal justice require students to have a bachelors degree from an accredited school, but it does not have to be in criminal justice.
What about getting an online masters degree in criminal justice?
There are some online criminal justice programs, but getting an online criminal justice masters degree is not a good idea. Although you may be able to learn theory through an online criminal justice school, graduate degrees require students to conduct intensive research and develop close relationships with faculty advisors. You will not be able to foster that relationship through an online criminal justice masters degree program.
A doctorate in criminal justice will primarily prepare you for an academic career in teaching. If you plan on working within the criminal justice field outside of academia, you do not need to pursue a doctoral degree.
What are the different types of doctorates?
You can earn a PhD in criminal justice, which allows you to focus on crime, crime control or justice administration. It primarily prepares you to become a professor at a university.
How long will I have to study to earn my doctorate?
Most students take 5 to 7 years to complete the 72 to 90 credit hours that are typically required to earn a doctoral degree in criminal justice.
What types of courses will I take while studying for my doctorate?
In your doctorate program, you will take advanced core courses about criminal justice theory, criminal justice organizations, statistics and research methods. You will also take elective courses in your research area, such as gender studies, race and ethnicity, psychology or sociology. Finally, you will produce a book-length dissertation based on your research.
What types of jobs can I hope to secure with a doctorate?
A PhD degree will allow you to teach at a university or college and to research issues of crime, crime prevention and the criminal justice system. You will also be qualified for advanced research positions with private organizations and the government.
What should I consider when deciding on a school to earn my doctorate?
If you are unsure whether you want to become a research professor in criminal justice, find a school that will allow you to earn a masters degree in the course of studying for a PhD. A PhD in criminal justice is primarily geared for individuals who want to work in academia. If you decide after 2 years of a PhD program that you would rather take a non-academic research job or work hands-on in criminal justice management, a masters degree will help you find 1 of those positions.
What are the requirements for admission to a doctorate program?
Doctoral programs prefer applicants who have work experience in criminal justice or a related field, like psychology, sociology or criminology. Most PhD programs do not require you to have a masters degree, but research experience in any of these fields will enhance your application.
What about getting an online doctorate in criminal justice?
You should not attempt to get a fully online criminal justice doctorate. Most PhD programs in criminal justice are designed to prepare students to become professors at colleges and universities. Your success in that career will depend greatly on recommendations from highly regarded faculty advisors and on the quality of your research. It will be difficult to find an online criminal justice PhD program that employs well-known professors and that offers the level of supervision that you may need to conduct quality research. However, some online criminal justice PhD programs incorporate residencies, which allow you to research more or less independently and also collaborate with your peers and professors a few times during the semester. This option is preferable to a completely online criminal justice PhD program.
What else should I keep in mind when considering studying criminal justice?
Before you decide to get a degree in criminal justice, you should consider licensing. Some criminal justice professionals need a license to practice. For instance, all states require lawyers and judges to pass a bar exam, which is a multi-day test that they must take after graduating from law school before they can be licensed to practice law. On the other hand, paralegals are not required to obtain a license before working, but they can seek certification from national organizations to become more competitive on the job market. Finally, most states require private investigators to become certified.