Criminal justice is the system through which crime is detected and then dealt with. It is not the actual study of crime. That is the field known as criminology. A criminal justice degree, then, is a degree that helps you learn how crime is detected and the system that then punishes and manages the issues relating to crimes.
If you are interested in the law and the many systems that are associated with it, then a degree in criminal justice may be the perfect path for you. Though you can enter the police academy with nothing more than a high school degree, like so many other industries and fields, the more education and training you acquire, the broader your opportunities.
And like many other industries, you will do best if you choose to get your education through a college or university that is fully accredited. Though there are actually no organizations in charge of accrediting criminal justice programs, there are accrediting organizations that assess and approve online and brick and mortar programs. Be sure that any studies you pursue are through an accredited institution.
Will I be able to go into fields other than working as a police officer or other correctional officer with criminal justice degree?
Yes! The degree will allow you to work as a court reporter, legal assistant, paralegal professional, private investigator, FBI agent, and many other areas or fields. From insurance fraud to homicide, you may find yourself investigating, evaluating, and even working in the courts to resolve all kinds of issues. You can also get an advanced degree and work as a criminal psychologist or criminologist.
How long is it going to take to get my degree?
There are two-year programs that can open the door to many exciting career paths in the criminal justice system, but if you get a bachelor’s or master’s degree (four and six years respectively) you will be able to accept much more complex work with a higher rate of pay. For example, an associate’s degree may allow you to work in law enforcement while the bachelor’s degree may help you get a role as a court administrator.
How do I know if criminal justice is the right area of study for me?
Those who do best in the criminal justice field are interested in the corrections system or the administration of the law. That doesn’t mean you have to be a police officer or law enforcement professional. Many social workers have criminal justice degrees, as do investigators for insurance firms. So, if you like to solve problems, work with others, and appreciate the finer points of the law, you are a good match for this work.
Criminal justice is a somewhat broad area of study and, because of that, there are many degree options available. For those who wish to move past entry-level positions, a college degree is a must. In fact, advanced degrees are seen as the most marketable simply because the student undergoes rigorous studies in all areas of the field.
- Associate (AA or AS): Unlike many associate level degrees in other areas, there is a noticeable difference in the AA and AS in criminal justice. The AS, many believe, is more applicable to a growing career because it focuses on the sciences and technical issues. This is an important part of the work, and so those interested in going beyond an entry-level position will want the AS.
- Bachelor (BA or BS): The Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice is not less valuable than the Bachelor of Sciences, and it really depends on what your chosen career path is going to be. For example, you may want to be a legal secretary or victim’s advocate, and the language and communication emphasis in the BA would be of use to you. Of course, if you are thinking of working in forensics or data analysis, the BS and its science and technology will be better for you.
- Master (MA or MS): This is what might be called an expert level degree. Usually it is focused on administration or corrections, and many people who want to be social caseworkers decide to pursue this advanced degree.
- Doctorate (PhD): With the intense amount of work that it takes to obtain this degree, it is often chosen by those who are hoping to become university level professors.
Online Degrees & Accreditation
You will find many opportunities for associate’s, bachelor’s, and even master’s level degrees in criminal justice online. The one thing to keep in mind about any of them is that they should be accredited. Taking a look at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation will let you know if the school you have chosen is accredited.
Keep in mind that you may want to use the flexibility of online studies to obtain your degree even as you work in the criminal justice field. For example, you may work as a police dispatcher while you earn a degree in order to become a licensed investigator or even a forensics or crime scene expert. You might also leverage online programs in order to become suitable for federal or state employment in the criminal justice field too.
Additional resources for researching criminal justice accredited programs of study:
- Justice Research and Statistics Association
- Department of Justice
- National Institute of Corrections
- Office of Justice
Course of Study
There are a lot of topics and courses of study that you might follow when you decide to pursue a degree in criminal justice. For example, you must have a foundation of critical thinking, ethics, and perception. You’ll need to also understand a bit of psychology and the use of persuasion.
As a student gets more specific in their studies they will focus on specifics like crime scene investigation and evidence handling, law and evidence, sociology and so much more. It is important to know the career path you intend to follow before you choose the university or college through which you will obtain your degree.
Your area of interest may be more aligned with scientific principles, such as forensics or investigation, and that would mean that a high-rated BS program would be your best option. However, you may believe that you want to eventually work directly as a caseworker, and that would mean you need a master’s level degree program.
Regardless of your final goal, you will need a solid foundation that comes from the general studies required in most degree programs, but you will have to understand your goals to make the best choices.
Careers with a BA or BS Degree in Criminal Justice
- Detective or investigator
You may become a law enforcement officer without a degree, however, to advance to a detective or to work as a private investigator your state may require that you have skills and training from a criminal justice bachelors program.
- Probation officer
Many court systems now require their probation officials to have a BA or BS in criminal justice in addition to earning the experience necessary to assume such a role.
- Law enforcement officer
You may become a police officer without a degree, but anyone who wants to work in the FBI, DEA or other law enforcement agency must have a BA or BS.
Whether you want to explore ballistics, blood spatter, or crime scenes, you need a degree with a strong science background and specialization.
Careers Requiring Advanced Degrees or Degrees in Other Fields:
This is a graduate level area of study that is open only to those who have already earned their bachelor level degree in criminal justice.
You can begin to make your way toward this role with a BA in law or criminal justice, however, an advanced degree and passing the bar exam are necessary to practice law.
- Jury Consultant
If you are to consult and advise the court and the attorneys or prosecutors in them, you must have an advanced degree in criminal justice – usually to the master’s level.
Licensing, Certifications, and Exams
The advanced degrees required for lawyers or prosecutors are well known, as well as the special exams they must pass to begin working. But there are other roles in the criminal justice field that demand certifications that many may overlook. These vary from state to state, but you will want to explore them if you are going to work in criminal justice and in the court system.
- Certified Criminal Justice Professional (CCJP) certification
- Professional Peace Officer Certification
- Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) credential
Additional Resources for Certification information
Future Outlook for Primary Career
The Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies criminal justice as a growth industry, with at least 11% growth expected by 2016. One thing that is clear is that, although it is not mandatory, a college degree is now becoming more and more relevant to the individual’s employment capabilities.
Those with advanced degrees will find more job opportunities and, particularly, in areas where science and technology skills are important. Additionally, the demand for investigators and detectives will increase due to of ongoing and heightened security concerns and an increase in background checks.
Interestingly enough, many people with criminal justice degrees will find that security firms in the private sector are also in need of their skills.
It is difficult to give a field as broad as criminal justice a median wage, but the BLS says that a private investigator averages almost $48,000, while correctional officers earn from $26,700 to around $42,780 depending on location and training. Those with master’s and doctorate degrees working at the university level are earning more than $65,000 per year, and this includes those with specialized training, such as prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The wide range of topics that someone with a criminal justice degree will acquire gives them a diversity of marketable skills. Whether they have an associate’s degree or a doctorate, they will all require the same fundamental abilities. These skills include:
- Critical thinking skills
- Observational and detail oriented perception
- Negotiation skills
- Good language skills
- Decision making skills
As is the case with many degree programs, students pursuing degrees in criminal justice will be able to use internships to gain experience and skills. In some instances, they may even be mandatory for earning a degree, such as the case with attorneys and law students. In many instances, it is just a great opportunity for expanding knowledge, applying what has been learned, and improving the chances at a good career.
The following is a list of internship possibilities for a criminal justice major:
- FBI and DEA internships (which is how they recruit)
- Volunteering in group homes
- Volunteering at a medical examiner’s office
- Internships with specialized crime scene teams, such as latent print teams
- Crime lab internships
- Volunteering for clerical duties with a court or public attorney’s office
- Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS)
- American Correctional Association (ACA)
- American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS)
- National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA)
Suggested Online Degree Programs
- Washington State University – Taught by the campus faculty, their program was selected by one organization as the perfect choice for online learning about criminal justice issues.
- Arizona State University – Ranked highly by many different organizations, it has active criminal justice clubs and counselors for online students.
- Penn State – With a program certified by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and the same faculty as their campus program, it is a great option.