Criminal justice is an overarching term for the policies, procedures, and legal frameworks that are in place to ensure that a person convicted of a crime receives a fair and expedient trial. While there are some similarities between criminal justice and criminology, it is important to note that criminal justice focuses on how our legal system treats the accused so that their rights as United States citizens are respected and maintained.
Students who want to pursue a degree in criminal justice do so because they want to help maintain the sanctity of the justice system, including the fair treatment of defendants regardless of their age, race, gender, or financial status. Their work ensures that offenders can receive appropriate legal counsel and guidance so that the justice system can prevent further crimes in the future through rehabilitation and counseling.
What Can I Do With A Criminal Justice Degree?
There are a few different career paths that graduates with a degree in criminal justice can consider upon completion of their program.
- Graduates interested in working directly with defendants can explore roles such as paralegal or criminal profiler.
- Those who prefer to work with children and adolescents can pursue opportunities as a Youth Correctional Officer or Paralegal.
- Graduates who want a more public-facing role can elect to become police officers and probation officers. They interact with convicted criminals who are completing the necessary steps to re-integrate into society and maintain a crime-free future.
- Salary Range: $48,000-$70,000
For graduates who pursue roles as a paralegal, they can expect to receive salaries ranging from $48,000 to $70,000. The average salary is $56,230. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2023, there were almost 50,000 paralegals in the United States, with anticipated job growth of up to 14%. Paralegals typically work in a law office, assist lawyers with criminal cases, and often interact directly with defendants throughout criminal proceedings. Many of these professionals choose to pursue law school so they can become practicing lawyers in their respective states.
- Median Salary: $60,000
Graduates interested in getting a job as a youth correctional officer can expect salaries around $48,000 nationwide. There are over 15,000 youth correction officer roles in the United States in 2023 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These specialists often transition to administrative roles after working directly with the public and can also work in the non-profit sector for groups that help disadvantaged youth and repeat offenders.
- Salary Range: $47,000-$66,000
Police officers and probation officers have slightly different job descriptions but often work directly with convicted criminals and criminal defendants going through legal proceedings. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that police officers have an average income in the United States of $66,020 in 2023, with projected stability in the job market in the next ten years.
Probation Officers, by comparison, make on average of $60,250 annually. Police officers can rise in the ranks and become lieutenants and even police chiefs after years of on-the-job training. Probation officers can work their way up to administrative roles and oversee probation offices at a high level.
Now these aren’t the only career paths you can take. There are almost an endless list of criminal justice careers, including these:
- DEA agents
- And many more
If it’s involved in the world of legal, law, and criminal justice, then earning a criminal justice degree is the first step to your criminal justice career.
Criminal Justice Degree
Criminal justice degrees are the first step in pursuing a criminal justice career. We’ll break down each degree to see which one is right for you.
For prospective students looking to expedite the time between school and entering the workforce, an Associate Degree in Criminal Justice typically takes two years to complete. These degrees impart the foundational knowledge and skills needed to land entry-level positions in the field.Students studying for an associate degree can transfer to a four-year bachelor’s program if they are interested in taking the credits they earned and applying them at another institution. Typical coursework in a criminal justice associate program include classes like Criminal Law, Foundations of Law Enforcement, and Intro to Civil Proceedings.
Students interested in completing a four-year degree program after high school should look into a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. These programs typically require students to complete up to 90 credits and provide additional learning opportunities that can allow them to pursue higher-paying roles after graduation. Classes in a bachelor’s program may include but are not limited to:
- Theories of Crime
- Foundations of Corrections
- The American Court System
For students that hold a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice and want to further their academic research, a doctoral degree can provide up to 6 years of further scholastic instruction. Many working professionals who want the credentials needed to land director-level positions or want to enter academia as professors should consider this track.
It is standard practice for students to complete a thesis and defend their research in front of a jury of peers and professors and to pair this work with their job search. Professionals that hold a Doctorate in Criminal Justice gross anywhere from $60,000 to $120,000 annually.
Online Criminal Justice Degree
Students interested in getting a degree without the hassle of going into the classroom should consider applying for online programs in the field of criminal justice. These programs are much more conducive for working professionals than traditional, in-person classroom instruction. Though classes are online, they still provide quality educational resources at sometimes a fraction of the cost.
Courses are often recorded which allows students to watch lectures and complete homework asynchronously. Given the in-person nature of this career track, it is always recommended that students gain experience at the internship level with a local law enforcement agency or parole office so they can be fully prepared to enter the workforce upon completion of their degree.
Outstanding Online Criminal Justice Degree Programs
One institution known for providing high-quality, online education is Concordia University St. Paul. They offer bachelor’s and master’s programs for students interested in a career in criminal justice and come with years of positive reviews from students who have completed their programs and successfully landed a job after graduation. This school offers ample internship and job placement opportunities, which pairs graduates with employers for a seamless transition from school to the workplace.
Another highly-touted institution that specializes in online criminal justice degrees is Northern Arizona University. Whether you’re looking to enter the workforce with a bachelor’s degree, or if you’re looking to further your academic experience with a master’s program, this is an excellent place to explore. Their annual lecture series spotlights current working professionals and covers topics such as criminal justice reform and allows students to connect with respected scholars in the field to open their eyes to opportunities in the field.
Best Colleges for Criminal Justice
Northeastern University is a great place for prospective students in the Boston metro that are interested in topics such as criminal justice reform, counterterrorism, and police administration. This school has connections with local Boston law enforcement agencies and provides connections for students through externships to prepare them for life post-graduation.
George Mason University is a mid-sized public research university in northern Virginia just outside of Washington D.C. Given its proximity to the nation’s capital and the federal legal system, this university has the ability to connect current students with roles at the local and federal level in the field of criminal justice. Local events that separate this school from the pack and allow students to further their academic research include the annual CHSS Undergraduate Research Symposium at the Fairfax campus.
UMass Lowell is a mid-sized institution located in Western Massachusetts that is known regionally for its strong criminal justice department. This diverse institution offers ample support to current students and recent graduates to help them succeed in the field through internship opportunities, collaboration with faculty through research opportunities, and academic organizations that help undergraduate and graduate students connect with their peers.
Florida State University is a large, public school in Tallahassee, Florida with an award-winning criminal justice track. Outside of their high post-graduation job-placement figures, their faculty have been spotlighted on NPR. FSU’s programs are at the top of national and international rankings for academic excellence, veteran friendliness, and value.
Sam Houston State University is a mid-sized public school in Huntsville, Texas and is one of the oldest research institutions in the state. Their criminal justice program offers internationally renowned faculty members that specialize in law enforcement, corrections, victims, and legal studies. Outside of the classroom, the university hosts multiple honors societies and connections to law enforcement institutes, making it a great place for students to expand their knowledge of the field and connect with working professionals that hold roles as paralegals and corrections officers nationwide.
Criminal Justice College Financial Aid
In order to offset the increasing cost of higher education, there are a variety of scholarships and financial aid options for students in need of assistance. For those interested in scholarships in the field of criminal justice, here are three to get you started.
The Herbert Lehman Education Fund Scholarship is offered for undergraduates that have been accepted and are interested in making a positive impact on racial, social, and economic equality in the justice system.
The UNCF Social Justice Scholarship is offered to African American students from New York, New Jersey, Vermont, and Connecticut that need financial aid and are pursing a degree in criminal justice.
The Price Benowitz Social Justice Scholarship is a scholarship fund that provides financial aid to students enrolled in a community college, undergraduate, or graduate program and show professional interests in criminal justice and reform.
How To Earn A Criminal Justice Degree - Next Steps
If you’ve read enough and are interested in pursuing a criminal justice degree, here are five steps to get your criminal justice education started.
What sorts of jobs can I get with a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice?
- Students with this degree can pursue roles in Law Enforcement, Criminology, Corrections, and Security to name a few. For students pursuing careers in the legal sector, it’s important to note that many criminal lawyers start their education with a degree in criminal justice, which is a great stepping stone to law school.
What are some essential skills that students pursuing a degree in criminal justice need to acquire before graduation?
- Students in the field of criminal justice, and those pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice should focus on their written and oral communication, critical decision-making and ethics, and improve upon their skills in conflict resolution and teamwork.
Do I need to get my criminal justice degree in person or online?
- Students can pursue in-person and online criminal justice degrees and land jobs regardless of the format. While many working professionals may prefer to enroll in online programs that provide added flexibility, it is not uncommon for high school graduates to pursue in-person criminal justice programs that do offer increased hands-on experience, as well as opportunities for professional development alongside professors and peers in a classroom setting.
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