Criminal Justice & Law Degrees: What Can I Do With a Criminal Justice Degree?

As long as there is society, there will be crime. And as long as there is crime, there will be jobs for police officers, correctional officers, forensic scientists, and other professionals in the law enforcement field.

There is more to the criminal justice system than SWAT teams and undercover agents. The system couldn’t function without an army of behind-the-scenes workers such as prison guards, administrators, and court reporters, who help keep things running smoothly.

Criminal Justice and Law have always been reliable career paths – society always needs people working to keep us safe and to represent our interests in the justice system. But in our post-9/11 world of heightened security, there are more career avenues than ever in the field. Not only are the conventional options, such as police and lawyer, just as secure as they’ve ever been, but increases in Homeland Security mean all sorts of new positions (such as cybersecurity) and increased need (such as border patrol).

Of course, you can’t just walk in off the street and become a lawyer, a police officer, a judge, or a clerk of court. A solid education is a requirement for just about all careers in the justice field. There are jobs at all education levels, but as in any profession, a higher education means a path to higher status and salary.

Why Study Criminal Justice?

You might be wondering, “Is a criminal justice degree worth it?” or “Is a criminology degree useful?” While there are jobs in the law enforcement field that don’t require a degree, there are also many that do. A criminal justice or criminology degree opens up dozens of career options for those who wish to protect the innocent from murderers, thieves, and other lawbreakers.

Even if the career you seek doesn’t require a degree, you may find that a criminal justice degree is worth it because of the difference in pay. To encourage higher education, many police departments offer an education bonus to officers who have earned a college degree.

In addition, having a criminal justice degree benefits job seekers by providing a competitive edge over other applicants. Employers often favor applicants who have a college degree even if the degree is not required for the position. A criminal justice or criminology degree is useful because it provides access to higher-paying careers, such as positions in the DEA or FBI.

Even a criminal justice certificate is better than no criminal justice education at all. If you have a degree in another field, a criminal justice certificate will give you an overview of the field that could help you understand how your degree applies to the criminal justice field.

So why study criminal justice? Because if you care about law and order, having a criminal justice degree benefits you by maximizing the number and type of opportunities available, as well as your lifetime earning potential.

What is the Best Accreditation for Criminal Justice Colleges?

The importance of accreditation for a college of criminology and criminal justice—or any college, for that matter—cannot be overemphasized. The accreditation process ensures that schools meet certain minimum quality standards. This provides assurance to students that they will receive a quality education as they pursue their bachelor’s in criminal justice or bachelors in criminology.

When it comes to criminal justice accreditation, the type of accreditation matters. First, the school must be regionally accredited, not just nationally accredited. This is non-negotiable. If you need to transfer to another school, it is much easier to get approval for transfer credits from a regionally-accredited school. In addition, if you get your bachelor’s degree from a school that is not regionally accredited, you may find your options limited if you want to pursue a master’s degree after graduation.

The best criminal justice schools are not only regionally accredited, but have specialized criminal justice accreditation as well. The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) offers program-level accreditation for criminal justice colleges. Although this accreditation is nice to have, it is not essential. There are many good schools offering a bachelor’s in criminal justice or criminology that are regionally accredited but not accredited by ACJS.

What if the Criminal Justice Schools Near Me Are Not Accredited?

Students can often save a great deal of money by attending school close to home. However, the best criminal justice schools are all regionally accredited—and some non-accredited schools are a scam. Whether you are pursuing a bachelors in criminology or a criminal justice certificate, protect yourself by choosing a regionally-accredited college of criminology and criminal justice.

Types of Criminal Justice Degrees

AS: An associate’s degree can be earned in around two years through a community college or college. The associate’s can open the door to many career paths, including police officer, corrections officer, legal assistant, or evidence technician.

(Check out: What is the Benefit of Going to a Community College?)

BS: The bachelor of science degree is a4-yearr degree earned through a college or university. Many municipalities require a bachelor’s degree for police and parole officers, and most technical roles such as crime scene investigator need at least a BS.

MS: Any criminal justice job will pay more and open up more responsibility with a master’s degree – usually a two-year program, though in recent years one-year accelerated programs have become more common. Government agencies such as the FBI, CIA, NSA, and others prefer a master’s for agents.

JD: To become an attorney, the Juris Doctor (JD) degree is necessary. The JD is what people mean when they say they have a law degree – it’s the only one. A JD usually takes three years of graduate study, though you must also pass the Bar exam to practice law.

An associate degree in criminal justice typically takes two years to complete and is often the cheapest criminal justice degree available. Many community colleges offer associate programs in criminal justice. It is usually much cheaper to earn an associate degree at a local junior college than to attend a 4-year college or university, but remember that the cheapest criminal justice degree is not necessarily the best.

The biggest downside to earning an associate degree in criminal justice through a community college is that it can sometimes be difficult to transfer credits from a community college if you decide to go for your bachelor’s degree later. According to Lumerit unbound, students lose an average of 40% of their credits when transferring to a university because they didn’t take the right classes when they were attending the community college.

This problem can be avoided by looking for a community or junior college that has a partnership with a 4-year college or university. Often, small local colleges will partner with larger schools to ensure that their programs are compatible and facilitate a smooth transition from the associate program at the junior college to the bachelor’s degree program at the larger, 4-year college or university.

Jobs available to people with an associate in criminal justice include asset protection assistant manager, anti-money laundering investigator, court operations associate, and forensic laboratory technician.

Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice

A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice usually takes four years to complete. However, there are accelerated programs available, such as the online criminal justice bachelor degree from Purdue University Global. These programs are usually designed to appeal to adult students who are trying to juggle school, a career, and family life.

Having a criminal justice bachelor’s degree opens up many more career opportunities, since many police departments as well as organizations such as the FBI require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. An online criminal justice bachelor degree fulfills this requirement just the same as a degree earned on campus the traditional way but allows you to attend your criminal justice classes online.

Job opportunities for those who hold a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice include inspector general criminal investigator at the CIA, SMI case manager, criminal justice specialist, CDCA case worker, criminal justice system specialist, jail and criminal justice mental health services manager, legal assistant, parole/probation officer, substance use disorder case manager, and juvenile justice specialist.

Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice

If you already have your bachelor’s degree, a master’s in criminal justice can help you move up the ladder in your career. Although it normally takes two years to complete a master’s degree, there are accelerated options available, especially if you are able to take criminal justice classes online.

Some jobs that require a master’s degree in criminal justice include substance abuse clinicians, reentry program manager, criminal justice mental health liaison, and criminal justice adjunct.

Doctoral Degree in Criminal Justice

Earning your doctoral degree opens up even more career opportunities, and along with them, higher salary prospects. Jobs available to people who hold a doctoral degree in criminal justice include research investigator, civil rights investigator, adjunct professor of criminal justice or criminology, and youth facility assistant superintendent.

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Online vs. Residential Programs

Online degrees in Criminal Justice are plentiful, since most occupations in the field are office work. You can obtain as associate’s degree in criminal justice online conveniently and relatively easily, and be prepared to work as a legal assistant or clerk right away while working on an online bachelor’s degree for further career advancement. It’s also a simple way to start a career as a police officer, parole officer, or prison guard, though it is only the first step, as further training will be necessary.

(check out: Are Online Degrees a Good Investment?)

Some career areas in criminal justice, such as the general area of crime scene investigation, may benefit from residential programs, but laboratory experience is not necessary in most job markets. Online JD programs are becoming more common, and again, there is no inherent reason a residential program is better than online. However, the perception of online degrees may still present a stigma on the job market, if you want to become a prosecutor or join a firm. If you plan to start your own practice, it’s hard to say there’s any advantage to residential.

An online criminal justice degree is a good option for anyone who has already entered the workforce or started a family. Completing your criminal justice degree online offers much more flexibility than a traditional college degree program. Most online law enforcement degree programs allow you to log in and complete your assignments whenever it is convenient for you.

The best online criminal justice programs are accredited by the same accreditation agencies that provide accreditation for brick and mortar colleges and universities. In fact, many schools offer an accredited criminal justice degree online that mirrors the school’s offline program. Students who complete the online program at these schools typically receive the exact same degree as the students who attend classes in person.

What’s the Fastest Criminal Justice Degree Online?

Many schools offer accelerated online criminal justice programs, and have developed various legitimate ways to craft the fastest criminal justice degree online. These programs offer accelerated courses with monthly start dates and without any set times, dates, or locations. Students can move through the program at their own pace and complete their online law enforcement degree much more quickly than a traditional program—or even most online programs.

Get an Affordable Criminal Justice Degree Online

Another benefit available from the best online criminal justice programs is affordability. Online programs are often cheaper. In fact, some schools charge their in-state tuition rates to out-of-state students who take their courses online. Not only can you get an affordable criminal justice degree online, but if you qualify for financial aid, you may be able to get your online criminal justice degree free of charge. Some online colleges offer low enough tuition rates that a full Pell Grant covers most—if not all—of the tuition and fees, which means free online law enforcement classes for you.

Remember, if you’re taking your criminal justice degree online, accredited schools are the best online colleges for a law enforcement career. Accreditation increases the chance that your credits will transfer later and reduces the risk of being scammed by a degree mill.

Criminal Justice Specializations

If there is a specific area of the criminal justice field you’d like to work in, it might be a good idea to consider a school that offers an accredited criminal justice degree—online or offline—with a specialization in that area. Some common specializations include corrections and case management, law enforcement, homeland security, forensic science, and crisis management.

Many schools offer online criminal justice certificate programs that allow students to add a specialization to their degree. Some online criminal justice certificate programs are graduate-level certificates that require the student to have a bachelor’s degree, while others are stand-alone programs.

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Financing Education

Just about everyone’s experience with financial aid begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The results of your FAFSA will determine what aid you are eligible for based on your ability to pay on your own and your need. Your FAFSA results are the basis for Pell Grants, Federal Work Study (in which students work in exchange for tuition), and federal student loans. While grants and work study do not need to be repaid, student loans, of course, do.

If these methods do not cover your tuition and/or living expenses, private loans through banks are available for students and their parents, but students taking out loans should think carefully about the investment they are making. Private loans typically have higher interest rates and stricter repayment terms than federal loans, so you should have a reasonable expectation that you will be able to make your payments.

Working adults should also look into tuition reimbursement plans from their employers. Many corporations and businesses offer programs to pay all or part of the costs of a higher degree, since better-educated employees means better-performing employees. Obviously, most of these programs require the degree to be directly related to the job, so don’t expect the paper products company you work for to finance your poetry MFA.

(check out: 50 Top College Scholarships for 2019)

Careers in Criminal Justice

There are plenty of career opportunities for those pursing the major Criminal Justice. Police officer may be the first position to come to mind, however, protecting and serving can translate to other titles like: parole officer, prison guard, detective, crime scene investigator or border patrol. Most people interested in these kinds of careers have strong analyzing and fact-finding skills. Other paths in the legal sector may include: attorney (defense, prosecutor  tax, corporate, real estate), clerk, paralegal, bailiff, court reporter. Another option is working within a government agency, such as homeland security or maybe conducting cyber security for public or private companies.

There are many jobs that benefit from a criminal justice degree, but not many that require it. A criminal justice degree is most likely to be required if you want to work as a private investigator, skip tracer, probation officer, parole officer, pretrial services officer, correctional treatment specialist, detective, criminal investigator, fish and game warden, or police officer. These are mainly bachelor of criminal justice jobs. You may be able to get one of these jobs with an associate degree, but it is much easier with a bachelor’s degree.

Other jobs that might appeal to someone with an education in criminal justice include crime analyst, criminal justice case manager, criminal records researcher, administrative assistant in the criminal justice field, and investigative analyst trainee.

Entry Level Criminal Justice Jobs

If you’ve just finished your schooling for criminal justice, there are many entry level criminal justice jobs that could appeal to you. For example, you usually don’t need experience to do data entry for criminal research or to work as an administrative assistant in the criminal justice field. These jobs allow you to get your feet wet doing criminal justice work once you have your degree, or perhaps even while you are still working on your schooling for criminal justice.

Entry-level jobs in criminal justice are great for those who have recently completed an associate degree. It is often possible to start working while pursuing a bachelor of criminal justice. Jobs like this allow you to start gaining income and experience while you continue your education.

Police Officer Jobs: Police officer is the number one career most people think of when they hear criminal justice. Police officers respond to calls, conduct traffic stops, obtain and execute warrants, observe suspects, and patrol their assigned areas looking for anything suspicious.

It is possible to get a job as a police officer without any college education at all. Many departments accept applicants who have made it through the police academy without any formal criminal justice training. However, in most cases, police officers who have a college degree earn more money than those who don’t.

Having a criminal justice degree—especially a bachelor’s degree or higher—opens up career opportunities that would otherwise not be available. Many larger municipalities, as well as state and federal government agencies, require officers to possess a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

The median wage for police officers as of May 2018 was $61,380, with 80% of police officers and detectives earning somewhere between $36,550 and $106,090. The median wage varies based on region, as well as level of government. Police officers who work for higher levels of government tend to make more money than those at the lower levels.

Detective Jobs: A police detective gathers evidence for criminal cases and works to determine who committed the crime. Detectives usually work on one case from beginning to end until it is completed or dropped. They interview witnesses and suspects, dig up records, and examine motives. Most detectives specialize in a specific area, such as homicide. The median pay for a detective is $81,920.

Private Investigator Jobs: Private investigators and private detectives offer services such as searching for missing persons, performing background checks, and investigating legal and financial records. Most states require private investigators to be licensed. The median wage for a private detective or investigator is $50,090 per year.

Forensic Technician Jobs: Forensic technicians collect evidence at the crime scene or analyze the evidence in a lab. Most technicians work in either the crime scene or the lab, not both.

Duties performed by forensic science technicians at the crime scene include taking pictures of the crime scene, recording observations, making sketches, collecting evidence, analyzing the scene, and cataloging the evidence.

Duties in the lab include performing tests on evidence, consulting with experts in various fields, obtaining DNA test results, and searching for links between the evidence and the suspects.

Forensic technicians earn a median salary of around $58,230 per year.

Parole and Probation Officer Jobs: Parole officers and probation officers serve similar, but different, roles. Probation officers work with people who have been placed on probation to help keep them from ending up in prison. Parole officers, on the other hand, work with people who have been in prison and have been released, to help keep them from going back to prison.

A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, social work, or behavioral sciences is usually required to work as a parole officer or probation officer. The median salary is around $53,020 per year.

Fish and Game Warden Jobs: Fish and game wardens patrol their assigned areas looking for people who are violating laws related to hunting, fishing, and trapping. They also investigate reports of property damage caused by wildlife. Fish and game wardens earn a median wage of $56,410.

Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Professor Jobs: Another job that requires a degree in criminal justice is teaching criminal justice. College professors are needed to teach the next generation of law enforcement and criminal justice students. Trade schools and state governments also employ criminal justice teachers. The average wage is $72,090 to $73,140 for college professors, $57,570 for teachers working in trade or technical schools, and $51,550 for government employees.

Correctional Officer Jobs: Correctional officers watch over people who are awaiting trial or who have been convicted and are serving time in prison. They transport inmates from one location to another, keep order within the prison, search for and confiscate prohibited items, and conduct inspections to keep the prison facility safe.

In most cases, correctional officers need only to attend a training program in order to be considered. A degree is not normally required unless the job is in a federal prison. Correctional officers earn a median wage of $44,400 per year.

Bailiff Jobs: A bailiff earns about the same amount as a corrections officer. The bailiff provides courtroom security. Duties include enforcing the rules of the courtroom, guarding the jury, handling documents and evidence, and assisting the judge. Most bailiffs work in state and local government.

Security Guard and Gaming Surveillance Officer Jobs: Security guards don’t usually need a college degree, but this is a good job for someone who has a criminal justice degree and is unable to find a job available that makes better use of their degree. Security guards and surveillance officers protect their employers’ property by monitoring closed-circuit TVs and alarms installed on the property. Security guards earn a median salary of $28,530 per year.

Are There Criminal Justice Jobs Near Me?

There are criminal justice jobs everywhere. Even the smallest town usually has at least one police officer. Every county has a jail, a court system, and at least a handful of criminals who need to be kept in line. No matter where you live, there is always a need for people to provide police protection and to keep the criminal justice system operating smoothly.

Criminal Justice Salary and Rates Per Hour

How much a person with a criminal justice degree makes varies depending on the job. For example, on average, a police officer earns a higher salary than a private detective. Degree level is also a consideration. If you have a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice, your salary is likely to be higher than it would be if you only had an associate degree. This is certainly the case if you work in a department that offers an education bonus to employees who hold college degrees.

Private Detective and Probation Officer Salary: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for a private detective with a criminal justice degree, salary is around $50,090 per year, which works out to $24.08 per hour. Probation officers are usually required to have a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice. Salary for this occupation is a median of $53,020 per year or $25.49 per hour.

Police Officer Salary: Becoming a police officer is a good choice if you want a higher criminal justice salary. Per hour, police officers make a median rate of $30.47. That’s around $63,380 per year. Education requirements for police officers vary greatly from one department to another. For some departments, the only training required is the completion of a police academy program. Others require a criminal justice degree. The salary is usually higher for positions that require a degree.

So how much does someone with a criminal justice degree make? In most cases, you can expect to earn somewhere between $50,000 and $63,000 per year with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

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