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

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law and criminal justice

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 who help keep things running smoothly. Thesee include:

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  • prison guards
  • administrators
  • court reporters

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. Conventional options, such as police and lawyer, are 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.

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, higher education is a path to higher status and salary.

Why Study Criminal Justice?

Is a criminal justice degree worth it? Is a criminology degree useful? 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 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. 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 increses the number and type of opportunities available. It also increases 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 is really important.. The accreditation process ensures that schools meet certain minimum quality standards. This assures students that they will receive a quality education as they pursue their bachelor’s in criminal justice or criminology.

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.

The best criminal justice schools are regionally accredited and have specialized criminal justice accreditation. The Academy of criminal justice Sciences (ACJS) offers program-level accreditation for criminal justice colleges. Although this accreditation is nice to have, it’s 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 bachelor’s in criminology or a criminal justice certificate, protect yourself. Choose a regionally-accredited college of criminology and criminal justice.

Types of Criminal Justice Degrees

AS: An associate degree can be earned in around two years through a community college or college. The associate can open the door to many career paths, including:

  • police officers
  • corrections officers
  • legal assistants
  • evidence technician.

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

BS: The bachelor of science degree is a 4-year degree earned through a college or university. Many municipalities require a bachelor’s degree for police and parole officers. 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. This is 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. Just 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 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. Why? 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. This ensures that their programs are compatible. It also facilitates a smooth transition from the associate program 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
  • 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’s degree from Purdue University Global. These programs are usually designed for 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. Many police departments, as well as organizations such as the FBI, require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. An online criminal justice bachelor’s degree fulfills this requirement just the same as a degree earned on campus the traditional way.

Job opportunities for those with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice include:

  • inspector general criminal investigator at the CIA
  • SMI case manager
  • criminal justice specialist
  • CDCA caseworker
  • criminal justice system specialist
  • jail and criminal justice mental health services manager
  • legal assistant
  • parole/probation officer
  • substance use disorder case manager
  • 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 career ladder. 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
  • criminal justice adjunct

Doctoral Degree in Criminal Justice

Earning your doctoral degree opens up even more career opportunities and 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
  • 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 earn an associate’s degree in criminal justice online 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
  • prison guard

However, this 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 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 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
  • 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.

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 or all of the tuition and fees. This 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

Is there 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
  • 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. They 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 and federal student loans. While grants and work-study do not need to be repaid, student loans 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. Be sure 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. Why? Better-educated employees mean better-performing employees. Obviously, most of these programs require the degree to be directly related to the job.

(check out: 50 Top College Scholarships)

Careers in Criminal Justice

There are plenty of career opportunities if you’re pursuing a major in Criminal Justice. A 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
  • 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 in 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:

  • private investigator
  • skip tracer
  • probation officer
  • parole officer
  • pretrial services officer
  • correctional treatment specialist
  • detective
  • criminal investigator
  • fish and game warden
  • 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
  • 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 available. For example, you usually don’t need the 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.

Entry-level jobs in criminal justice are great for those who have 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: A police officer is the number one career most people think of when they hear about criminal justice. Police officers:

  • respond to calls
  • conduct traffic stops
  • obtain and execute warrants
  • observe suspects
  • 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 have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

The median wage for police officers as of May 2020 was $61,380. 80% of police officers and detectives earn 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • cataloging evidence

Duties in the lab include:

  • performing tests on evidence
  • consulting with experts in various fields
  • obtaining DNA test results
  • 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 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
  • 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
  • $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 in the prison
  • search for and confiscate prohibited items
  • conduct inspections to keep the prison facility safe.

In most cases, correctional officers need only to attend a training program to be considered. A degree is not normally required unless the job is in 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
  • assisting the judge

Most bailiffs work in state and local governments.

Security Guard and Gaming Surveillance Officer Jobs: Security guards don’t usually need a college degree. However, this is a good job for someone who has a criminal justice degree and is unable to find a job 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, a private detective with a criminal justice degree makes around $50,090 per year. This is about $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.

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Aya Andrews


Aya Andrews is a passionate educator and mother of two, with a diverse background that has shaped her approach to teaching and learning. Born in Metro Manila, she now calls San Diego home and is proud to be a Filipino-American. Aya earned her Masters degree in Education from San Diego State University, where she focused on developing innovative teaching methods to engage and inspire students.

Prior to her work in education, Aya spent several years as a continuing education consultant for KPMG, where she honed her skills in project management and client relations. She brings this same level of professionalism and expertise to her work as an educator, where she is committed to helping each of her students achieve their full potential.

In addition to her work as an educator, Aya is a devoted mother who is passionate about creating a nurturing and supportive home environment for her children. She is an active member of her community, volunteering her time and resources to support local schools and organizations. Aya is also an avid traveler, and loves to explore new cultures and cuisines with her family.

With a deep commitment to education and a passion for helping others succeed, Aya is a true inspiration to those around her. Her dedication to her craft, her community, and her family is a testament to her unwavering commitment to excellence in all aspects of her life.

Find your perfect value college is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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