What is Criminal Justice?
Criminal justice career positions run the gamut. These jobs involve protecting the public, whether from violent or white-collar crime. Those in the criminal justice field may work as police officers – with the opportunity to proceed up the ranks, from beat cop to detective to chief of police –to corrections officers, cyber security specialists, and parole and probation officers. They may work for the federal government as an FBI, DEA, or CIA agent.
Besides working in law enforcement, students interested in a law career or in pursuing a graduate degree may decide to major in criminal justice. Because jobs in the field of criminal justice are generally in public service, strong benefits packages accompany them. Along with excellent retirement and healthcare plans, there is job stability. Additionally, since each state has its own rules for police training and action as well as security requirements, along with many types of associated positions, it makes sense to attend a school in the state in which you would like to start your career. An Alabama school will offer the most locally useful degrees for those who wish to get into the law enforcement field in Alabama.
For example, while Alabama is a state in which police officers do not need a college degree – although they must complete at least 480 hours of police academy training as required by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission – recruitment salaries are higher for those with a degree than for candidates with only a high school diploma or GED. And the more education they have, the higher on the career track a criminal justice professional may rise.
Criminal Justice Education in Alabama
Associate Degree in Criminal Justice (AS)
After earning this two-year degree, you will be eligible for many entry-level positions. In most states, police departments will hire those with an criminal justice associate degree, although further on-the-job training is necessary. Positions such as corrections officer, probation officer, and campus security guard require only an associate degree. Outside of law enforcement agencies, in the wider criminal justice system, this degree can help someone interested in law to obtain a job as a paralegal, who can then find work in a criminal defense attorney’s practice.
Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice (BS)
A graduate with a criminal justice bachelor’s degree is prepared to work in various areas of law enforcement, but those are just some of the available jobs for those who have this level of education. Although some local police departments and correctional facilities do not require a bachelor’s degree, candidates with such credentials are certainly more attractive. Those desiring promotion to higher ranks, such as detective or homicide investigator, must have a college degree. Other potential positions include employment with federal agencies such as the FBI or Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Jobs such as bailiff, court clerk, court administrator, family law mediator, and criminal law supervisor are available in the local, county, state and federal court systems. Work in the private sector includes the rapidly growing security field.
And don’t forget that a bachelor’s degree, any bachelor’s degree, can be used as an entry-level education for a myriad of other positions if you decide not to go into law enforcement or criminal justice after all.
Master's Degree in Criminal Justice (MS or MC)
Those seeking top positions in the criminal justice field should consider earning a master’s degree. This credential can help fast-track careers and increase income. It’s also a prerequisite for certain positions in federal agencies. In many instances, public employers and sometimes private employers will pay a candidate’s tuition, though government positions may provide less access to this than most. Jobs that either require a master’s degree or for which such a degree is preferred include cyber security investigator, federal marshal, prison warden, intelligence analyst, emergency management director, sheriff, white-collar crime investigator, and victim advocate. Teaching other law enforcement personnel also requires a master’s degree, as you cannot teach at the college level without one in most cases.
Many people opt to earn an MBA in criminal justice in two years. However, some schools offer a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree program, which can be completed in five years. Those considering a business career in security management may benefit from a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) rather than a master’s in criminal justice degree. The focus of the program is the primary difference. An MBA offers less specificity but more flexibility in career options because of its focus on business concepts.
PhD Degree in Criminal Justice (PhD)
Very few positions in criminal justice require a PhD or doctorate. Some individuals may decide to pursue a career as defense attorneys, which requires earning a JD, or juris doctorate. However, those wishing to teach at a higher-level academic institution may want to earn a PhD so that they will be eligible for tenure and other benefits and promotions, like department head. The same holds true for those aiming for lead researcher positions in academia, government, or private companies. A doctorate confers authority in its field, and it necessary for some of the top roles in criminology and justice. It can take between four to eight years to earn a doctorate.
Become a Criminal Justice Professional in Alabama
The field of criminal justice in Alabama provides many career opportunities. There are 417 law enforcement agencies in the state, employing nearly 12,000 police officers. Each of its 67 counties has its own Sheriff’s Department, in addition to the many city and municipal police departments. In 2015, 12 state law enforcement agencies merged to form the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA). These agencies included the state’s Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Investigation, Department of Public Safety, and Office of Prosecution Services Computer Forensics Lab. Also merged into ALEA were forestry commission investigations, agricultural and industry investigations, and the Fusion Center.
State law enforcement agencies operating independently of the ALEA include:
- Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
- Alabama Department of Corrections
- Alabama Department of Homeland Security
- Alabama Department of Public Safety
- Alabama Highway Patrol
The state also sits on the Gulf of Mexico, an international maritime border, making it a prime location for illegal trafficking of all kinds.
Federal law enforcement agencies in the state include:
- Alabama Homeland Security Office - Montgomery
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery, Redstone Arsenal
- Customs and Border Protection – Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile
- Drug Enforcement Agency - Birmingham, Mobile
- Federal Bureau of Investigation – Birmingham
- U.S. Marshal’s Offices – Birmingham, Dothan, Huntsville, Montgomery, Opelika
- U.S. Secret Service – Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery
Alabama’s Department of Corrections, headquartered in Montgomery, is a medium-sized correctional system with 26,000 inmates and 3,400 employees. In addition, there are three federal prisons in the state and two federal prison camps. The Talladega Federal Correctional Institute is a medium-security facility, while the rest are low or minimum-security prisons. There are approximately 2,500 inmates housed in these institutions. The Alabama Department of Youth Services oversees 12 juvenile detention centers throughout the state. Most of these facilities are small, with the largest having a capacity of 95 youth.
The state’s public and private colleges and universities also employ their own police or have departments of public safety. This includes many community colleges.
Students considering a career in law enforcement should have some idea of the type of work they are seeking and their ultimate goals. Keep in mind that some degrees and certifications are more applicable to a wider range of careers than others. Research those that provide the most opportunity for your future endeavors.
Each of these agencies (local, state, and federal) that operate within Alabama has their own rules for entry and employment. For those who are looking for entry into general criminal justice, a degree is a good start. It will provide you with an overview of the criminal justice system in American and how it was developed, as well as the system within Alabama and how it might differ from the rest of the country. For those who are looking for entry into a specific agency within the State of Alabama, you should check with that agencies website and find their requirements for hiring. It would be impractical to list them all here as each one can be different from the others.
Top College Programs in Alabama for Criminal Justice
- Troy University:
With a student body of over 16,000 and a student-teacher ratio of 31 to 1, Troy University offers a total of four criminal justice or safety studies degree programs. As well as a major in criminal justice and master’s degree programs, Troy University offers minors in homeland security, digital forensics, legal studies, and cyber security. Certificates are also available. When it comes to professional backgrounds, their faculty is second to none.
- The University of Alabama:
Located in Tuscaloosa, this university’s criminal justice program is among the top 10% in the nation. Its Department of Criminal Justice offers a BA degree in criminal justice along with minors in criminal justice, cyber criminology, and sociology. Approximately 38,000 students attend UA each year. In 2019, the school granted 229 criminal justice or safety studies degrees, including 16 master’s degrees.
- Athens State University:
This small public university offers a BS degree in criminal justice. ASU calls itself a “tradition-rich university for non-traditional students”. Many students are working adults in need of flexible scheduling, and course schedules are designed with these students in mind. In-person classes include evening and weekend courses, and there are many online and hybrid opportunities. In 2019, 12 students received degrees in criminal justice or safety studies.
- Samford University:
This private university, located in Birmingham, has a student body of about 5,600 and a student-to-teacher ratio of just 15 to 1. It offers a BS degree in criminal justice with courses including Corrections in America, Criminal Procedure and Evidence, Juvenile Delinquency, Police Operations, and Race and Ethnic Relations.
Careers for Criminal Justice Graduates
- Police Officer:
The duties of a police officer include responding to emergencies, patrolling areas to keep the peace and search for any criminal activity, making arrests, conducting traffic stops, crowd control, filing reports, and testifying in court. Duties will vary according to the size of the police department. In larger departments, officers are often assigned to more specific rather than general duties.
- Corrections Officer:
A corrections officer works in a prison or jail. Duties include inmate supervision, enforcing facility rules, prisoner transportation, monitoring and reporting, searching for contraband, and breaking up fights between inmates.
- Probation Officer:
These officers usually work with non-violent or first-time offenders. They try to deter these individuals from further criminal activity. Duties include recommending sentence conditions to judges after interviewing the offender, meeting with probationers regularly to chart their progress and ensure they meet the terms of their probation, and perform drug testing.
- Parole Officer:
This job entails helping paroled inmates to transition back into the community. Duties include meeting with inmates prior to release and creating parole plans, finding accommodations and work for the parolee, conducting home visits, overseeing drug and alcohol tests, and attending court hearings.
- Private Investigator:
Also known as a private detective, this job entails finding information needed by a client. They can conduct surveillance, perform backgrounds checks, and gather evidence to provide to law enforcement. However, they are not law enforcement officers. Typically, they investigate potential insurance fraud, family law and infidelity issues, and business practices.
- Crime Scene Investigator:
It is the role of the CSI to collect all evidence relating to a crime scene. This may include fingerprints and trace DNA evidence, physical evidence such as hair and footprints, and weapons. Those who do run test on evidence may be crime scene technicians or lab workers, but the crime scene investigators or technicians will write reports on the findings. They may also provide court testimony.
- Crime Prevention Specialist:
This career involves working with police departments, along with members of a community, to identify and prevent crime. Certification is necessary for this position. These specialists develop programs targeted at youth to deter crime and violence and create emergency response measures. They also plan strategies for protecting buildings and other physical structures.
- ATF/DoD/DEA/FBI/CIA/NSA Agent:
These agents work for the federal government in various capacities and agencies across the criminal justice spectrum. They require that their employees have US citizenship and there are age requirements for new hires. Those employed by these agencies will undergo a thorough background check and security clearance as well as comprehensive medical and fitness testing.
Detectives are called in to investigate more serious crimes. In large law enforcement agencies, different departments specialize in working on particular crimes such as robbery, organized crime, or murder. Their work encompasses interviewing suspects and witnesses, collecting evidence, searching databases and files, preparing reports, and testifying in court. As law enforcement officers, they can make arrests and carry weapons.
- State Trooper/State Highway Patrol:
State troopers and highway patrol officers primarily enforce state motor vehicle laws. As the name implies, they most often work on major state or federal highways. They may also respond to emergency calls and perform many other law enforcement duties.
- Criminal Justice Professor :
This position requires a master’s or a doctorate. Professors teach criminal justice classes and seminars at colleges and universities. Besides teaching, duties include grading assignments, meeting with students, conducting research, and preparing course materials.