What Can You Do with a Criminal Justice Degree in California?

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What is Criminal Justice?


Working in criminal justice can be an unparalleled way to use one’s career to help protect communities and give back. Generally, jobs in both the public and private sector that seek to identify criminals and prosecute them, achieving justice for community members who have been wronged by criminals’ actions, will be considered part of the criminal justice system. General areas that tend to come to mind when criminal justice careers are discussed include working for the law enforcement administration by becoming a police officer, working to help prevent juvenile crime, and working in prisons as correctional officers. Criminal justice professionals can also play an important role in not only bringing criminals to justice but also rehabilitating individuals so that they can learn from past mistakes and become positive, contributing members of society going forward. Indeed, the criminal justice system contains a wide breadth of careers and there is bound to be a career for anyone interested in dedicating their lives to this area.

Additionally, criminal justice professionals may find regional differences in the types of cases that they must face every day. This is likely since every state’s economy is composed of different leading sectors, which may lead to different types of individuals working in the state and committing different types of crimes. In California, the top business industry is real estate leasing and rental, which brings in an annual revenue of $504 billion and is the largest such industry in all of the United States. In this case, criminal justice professionals may need to deal with cases like violent altercations that were triggered by property line disputes, squatters, rental property defacement, and potentially non-payment of rent or failing to uphold a lease. The second largest industry in California is business and professional services, which brings in nearly $400 billion in revenue each year throughout the state. In this field, criminal justice professionals in California may be faced with large caseloads involving white-collar crime, fraud, workplace discrimination, and sexual harassment. The third-largest industry in California is manufacturing, which has an annual revenue of around $320 billion. In this area, law enforcement may need to be trained to deal with issues like the lack of safety measures in place in manufacturing plants, wage disputes, union disputes, and workplace injury. As such, those who seek to obtain a criminal justice degree in California must be trained in a variety of criminological theories, sociological paradigms, and theoretical studies to be prepared to handle the large mix of potential case types they would face when working in this state.


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Criminal Justice Education in California


A criminal justice professional’s daily work will differ substantially depending on the particular role that they are seeking. In general, people seeking employment in this field will find work in a law enforcement agency, taking on jobs like police officers or criminal profilers, work for the legal system as a lawyer or correctional officer, or even work in something closer to a medical profession as a forensic specialist. For example, if a student graduates into a job within a law enforcement agency, their jobs would include work like recording evidence, managing case notes, patrolling different jurisdictions assigned to them to ensure that communities remain safe, keeping suspects under surveillance, as well as arresting and prosecuting criminals. Individuals working as law enforcement personnel need to remain physically fit so that they can safely detain or apprehend suspicious individuals. In comparison, legal defense and prosecution positions may involve more written work, with lawyers poring through precedent cases to put forward the best argument.

Associate Degree in Criminal Justice (AS)

Undertaking a program offering an associate degree in criminal justice is a great way to become a criminal justice professional. Not only will earning an associate degree in criminal justice provide students with core foundational knowledge in complex areas of study like criminological theories, but students will also be able to undertake many important jobs in the field immediately after graduation. Students with an associate degree will be eligible for the majority of entry-level positions within the field, which includes attaining job titles like paralegal, parole officer, forensic science technician, correctional officer, and firefighter. Many of these positions are integral to keeping communities safe, and students will also benefit from the fact that they can jumpstart their criminal justice careers with only two years of post-secondary education. They will be able to start earning salaries much sooner and can apply the coursework from their associate degree toward completing further degrees in areas like criminology, criminal psychology, and law later on. According to Payscale, the average holder of an associate degree in criminal justice earns $47,000 a year, though one’s actual salary will depend on one’s chosen profession and experience.

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Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice (BS)

Undertaking a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field, like criminology or criminal psychology, will allow a student to be competitive for entry-level jobs in almost every area of the field. Specifically, a bachelor’s degree will open up the opportunity for entering more specialized criminal justice career paths. An example would be becoming an FBI agent, which requires applicants to have a bachelor’s degree from a US-accredited college or university, be a US citizen, and have at least two years of work experience at the post-bachelor’s degree level. Compared to associate degree holders, those with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice will likely be more competitive for higher-paying entry-level roles in the field. Earning power and career fulfillment can be further enhanced through on-the-job promotions based on years of experience and excellent performance. The median annual salary of bachelor’s degree holders in the field will exceed that of associate degree holders. For instance, FBI agents earn a median annual salary of around $64,000, while criminal investigators earn $67,200 and homicide detectives earn $74,400.

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Master's Degree in Criminal Justice (MS or MC)

Most criminal justice careers will not require a master’s degree in the field or an MBA to be eligible for the position, though completing graduate school can certainly help accelerate one’s career. Students who hold master’s degrees in a criminal justice field will find themselves eligible for more managerial and supervisory roles in the field. They will tend to achieve job titles like correctional officer supervisor, police and detective supervisor, criminologist, as well as district attorney. These roles will tend to focus more on managing teams of criminal justice professionals or working in positions with more responsibilities. A particular draw for completing a master’s degree in criminal justice is the ability to later transition to higher-level administrative roles in local, state, and federal government agencies, which will help set the standards and preside over many different criminal justice-related and law enforcement organizations. According to Payscale, the average holder of a master’s degree in a criminal justice field will earn $66,000 per year.

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PhD Degree in Criminal Justice (PhD)

Very few criminal justice positions serving communities on the ground will require its workforce to hold a PhD or a doctorate, but there are a few exceptions. To become a lawyer focused on issue areas like public defense or criminal prosecution, one must only complete their Juris Doctor or JD degree and pass the bar exam. However, if someone is interested in becoming a professor who teaches in any of the criminal justice fields and advancing in their teaching career, it’s important that they first complete their PhD in the field. Those who complete their doctorate in a criminal justice-related field can still choose to take on job titles available to those with fewer years of post-secondary education, such as forensic scientists and criminal psychologists. They will likely be staffed on more complex cases and begin with higher salaries than their counterparts. According to Payscale, the average PhD holder in the criminal justice field will earn about $85,000 per year.

Become a Criminal Justice Professional in California


Educational pathways in criminal justice will differ depending on the type of career that a student hopes to build in California post-graduation. Some careers, like becoming a public defender, will require many different types of certifications and qualifications. This would include receiving a JD from an accredited university, passing the bar exam to become a full-fledged lawyer, and potentially even earning a Master of Laws (LLM) degree later down the road for further career advancement. Later on, lawyers can also go on to find employment as judges and magistrates. Other careers, like becoming a crime scene investigator, require candidates to have at least an associate degree and a CSI certificate from a community college. Becoming a forensic scientist usually requires at least a bachelor’s degree in a natural science like biology or chemistry.

However, the majority of students who graduate from criminal justice programs in California will choose to pursue careers related to protective services. For those interested in becoming a police officer or a correctional officer, the educational requirements include completing an academy program, which also includes physical training to ensure that the candidate can perform the tasks required of the job. To become a paralegal or legal assistant, candidates can choose to undertake a certificate program. Criminal investigators can join the field with only an associate degree, but probation officers will need to hold at least a bachelor’s degree. As such, educational and certification requirements will vary dramatically depending on the criminal justice field one is interested in. While most people who work in protective services will be hired by a government organization, supportive and particularly many legal roles are also available through private firms.

Careers for Criminal Justice Graduates


  • Forensic Accountant:
    Forensic accountants are certified public accountants that help detail review financial documents to find evidence of any financial dealings that can be used as legal evidence in court cases. Common areas that forensic accountants work in include insurance and personal injury cases.
  • K9 Officer:
    A K9 team is a special group of officers and police dogs who are trained to undertake important tasks like drug detection, explosives identification, and cadaver location. The K9 officer is usually the police dog’s handler, and the team is often tasked with responding to important emergency calls.
  • Homeland Security Professional:
    Homeland security professionals create, implement, and monitor the success of emergency preparedness programs, which are put in place to mitigate the negative societal effects of natural disasters, border violations, and potentially even terrorist attacks.
  • State Trooper:
    State troopers are a subset of police who focus on enforcing laws on local and state roads. They will help motorists in the advent of car accidents or any motor vehicle troubles.
  • Parole Officer:
    Prison inmates may be conditionally released from prison early on parole but must remain under the supervision of parole officers and maintain good behavior. Parole officers will check in on parolees and assist them in their transition back into society, helping them with tasks like finding employment and avoiding continued substance abuse. If parolees do not perform well, parole officers may decide whether to put them back into prison.
  • Private Investigator:
    Private investigators are employed by a client who seeks to search for information about legal, financial, and personal matters. Different case types include verifying a person of interest’s identity, finding missing individuals, investigating computer crimes, and supporting divorce cases.
  • Crime Scene Investigator:
    Crime scene investigators are often employed by state or federal law enforcement teams and are in charge of extracting and documenting any possible pieces of evidence left behind at crime scenes. This can include lifting and collecting fingerprints and documenting trace DNA at crime scenes.
  • Criminal Justice Professor:
    Criminal justice professors are individuals, usually with a doctorate in the field or extensive field experience, who are employed by institutions of higher learning to teach students about the field of criminal justice. Job duties include lesson planning, presenting lectures, grading assignments, as well as conducting research on specific criminal justice topic areas.

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