Criminal Justice Degree Requirements & Programs Guide

Associate, Bachelor's & Master's Degree in Criminal Justice & Law Options & Salary

Everyone wants to make a difference with their life. A career in criminal justice and law gives an individual constant opportunities to make a difference in the lives of their communities. Whether you choose to do so by becoming a police officer, customs agent, dispatcher, forensics/laboratory technician, investigator, or a special agent with the FBI or CIA; a degree in criminal justice or law might be the perfect place for you to start.

Without those who uphold the laws, society could not exist. A person with a career in the criminal justice and law field may perform various duties, but it all comes down to upholding the law or supporting those who do so, through their particular field. Police officers arrest those who break the law, criminal defense lawyers represent those charged with a crime in court, corrections officers oversee those who are convicted of breaking the law, while parole officers monitor those released before the end of their sentences. All of these people are vital elements in keeping society safe, and at its core, that is what a career in criminal justice and law entails.

Criminal Justice & Law Degrees & Career Paths


Components of A Successful Career In "Criminal Justice & Law"

A successful career in criminal justice and law involves upholding the law, serving, protecting, and bettering the life of the community in some way. That means not only protecting the community from those who break the law, but trying to rehabilitate certain offenders so they may eventually become productive members of society. Because the field of criminal justice and law is so varied, the components of a successful career depend on the job in question, but the bottom line is always contributing to the well-being of the community in question and behaving in an honorable way.

How to Earn a Degree in Criminal Justice & Law

Typical Requirements

There are no specific requirements for entry into a criminal justice/law program. However, you should be aware of the requirements for entry into an associate or bachelor program in general. Requirements can include: high school transcripts, application fees, letters of recommendation, and even an interview in some programs. For higher level law degrees, you may need to first finish a bachelors in order to gain admittance to a program.

Typical Certifications Needed

The professional certifications needed depends on the field the student goes into. For example, a career as a police officer depends on graduating from police academy training, while a lawyer must pass the bar exam after graduation in order to practice. In most criminal justice fields, the candidate must receive a variety of certifications related to the job, possibly including CPR and first aid.

Academic Standards

The academic standards for entry into Criminal Justice or Law degrees are much the same as any other college program. You usually need to have taken the ACT or SAT. Each institution will have their own minimum requirements for scores and achievement on these exams. Always be sure to check requirements before applying so that you don’t waste your time.

Academic standards don’t stop once you get into a college or university. Most higher education institutions require you to maintain a certain grade point average (GPA) in order to remain in the program. If you can’t maintain this level of achievement you can be put on academic probation, leading to academic suspension if you do not improve.

Exam and Experience Needed for CJUS Majors

criminal_justice_law_experience A person with a prior criminal record may have difficulty finding work in certain criminal justice fields. That certainly does not mean a career in criminal justice is not possible for previous offenders, but if you have a felony or drug charge against you, you are likely disqualified. A DUI or misdemeanor, if it was some time ago and you have not had any issues with the law since, may not prove disqualifying.

Important Questions to Ask

How long does a CJUS Program take?

An online degree usually includes the same number of credit hours as it’s on-campus counterpart. That means it should take you about 4 years to finish an online degree. However, if you are taking the degree online because of time constraints or work and family obligations, you may not be able to attend full-time and, therefore, it could take up to 6-8 years to attain your degree.

How much does a degree in Criminal Justice cost?

criminal_justice_law_cost The cost will depend on several factors. Are you pursuing your degree online or in a traditional setting? If you attend your courses on campus, you will also need to pay for food, room and board, and other fees. This can increase the cost of your education significantly unless you have a plan in place to keep these costs low. If you attend a public, state school, it will depend on whether or not you are a resident. In-state students usually pay much lower rates than out-of-state students. However, this can be overcome by attending classes online, as most institutions charge in-state rates for all online courses. Either way, you need to research the costs for each program you are considering applying to, as each institution will have their own rates.

Does the school have the criminal justice major(s) you’re considering?

Criminal justice and law is a wide-ranging field. If you have a specific career you are hoping to enter, make sure the school either offers a major in that field or a variety of classes pertaining to your field of interest. You may be able to find employment information for graduating students, will can show you how many students were able to enter the field you’re looking at upon graduation.

How many students graduate “on time,” in four years?

criminal_justice_law_graduate The graduation rate can tell you a great deal about a school. Avoid schools with low four-year graduation rates. That may mean students are not receiving the best academic support, or there are issues with the faculty or affordability. While it is just one standard for you to investigate, it can be indicative of the overall quality of the school and also of your future experience.

What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How is it regarded in the field?

Accreditation is essential. Attending a school well-known in the field for its high quality criminal justice program not only gives you the best education of its type, but is a great asset once you begin looking for work. Fortunately, many respected schools in the world of criminal justice are top public colleges and universities, not the more expensive private institutions of higher learning.

Software, Technology & Skills Needed


While anyone in the criminal justice and law field will use technology, some fields in this career path are technology based. This includes those pursuing a degree in cybersecurity (a field focusing entirely on IT), forensics (a field focused on studying crime scene evidence), and other cyber-focused fields (including catching and prosecuting those engaged in child grooming and child pornography, which, in todays world, is usually done online).

Associate Degree

Those earning an associate degree in criminal justice may find employment as security guards, corrections officers, police identification and records officers, and other non-sworn law enforcement positions. They may find entry level work in local, state, and federal criminal justice agencies. When pursued full-time, an associate’s degree is completed within two years. When pursued on a part-time basis, most students receive their associate’s degree within four to five years.

Sample Courses for an associate’s degree:

  • Criminology
  • Constitutional Law
  • Court Systems and Practices
  • Juvenile Delinquency

If you are leaning more toward Law, you can earn a certificate in Paralegal studies or as a Legal Assistant. This will allow you to work with lawyers, both in their offices and in court, as a researcher and assistant in important legal matters.

Read More About Associate's Degrees

Bachelor Degree

Many local and state law enforcement agencies require a bachelor’s degree in order to become a police officer, and all the major federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, and ICE require a bachelor’s degree for employment consideration.

Sample Coursework for a bachelor’s degree:

  • Theory and Practices of Law Enforcement
  • Judicial Process
  • Judicial Process
  • Internships

Criminal Justice Bachelors Degree Concentrations: Homeland Security, Computer Security, Forensics, Cybersecurity, Crime Scene Investigation, Forensic Psychology, Juvenile Justice, Law Enforcement, Domestic and International Security, Criminal Justice Administration, Emergency Management, Crime and Criminal Behavior, and Crime Mapping and Data Analysis.

Read More About Bachelor's Degrees

Master Degree

A master’s degree in criminal justice is suitable for the criminal justice professional looking to advance his or her career to the next level. Earning a master’s degree helps you climb the career ladder, and broadens the type of work you may perform in your particular criminal justice field. When pursued full-time, it is possible to complete a master’s degree in 18 months to two years. Since many students can only work on their master’s degree on a part-time basis, it may take between three and four years to complete the degree.

Sample Coursework for a master’s degree:

  • Probation and Court Services
  • Crime Analysis
  • Leadership and Executive Management
  • Forensic Psychology

Criminal Justice Masters Degree Concentrations: Criminology, Cybercrime/Cybersecurity, Cybercrime Investigation, Strategic Management, Organizational Leadership and Change Management, Applied Business Management, Finance, Business Intelligence, Fraud Management, Information Technology, Project Management, Strategic Innovation, Homeland Security, Forensic Technology, Corrections, Critical Infrastructure and Key Resources, and more.

The cost of your degree depends on the school. An online course of study is generally less expensive than a traditional college, since you must generally pay for room and board as well as tuition. You can earn an associate’s degree at a community college. A public college or university, if you are a state resident, is less expensive than a private college or university.

If you want to earn a higher-level law degree, there are many options including: Juris Doctor (J.D.), Master of Laws (LL.M.), Master of Studies in Law (M.S.L.), and Doctor of the Science of Law (J.S.D.).

Read More About Master's Degrees

Earning Potential and Career Salaries for Criminal Justice Major Graduates

  • Cyber Security Degrees - Any entity online is vulnerable to cyber hacking. Cyber security experts work in information technology and are in great demand throughout virtually every industry and government agency. The demand is expected to grow by 18% through 2024, according to the BLS. The greatest number of job openings is for those with a bachelor’s degree in this field. Graduates can earn between $100,000 and $210,000 annually.
  • Emergency Management Degrees – Emergency managers plan or direct the response to crises, as well as develop plans and procedures for dealing with natural and manmade disasters. Emergency managers are employed by government agencies on the local, state, and federal level, as well as by hospitals, universities, and utilities. In 2017, the median annual pay for an emergency management director was $72,760.
  • Fire Science Degrees – Fire science encompasses all aspects of fire. Those planning firefighting careers should pursue this degree, which involves not just firefighting, but prevention, investigation, management, and fire behavior. The 2017 median annual pay for firefighters was $49,080.
  • Forensic Science Degrees – Forensic scientists search for truth in legal proceedings. They use their expertise not only in criminal investigations, but also in civil matters. They collect and analyze evidence during their investigations. Some forensic scientists work strictly in the laboratory, analyzing evidence received from police investigators and the like. The 2017 annual median salary for a forensic science technician was $57,850.
  • Homeland Security Degrees – Terrorism is now an unfortunate part of life, and those with degrees in homeland security are employed by various government agencies in counterterrorism, intelligence analysis, and law enforcement roles. There is also a demand in the private sector for those in this field. The average median salary as of 2017, is $57,015
  • Law Degrees - Becoming a lawyer means earning a Juris Doctor (JD), which is a three-year degree that is completable on a part-time basis in six years. While some lawyers may run a general practice, most attorneys focus on specific fields, such as criminal, corporate, civil litigation, employment, immigration, bankruptcy, finance and securities, intellectual property, mergers and acquisition, environmental, matrimonial, and a host of other types of law. Lawyers may work in law firms, corporations, non-profits, and governments at every level. Lawyers must pass state bar examinations to practice in that state. Annual salary depends on the type of practice, with corporate lawyers making more than those practicing other types of law.
  • Paralegal Degrees – Paralegals perform a variety of tasks, including legal research, interviewing clients, legal document drafting, running a law office and other jobs based on the kind of law their employer practices. In some areas, such as real estate, paralegals may perform certain legal services. While the average paralegal earns $37,334 as of 2018, those working in larger cities or in specific legal fields may earn much more.

Criminal Justice & Law Salaries by Occupation

  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent – Some CIA agents are indeed spies, although their work is not as glamorous as it appears in movies and on TV. Most CIA agents collect and analyze foreign intelligence to assist national security experts in making decisions. Only the cream of the crop are hired as CIA agents, and the background reports required for such jobs is exhaustive. The average median salary for a CIA agent as of 2018 is $88,000, but yes, these government salaries are somewhat shrouded in secrecy, just like the employees.
  • Corrections officer – Corrections officers work in jails and prisons, and are responsible for the care, custody, and control of inmates. They may also transport inmates going to other correctional institutions or to court appearances. Other duties include inspecting facilities for contraband and screening visitors and incoming mail. Corrections officers with more training may aid in the rehabilitation of inmates. The 2017 annual median salary is $43,510.
  • Crime scene investigator – This job entails a law enforcement officer charged with collecting, documenting, and preserving evidence at crime scenes. Such evidence may include DNA, fingerprints, weapons, and blood. They must ensure the crime scene is not contaminated and that unauthorized persons do not have access to it. CSIs are often called into court to testify. The 2017 median annual salary is $83,320.
  • Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent – The basic role of any DEA agent is keeping the U.S. free from illicit drugs and this job requires supreme dedication. Often, the DEA agent is placed in dangerous situations involving narcotics traffickers. Physical fitness is a critical part of the job, as the agent never knows what will happen on the job. DEA agents work in conjunction with other agencies, including ICE and the FBI. The 2018 annual median salary for a DEA agent is $57,015.
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent – FBI agents may work in specialized areas, such as laboratory services, or perform more general duties such as executing search warrants, making arrests, or testifying in court. The bottom line is the investigation of illegal activities, including terrorism, cybercrime, organized crime, white collar crime, violent crime, public corruption, and civil rights violations, and there are no “typical” days for such employees. The 2018 median annual salary for an FBI agent is $75,628.
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent – These agents enforce the country’s immigration laws. The job may include inspecting various types of facilities to ensure all workers are legal and removing illegal aliens from all sorts of situations. They are also involved in combatting child pornography, human trafficking, repatriation of cultural treasures from the U.S. to legal owners outside of the country, and terrorism prevention. The annual median salary for an ICE agent is $57,015
  • Police officer – Although police officers perform many duties, they are all working to keep the residents of the community in which they serve safe and maintain public order. They may patrol streets looking for traffic infractions or possible criminal activity, or investigate crimes ranging from burglary to murder. They apprehend those committing crimes or suspected of committing crimes. Police officers often coordinate efforts with other emergency personnel, such as firefighters and emergency medical services. The average median salary as of 2018 is $62,960, although it will vary greatly by location.
  • Private detective – A private detective, or private investigator, is hired by individuals or groups to perform private detective work. Attorneys often hire private detectives to work on either criminal or civil cases. Most private investigators specialize in some particular line of work, which may range between insurance investigation, matrimonial cases, and counter-surveillance. Corporate investigators focus on fraud prevention and detection and similar corporate crime matters. In 2017, the average median salary was $50,700.
  • Probation officer – Probation officers occupy a position between law enforcement and social work. They must ensure offenders comply with the terms of their probation, but they may also supply input to prosecutors and judges even before trial. In some states, probation officers carry firearms and have the ability to make arrests. The probation officer conducts in-depth interviews with offenders, focusing on their families, employment, education, health, and if they have substance abuse issues. In 2017, the median pay was $51,410 per year.
  • Secret Service agent – The U.S. Secret Service Agency exists to protect the president, vice-president, their families, and the president-elect and vice-president-elect and their families. Former presidents and their spouses receive Secret Service protection, as do children of former presidents until the age of 16. Visiting heads of state and government and their spouses also receive protection, as do official U.S. representatives performing certain missions abroad. The median Secret Service agent salary was $48,297 in 2018, but those working on active investigations in the field receive large bonuses and location pay also varies a great deal.
  • State trooper – These law enforcement personnel primarily patrol the major roadways of their respective states. They also serve as the de facto police department in rural areas that cannot maintain a police department of their own and protect the governor and other high-ranking state officials. They also conduct investigations involving major crimes such as drug and gun trafficking, as well as organized crime investigations. As of 2018, the median annual salary is $51,553, although it varies greatly by location.
  • U.S. Marshal – The U.S. marshals are the federal court’s enforcement arm. They are members of the country’s oldest law enforcement agency, in existence since Washington’s presidency. Their job involves capturing fugitives, prisoner transport, serving federal arrest warrants, and oversight of the Witness Protection Program. It is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation. As of 2018, the average median salary is $62,787.
  • U.S. Postal inspector – The U.S. Postal Service’s law enforcement division is the US Postal Inspection Service. Postal inspectors are sworn law enforcement officers who carry firearms and can make arrests. Inspectors generally investigate the many forms of mail fraud, mail theft, postal facility burglaries, and other crimes, as well as investigating any crimes depriving the U.S. Postal Service of revenue. As of 2018, the average median salary is $112,000.
Entry Level Annual Salary Mid-Career Annual Salary Late-Career Annual Salary
Police officer $43,500 $62,960 $87,278
FBI Agent $48,297 $75,628 $105,123
Secret Service agent $35,854 $48,297 $75,628
State trooper $36,000 $51,553 $81,000
US Marshal $45,371 $62,787 $82,680
US Postal Inspector $68,480 $112,000 $159,788

Since most of these are government jobs, employees receive health and retirement benefits, life insurance, annual leave, sick leave, and other benefits. With many of these positions, full retirement is available after 25 years of service.


Criminal justice and law are fields with many scholarship opportunities. Scholarships are awarded based on field of study, student background and academic achievement. Here is just a small sampling:

  • John Jay College of Criminal Justice Scholarships
    Based in New York City, John Jay College of Criminal Justice is one of the best-known schools in the country for those pursuing a career in the criminal justice field. Scholarships are available for freshmen, transfers, current students, and graduate students. Examples of JJCCJ scholarships include the $2,500 per year Hecht Scholarship awarded to incoming freshmen with a strong academic and community service record, as well as musical ability. The award is renewable for three years as long as the student maintains a minimum 3.0 GPA and remains a full-time student. There are also the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO) scholarships, given to two first-generation college students annually. Eligible students are the first ones in their families to attend college. The NECO scholarships are $2,500 annually and renewable for three years.

  • Indiana Sheriff’s Association Scholarship
    Available to Indiana residents majoring in a criminal justice field at an Indiana college or university, the ISA grants several $500 scholarships annually to applicants in different areas of the state. A high school principal, college registrar, or other qualified school official must complete part of the application, giving an overview of the student applicant to the selection committee.

  • Ruth D. Peterson Fellowship for Racial and Ethnic Diversity
    Sponsored by the American Society of Criminology, three $6,000 scholarships are awarded annually to members of groups under-represented in the field of criminal justice. This includes those of African-America, Latino, Asian, and indigenous descent. The applicant must include proof of admission to a criminal justice doctoral program, as well as a current CV, copies of undergraduate and graduate transcripts, and the nature of their interest in criminal justice.

  • Sam Houston State University College of Criminal Justice
    This school in Texas awards various scholarships annually to criminal justice majors. Among them are the James C. Boswell Memorial Scholarship for undergraduate students demonstrating financial need; the Sarah Janine Cleary and Michael Griffin Cleary Scholarships for undergraduate students majoring in criminal justice and demonstrating financial need; and the Rolando, Josefa and Jocelyn del Carmen Criminal Justice Scholarship for a student enrolled in a fulltime Ph.D. program who demonstrates financial need.

Professional Organizations

  • ASC
  • AJA
  • IAWP
  • NBPA
  • NCJA


American Society of Criminology

The ASC is an international organization with a focus on criminal scholarship and dissemination of knowledge in the field. Members concentrate on prevention, measuring crime, consequences of criminal behavior, and control and treatment. The ASC includes special divisions, including Women and Crime, People of Color and Crime, and Corrections and Sentencing. The ASC holds annual meetings where members can discuss topics of general interest.



American Jail Association

The AJA is an organization for those operating the country’s jails. It focuses on local correctional facility operations. The AJA also runs certification programs, such as Certified Jail Manager, Certified Jail Officer, and Certified Correctional Trainer, which are run at its Hagerstown, Maryland headquarters and regionally. The AJA offers various membership levels, including professional, student, and industry affiliate.



International Association of Women Police

The IAWP’s mission is strengthening, uniting, and raising the capacity of women police internationally. It also provides professional guidance and mentoring to women in law enforcement. All law enforcement officers with the power to arrest may become members. IAWP offers reduced fee memberships to individuals living in countries determined by the World Bank to have “low economy” or “developing country” status.



National Black Police Association

The NBPA’s goal as an organization is “promoting justice, fairness and effective law enforcement.” Another aim is enhancing the quality of life in African-American communities. While the organization is based in Dallas, Texas, there are NBPA chapters located throughout the country. Each year, the NBPA hosts an Education and Training Conference for its members along with others interested in law enforcement.



The National Criminal Justice Association

This non-profit organization promotes criminal justice systems that enhance public safety and “prevent and reduce the harmful effects of criminal and delinquent behavior.” Members receive updates regarding funding opportunities, federal activities, new practices and policies, and discounted annual conference fees.

Choosing an Accredited College

Accreditation is vitally important when choosing a college. Do not even consider a school without accreditation, as you are wasting your precious time and money. Seek out schools with regional accreditation, according to their location. The six regional accreditation agencies are The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, The New England Association of Schools and Colleges, The North Central Association of Schools and Colleges, The Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, The Southern Association of Schools and Colleges, and The Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

When it comes to law degrees, there is no question that the more prestigious the law school the easier it is for the graduate to find top employment. Not everyone is going to get into an Ivy League law school, but you must attend a school accredited by the American Bar Association. Generally, you cannot take the bar exam if the school from which you graduated was not accredited by the ABA.

Online vs On-Campus vs Hybrid

Many types of criminal justice degrees may be earned completely online. An online degree allows a working person to continue their education in a flexible manner, on their own schedule. It also permits a student to “attend” a school that is a great distance geographically, so they are not limited to institutions of higher education within a reasonable driving distance. When a student has other obligations, such as work and family, an online school is often the best choice. Other students want to attend a traditional bricks and mortar school, where they will attend classes at scheduled times and directly communicate with other students and professors. Some students may prefer a combination of the two, where they take many classes online but attend some seminars and similar offerings on campus.

Additional Questions

Does the College Have Post Graduate Job Placement Help & Assistance?

When looking for a college program to attend, you need to look at all the potential advantages of a school or program. Post-graduate job assistance should rank high on the list of important things to consider when selecting where you will enroll. A good job placement program, while it cannot guarantee you a position, will help you make sure you have the best classes and experiences under your belt. That way, you will have the best possible chance of getting the position you want. The time spent in school is a great time to prepare for your future career in Criminal Justice or Law. That can begin with a great internship, referral, mentorship, or hire. Schools that offer extensive job placement and career assistance can help you get all those things and more.

Why You Need to Consider How Rating/accreditation Can Affect Your Salary

Accreditation should be an extremely important factor when looking for and selecting a degree program. The accreditation status of the college or university that you choose has a huge impact on your future success in the field. Not only does an institution without accreditation lack proof that it adheres to academic standards, but it can negatively impact the amount of money you earn.

Because unaccredited programs do not necessarily cover certainly topics that are vital within the industry, employers may be more hesitant to hire you. Those that are willing to hire you will likely do so with the understanding that you likely have incomplete or insufficient knowledge in certain areas. To account for this, they will start you at a lower salary.