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Criminal justice is a vital part of our society. Since humans began to settle into cities, a need arose to deal with the issue of crime and civil order through law enforcement agencies, law enforcement officers and private investigators, attorneys and judges to preside over civil and criminal trials, and more. These days, we have a complex system that includes patrol officers, probation officers, data and lab scientists, and social workers. The variety of career options that are available to a person with a degree in criminal justice are immense. Some work in government as public administrators, some work at crime scenes collecting materials and data or in the labs that process evidence, and there are some whose research makes them valuable as consultants.
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How to Prepare for a Criminal Justice Career
There are many ways to prepare for a career in criminal justice. One of the best is by earning a ">criminal justice degree from an accredited college or university. That can mean earning a two-year associate, a bachelor’s, or even a master’s criminal justice degree.
However, some don't start a criminal justice career with a criminal justice degree. That's okay, but there are some degrees that may be better than others. A degree in psychology or sociology, for instance, may be a great fit; as is a degree in social work. Some start with a degree in public administration if they want to work in upper management of the criminal justice system. Degrees in sciences such as biology or physics might not be the best fit, unless, of course, you want to be one of those lab workers. Even if you don’t, these degrees don’t mean that a criminal justice career is out of reach, though these students may need to gain more experience before rising through the ranks of criminal justice.
Even business students may find a place in criminal justice. Management students may find that their leadership skills translate well to certain aspects of the criminal justice field. Those who focused on public relations may find that they can help their local police maintain their image in the public eye.
Is a Degree in Criminal Justice Worth it?
A degree in criminal justice is worth it for those who have a passion for criminal justice. However, it's worth noting that there are many different roles under the CJ umbrella that may need more or different credentials than other roles. For instance, those who want to work in the forensics lab may need a master’s degree to rise through the ranks. Similarly, a bachelor's degree in business administration may help someone land a job in the criminal justice system, but a master’s in public administration, if not an MBA with a public administration concentration, will take them farther.
For those who want to work on the police force, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice will help them achieve the rank of detective and will perhaps help them rise farther up in city hall, though you might not need any degree to join the police force at the entry level. Even an associate degree in criminal justice will be a great help to those who work as police on the beat.
Regardless of what degree a person has, experience is going to matter a lot. It may even be preferable to start work on a police force and then begin an associate criminal justice degree program at a local community college. Adding a degree on top of experience is a great choice, since it shows true dedication to the field.
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Job Outlook in Criminal Justice
The good news for those seeking a career in criminal justice is that the field is always growing. However, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, certain areas, such as police and detectives, are growing at only around 3%, slower than average. Other fields, such as private investigations, are growing at around 6%, closer to the average growth rate. Science students will be happy to learn that forensic science technicians are experiencing great growth. The BLS reports a growth rate of 11% through 2031. However, the field itself isn't huge, which means that fewer jobs result in a larger percentage jump, so students should consider this when applying for a position.
Naturally, the growth rate for criminal justice career fields depends on public sentiment, political realities, and public budgets. Certain cities and states may be hiring more for their police departments, correctional facilities, or public administration, while others may be diverting funds to other areas of government.
During times of slower growth in any field, it may be necessary for students to start their careers in a new geographical area. While this may not be ideal for some, those who are able to make a move may find that the change of scenery is welcome and refreshing. Further, if someone moves from a smaller town to a big city, they may one day be able to return with valuable experience.
How to Get a Job in Criminal Justice
Landing a job in criminal justice is different for each job type. Those who are eager to become police officers may be able to begin that process with a high school diploma. They will need to qualify for, and then successfully complete, their local police academy training. Meanwhile, someone who wants to become a police detective should complete a criminal justice bachelor's degree before or after entering the police force.
Most jobs in criminal justice can be attained with a bachelor's criminal justice degree, but others may require a master’s degree. For instance, when a forensic science professional earns their MS in forensic science they tend to earn raises and promotions. Social workers in the corrections system may also earn a master’s social work degree to improve their position. Even public administration officials can achieve greater success with a master’s degree.
Ultimately, students who are interested in criminal justice should consider a degree. Even though police work doesn't require a degree, those with an associate degree are well-known to be more effective and happier in their work. They then have only two years of school to go before they can earn a bachelor’s and qualify for a detective badge.
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Well-Paying Criminal Justice Jobs
- Judges and Hearing Officers - $128,710
These positions require law degrees and, often, many years of experience. However, sometimes a lawyer can become a judge by way of an election. Work as a judge is very high status and often affords great job security. However, that security may be challenged in every election cycle.
- Attorney or Lawyer - $127,990
This field is a vital part of the criminal justice picture. Attorneys need to earn a law degree and then pass the bar exam, a very difficult process. However, those who become attorneys and start a criminal law practice are richly rewarded when they are able to secure justice for their clients.
- Police Chief - $116,400
This position often goes to a police officer who has a criminal justice degree and many years of experience in the field. Police chiefs are hired by local city governments, according to their own rules and procedures. Those who seek a career as a police chief often must be willing to move to work in their field.
- First-Line Supervisors of Police and Detectives - $99,330
This position likely requires a minimum of five years of experience, though 10 years may be more likely. To land this position, police departments may require a criminal justice degree or relevant college degree, on top of the experience requirement.
- Detectives and Criminal Investigators - $83,640
This position requires a college degree, ideally a bachelor's criminal justice degree. Detectives oversee crimes that fall under the purview of their department. This position has been popularized by innumerable films and television series. Detectives often must work odd hours, including over the weekend. Those who specialize in certain aspects of criminal behavior may also endure trauma during their career.
- Financial Examiner – Forensic Accountant – $81,410
These financial experts evaluate the banking records of suspects to uncover evidence of a crime. While this area of criminal investigation isn't very glamorous, nor the focus of any television shows, forensic accounting has taken down major criminals, as the case of Al Capone illustrates. Forensic accountants may also work independently and contract with attorneys for civil cases.
- Psychologists - $81,040
These mental health experts hold a PhD and a license to conduct one-on-one psychotherapy with clients. Forensic psychologists often consult with law enforcement or attorneys to evaluate criminals. Psychologists may be called to determine whether a suspect is competent to stand trial or whether they were sane at the time of a crime.
- FBI Agent - FBI Specialist - $67,860
These elite criminal justice experts most certainly need a bachelor's criminal justice degree. After they complete college, aspiring FBI agents need to qualify for rigorous FBI training. Some go on to specialize in areas such as forensic accounting, cyber security, psychology, or forensic science.
- Police and Detectives - $66,020
To become a police officer, all that is required in most places is a high school diploma, though some states may require an associate degree. The work often involves the control of lower-level crimes, such as petty theft or traffic violations. Detectives need a bachelor's degree to investigate crimes such as homicides, white collar crimes, etc.
- Transit and Railroad Police - $64,930
This is an area of criminal justice that is often overlooked. However, the railroads need police to ensure that there are no thefts of property or property damage in often-empty railyards. In some cases, they may also look out for non-ticketed people climbing aboard freight or passenger trains.
- Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers - $64,610
Often, criminal justice professionals start their careers working as patrol officers. This job can require long hours, including work at night and over weekends. Patrol officers can be a major part of solving or stopping crime. No special education is required for a patrol officer, but an associate criminal justice degree may help make the difference for a candidate.
- Criminal Justice Professor - $64,600
A minimum of a master’s criminal justice degree is required for any post-secondary educator. Those with an MS in Criminal Justice can only teach undergraduate students and it may be difficult to land a full-time teaching position with a master’s. Those who earn a PhD can qualify for a tenure track position, more pay, and positions as research faculty members.
- Fire Investigators and Inspectors - $63,080
This position involves scrutinizing the scene of a fire to determine its cause. Fire investigators are the ones who confirm whether a fire has been the work of an arsonist or not. They work for their local fire department, but some may travel around to support fire departments across a wider geographical area, especially in rural areas.
- First-Line Supervisors of Correctional Officers, Corrections Managers - $62,220
After a few years of work as a corrections officer, it may be possible to land work as a first-line supervisor. However, those with a criminal justice degree may apply and receive training to supervise corrections officers.
- Forensic Science Technician - $61,930
This is an entry-level position for those who work with the fibers and other samples from a crime scene. Technicians may be called to collect samples at crime scenes and help experts back at the lab. Technicians keep laboratory equipment clean and accounted for.
- Fish and Game Wardens – Median Annual Wage: $60,730
People who love the outdoors and wildlife may want to consider this career. Wardens make sure that hunters and fishers don't exceed their limits and that poachers are caught and prosecuted.
- Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists - $60,250
These careers are where social work enters the criminal justice system. Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists work with their caseload to keep them from returning to prison and to make sure they meet the requirements of their parole.
- Private Detectives and Investigators - $59,380
Private investigators can perform a wide range of tasks. Some work undercover to determine if employees are stealing money, and others focus on finding missing persons. There are some P.I.s who focus on performing background checks, too.
- Paralegal and Legal Assistants – $56,230
Attorneys have so much paperwork and research to do that they often hire paralegals to help. Paralegals must have training in the field, excellent written communication skills, and excellent organizational skills.
- Crime Analyst - $52,255
This position often requires a master’s degree. Crime analysts review the trends in criminality using raw data and many tools common among data scientists. They may also analyze individual crimes to determine whether the same suspect, or group of suspects, is involved in them.
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Other Career Options
- Security Guards and Gambling Surveillance Officers - $31,470
This work often involves analyzing video surveillance to catch criminals. Gambling surveillance officers need to have a keen eye to catch those who may be counting cards or otherwise employing sophisticated strategies to win more money than the casino is comfortable with.
- Social Worker - $50,390
This position can be held by people with nearly any degree level. Social workers help disadvantaged people in a variety of ways. Some provide hands-on services while others are caseworkers for the disadvantaged individuals.
- Immigration or Customs Enforcement Agent - $35,657
These uniformed officers work at the nation's borders to monitor traffic there. They may also work at the airports or any other point of entry from abroad.
- Criminologist - $55,000
These experts study the root causes of crime and the motivations of individual criminals. Often, criminologists work in public policy to help stem the tide of crime in any given area.
- Correctional Officers and Jailers - $47,920
These workers are a vital part of the criminal justice system since they help keep prisoners safe and locked away.
- Firefighters - $50,700
To become a firefighter it is necessary to complete a rigorous training process. The position may require consecutive 24-hour shifts followed by several free days as firefighters need to be ready to jump into action at any moment.
- Judicial Law Clerks - $50,750
Law clerks help judges perform rigorous legal research. They may also read briefs from litigants and help judges process all the information. Judicial law clerks are much like paralegals, but they tend to hold full law degrees.