What is Criminal Justice?
Criminal justice graduates perform a variety of services for the public. They patrol the streets, investigate crimes, identify suspects, and oversee those who have been convicted of crimes - all to protect the lives and property of their fellow citizens. Many criminal justice careers are exciting and come with high degrees of responsibility, though at times these jobs can be dangerous and stressful.
Criminal justice is a social science that attempts to identify and explain the patterns of criminal behavior and to analyze society's ability to control crime and delinquency. It studies crime, criminals, and the criminal justice system through an interdisciplinary approach that combines legal studies, sociology, political science, psychology, forensic science, public administration, urban studies, and philosophy. Criminal justice focuses on the definitions, causes, and prevention of crime, and with legal processes and the treatment and rehabilitation of offenders.
A criminal justice major will learn about the legal and correction systems in the United States, the philosophy of punishment and deterrence of crimes, and the ethical codes of behavior with which to make use of this knowledge. Criminal justice graduates are ready for careers in law enforcement, court administration, victim services, and corrections, and many use the degree to advance into law school and graduate programs.
The study of criminal behavior and law enforcement is becoming more sophisticated. Professionals who work in today's police forces, court systems, correctional facilities, or related agencies need a broad social science background to be prepared for the range of career opportunities. The increasing complexity of American law and society requires that criminal justice professionals be properly educated before taking up their duties.
Table of Contents
- Skip to What Does a Criminal Justice Major Do After Graduation?
- Skip to Trends in Criminal Justice Careers
- Skip to Career Education in Criminal Justice
- Skip to What Can You Do With a College Major in Criminal Justice?
- Skip to Planning for a Career in Criminal Justice
- Skip to Certification and Licensure
- Skip to Criminal Justice Degree Programs
What Does a Criminal Justice Major Do After Graduation?
Criminal justice is a wide-ranging field that includes many different categories of work, requiring a variety of skills. The criminal justice system includes police, courts, and corrections officers who work at the local, state, and federal levels. These levels of the justice system can function separately or jointly, but the majority of activity occurs at the local level. Generally, criminal justice careers can be divided into four categories: police, probation, corrections, and security.
Police officers and detectives are the best known of all criminal justice professionals. Their deeds are highlighted in nightly newscasts and are the subject of dozens of television shows. The duties of uniformed police officers vary, depending on the size of the municipality for which they work. On a small police force, an officer might be called upon to handle all aspects of the job, from patrol to paperwork. As the forces get larger, the job requirements are usually more specialized. Police officers might patrol a beat in a car or on a boat, or on horseback, bicycle, or motorcycle.
Police officers face real dangers on a daily basis as they respond to emergencies. However, not all of their duties are glamorous or dangerous. Some officers work in courtrooms to maintain order. All must keep records of their activities and write meticulous reports in the event that they are asked to testify in court. Many are asked to serve as traffic control officers, either at special events or during an emergency. Police officers might work at the city, state, or federal levels, but colleges, industries, public school systems, transportation agencies, and other special agencies also maintain police forces.
Detectives collect evidence once a crime has been committed. They investigate the scene, interview people, search through documents, and make arrests. In many instances, they specialize in investigating certain types of crimes such as homicide or fraud. On smaller police forces, one detective may serve all functions for the department. Unlike police officers, detectives usually work in plainclothes and often work irregular hours.
Probation officers supervise people who have been sentenced to probation, either in lieu of or after a prison term. The specialized field of probation employs probation officers, correctional treatment specialists (also called case managers), and juvenile officers. These officers usually specialize in the issues of juveniles, of people placed on probation, or of people serving time in jail or prison. They must ensure that their charges are meeting the obligations of their sentencing. This usually means regularly meeting with the individuals in their homes or in a correctional facility.
The officers keep reports on the progress of the offenders, attend court hearings, and provide updates on compliance with the terms of the sentence. Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists work with criminal offenders, some of whom may be dangerous. They might also be asked to work in high-crime areas where there is a risk of violence. Although they are scheduled to work 40-hour weeks, officers might be on call 24 hours a day to supervise or assist offenders.
Correctional officers and security guards typically do not require a college degree unless the job involves a supervisory position. Most correctional officers work as guards at state and federal prisons. Security guards patrol industrial sites, shopping malls, private property, and other sites to prevent acts of theft, vandalism, and other illegal activities. Both types of positions generally require a high school education and a clean personal record. However, career advancement in both professions often require a college degree in criminal justice.
Trends in Criminal Justice Careers
A variety of events in recent years have increased concern about crime and crime prevention across the nation. Threats of terrorist attacks and demands for stricter sentencing for convicted felons have increased the workload and potential job opportunities in the criminal justice field. These trends are expected to continue for several years, making the need for people to fill those positions even greater.
Job openings are plentiful for law enforcement officers. However, attractive salaries and benefits make for keen competition, especially at the state and federal level. Aspiring police officers have better opportunities at the local level. With the added emphasis on security in recent years, job growth in law enforcement is expected to continue for several years.
Of the nearly 850,000 police and detective jobs in the United States, 81 percent are employed at the local level, 11 percent by states, 6 percent by the federal government, and the remaining 2 percent by education, transportation, or other special agencies.
Career Education in Criminal Justice
A degree in criminal justice does not require as much specific academic preparation before college as some other majors, but it does require a specific type of individual. Before putting yourself through the coursework, make sure you are physically and mentally prepared for this type of career by asking yourself these questions:
- Are you physically fit?
- Can you make sound decisions under pressure?
- Are you an honest person with a clean personal background?
- Can you show compassion for others under difficult circumstances?
- Do you enjoy helping people?
- Are you able to handle large doses of personal responsibility and accountability?
- Do you exercise self-discipline and self-restraint?
While pursuing a criminal justice degree, keep in mind that some skills and background experiences are important even though they are not necessarily required. Always look for opportunities to participate in internships or part-time work while in college. Not only do such experiences impress a potential employer, they also give students a chance to determine whether a career in criminal justice is the correct career choice for them. In addition, foreign language and computer skills are always helpful. Advanced degrees are not necessary for most criminal justice jobs, but a master's degree can be helpful in obtaining promotions to administrative positions.
Online Criminal Justice Degrees
Professionals in the field are increasingly turning to online degree programs in criminal justice in order to advance their careers. Online college classes offer flexibility to working adults and accessibility to individuals in remote areas (where many correctional facilities are located), allowing them to take their careers further or in different directions. Online associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees are available in various criminal justice specialties.
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What Can You Do With a College Major in Criminal Justice?
Career opportunities in the field of criminal justice can be separated into the local, state, and federal levels. In addition to the geographic differences, each level maintains different requirements for candidates' background and experience. A criminal justice degree may cover some of the eligibility requirements for just about any of the positions, but each level requires more experience and, often, more education than the one below it. Fewer opportunities generally exist at each succeeding level as well.
Police Officers and Law Enforcement
The most common place to start is the local, city, or county police force. Although a criminal justice degree is not always required, it is helpful and increases the potential for promotions. Depending on the size of the department, most police departments have military-style rankings: corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and chief. Most departments of moderate size also have separate positions for detectives. Larger departments offer even more specialization with harbor patrols, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units, canine patrols, and others.
At the state level, police officers are most often referred to as troopers. While their jobs are similar to city officers, they spend much more time enforcing traffic laws on state and interstate highways. They also are called upon to handle emergency scenes and to assist local departments when needed. Some troopers are assigned to provide protection and security for courts, or to work as investigators.
Other Criminal Justice Careers
State and federal governments operate court systems that provide many other career opportunities for the criminal justice graduate. Besides obtaining a law degree and becoming a lawyer or judge, criminal justice majors might work as court counselors, pretrial officers, victim services counselors, or bailiffs.
State and federal governments also operate correctional facilities. Three of every five correctional jobs are supplied by state systems. A few of the positions available in correctional facilities are: correctional treatment specialist, corrections counselor, juvenile probation officer, parole officer, warden, clinical psychologist, caseworker, substance abuse specialist, and facilities specialist.
The federal government has fewer opportunities, but the positions tend to offer more variety and a higher profile. Individual departments within the federal government have their own particular needs and requirements for law enforcement personnel. Some of these are:
- Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI employs agents to investigate crime, conduct undercover assignments, examine business records for evidence of white-collar crime, collect evidence of espionage, and track movement of stolen property across state lines. These agents are specifically charged with the responsibility of investigating organized crime, copyright infringement, civil rights violations, kidnapping, bank robbery, and much more.
- Drug Enforcement Agency. It is the primary responsibility of the DEA to enforce regulations relating to illegal drugs. DEA agents may be assigned to infiltrate a drug-trafficking group, conduct surveillance of suspected drug activities, or pursue U.S. drug-related activities overseas
- U.S. Marshals. These officers are involved in nearly all federal law enforcement activities and have the authority to pursue federal fugitives. They protect the federal judiciary and are charged with transporting federal prisoners.
- Immigration and Naturalization Services. Border agents, immigration inspectors, criminal investigators, and immigration agents are assigned to protect more than 8,000 miles of U.S. border from illegal entry. They patrol the borders, but also interview people and inspect passports of those seeking entry to the United States. INS agents may also be used to detect the smuggling of illegal drugs and other contraband.
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. These agents investigate violations of federal laws involving alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives, as well as violations involving child pornography, customs fraud, narcotics, and others.
- U.S. Customs. Inspectors examine incoming cargo and baggage from trains, vehicles, aircrafts, and vessels. Their job is to prevent any type of contraband from entering the country illegally. Other agencies. Some of the other federal agencies that provide opportunities for criminal justice graduates are the Secret Service, Department of State, Forest Service, National Park Service, Postal Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Law Enforcement.
Forensic scientists may work at all levels of law enforcement, although it is unlikely that they would be employed at smaller police departments. Forensic experts might specialize in drug, homicide, sex offenses, child abuse, and arson investigations. Their primary roles are to collect and process information that can be used as evidence in court. Some specialties include: arson investigator, ballistics expert, document specialist, fingerprint specialist, polygraph examiner, and toolmark specialist.
In private security, organizations contract with individuals or companies to protect property and prevent losses of all types. Some of the most common groups or businesses that contract for private security are amusement parks, mall, colleges, hospitals, country clubs, and many different retail and industrial clients.
Criminal justice graduates might use their major as the foundation to move into other fields of law. Some go on to become defense and protecting attorneys, public interest advocates, and state attorneys general. Others have gone on to become officers in the military. Those interested in pursuing a career in research can obtain a Ph.D. and become a college professor.
Another career option is that of private detective. Detectives conduct surveillance primarily on individuals to obtain information for their clients. They might be used to obtain evidence in cases involving insurance fraud, child custody, employment verification, or even infidelity. Law firms, corporations, and individuals all use private detectives to uncover evidence for their own purposes. A single company, such as a retail store, might even employ detectives to prevent shoplifting and theft.
Planning for a Career in Criminal Justice
The qualifications for becoming a professional in criminal justice vary somewhat depending on the job, but some requirements can be generally applied across the board. Most criminal justice professions require a bachelor's degree. While not always required, it is a solid starting point because it provides the basic knowledge of law enforcement that forms the foundation of most the careers discussed above.
Prospective candidates for law enforcement and corrections careers should start a physical training regimen. Most of the positions require some physical exertion and have a physical exam as part of the application process. In addition, many of the jobs require written, oral, and occasionally psychological exams. Applicants should have a clean record themselves. Anyone convicted of a felony will be disqualified from many criminal justice positions. Finally, once an individual is hired, they are usually required to serve a probationary period where they can be observed and evaluated for employment potential.
Many criminal justice majors use the degree to prepare for law school. Law schools do not have specific preferences for majors in determining acceptance, but the training in legal procedures and critical thinking will be helpful to the student who plans to become a lawyer.
Certification and Licensure
No special license is required for most criminal justice professions. However, many professions, including the jobs of a police officer or a federal agent, require special training and coursework that must be successfully completed before being hired.
For more information about probation officers and correctional treatment specialists, check:
Information on entrance requirements, training, and career opportunities for correctional officer and correctional jobs in a jail setting: