What is Criminal Justice?
The United States criminal justice system is an extremely large and diverse system of interconnected agencies working together to uphold the social systems and laws by preventing crimes and enforce laws, keep social order, provide oversight in matters of guilt and innocence and issue penalties and assistance via rehabilitation to those found guilty of committing crimes. Though most people are familiar with the local or state police and FBI as criminal justice organizations, this is not entirely the case. These organizations are a large and very visible part of one of the main branches of the criminal justice system know as Law Enforcement, and usually the first line against preventing and investigating crime and apprehending criminals.
Other areas of the criminal justice system are:
The Courts: Where lawyers, judges, juries and many other staff work to determine guilt and innocence.
Corrections: Where convicted offenders are overseen while serving their sentences. They also oversee release via parole and probation and provide services to help rehabilitate offenders.
Private Sector: Though not part of the official government institutions which handle the laws, there are many private sector workers who help uphold laws in conjunction with the other branches of the system.
If you’re interested in criminal justice, know that there are many different job requirements and skill sets required in different criminal justice jobs and more in-depth information is available on the different career opportunities.
Finding a Career in Criminal Justice
Many people thinking about careers in criminal justice seem to initially drift in the direction of a police officer or prosecuting attorney, both very important and rewarding jobs, but it is important to consider that the amount of variety in the criminal justice system is extremely large and there may be entire sections of work that you may really enjoy but have overlooked.
First, consider where you’d like to work and live. There are many options from out on the streets and around the neighborhood or the highways, in a lab or at a desk, in the field at active crime scenes, in a courthouse or even in a National Park. Also keep in mind, many federal postings can let you travel across the country or at least cover large areas, while state and local jobs will cover a smaller area perhaps letting you stay closer to family and friends. Think about what sort of things you enjoy as well as your strengths and weaknesses.
If you are looking at a job in law enforcement, but don’t like driving in the city, interacting with strangers or high stress you will probably not want to become a Police Officer but could flourish as a Fish and Game Warden. You may prefer to have an indoor job more on the research and technical kinds of things but if you have a weak stomach or faint at the sight of blood then a crime scene analyst or field forensic officer are out and you might consider paralegal or forensic accounting instead. You can find a list of popular criminal justice jobs here with some additional information about each included. Take some time and go over it and pick out a few that interest you for further investigation.
Popular Criminal Justice Portrayals in the Media
Many people get their first in-depth look at careers in criminal justice from watching television. Popular shows like Dexter(Police Detectives, Blood Spatter Forensics), Law and Order(Police Detectives, District Attorneys), CSI (Crime Scene Forensic Investigators of varying specialties, Police Detectives) , Sherlock (Police, Private Investigator, FBI) , The Mentalist (FBI, State Level Investigations CBI, Private Investigator), NCIS (Military Level Police Force, Detectives, Computer and other Forensics) , The Good Wife (Defense Attorneys, Criminal Prosecutors USDA, DA), Hannibal (FBI Field Agents, Criminal Psychiatrist, Forensics, Civilian Investigator) , The Wire (Police Detectives, Port Authority, Parole Officer), Oz (Prison Guards, Prison Warden), even Breaking Bad (DEA Agents) and many more give us a glimpse in to all branches of the justice system, and even a look through the eyes of the criminals in some cases.
These shows showcase work in the field in away that showcases many different aspects of the jobs, but also adds a bit of flash for effect and adds romance and action in to the mix. Getting interested in a profession from a TV show can be great and lead to an exciting and enjoyable career, but remember before you go rushing to sign up that there is more to a job than what you see on TV. Crimes aren’t always solved, the main character (you!) can get hurt, not every case gets national media attention and more often than not, there will be paperwork waiting for you. Remember, television isn’t real life, but it can give you some great ideas for jobs in criminal justice that you might not have considered.
Top Tips for Young People Interested in Requirements for Criminal Justice Jobs
A job in the Criminal Justice Sector comes with a lot of special powers and also an extraordinary responsibility to hold yourself to a high standard of trustworthiness, dependability and maturity. If you are in or recently finished high school this is the perfect time to start thinking about what you should be doing, and not doing, to get on the right track to your criminal justice aspirations.
- Do Not Commit Crimes – The justice departments protect us and keep us safe from crimes. If you are charged or convicted of felonies or misdemeanor offences, this will significantly lower your chances of recruitment into a criminal justice job. Any violent crimes or those involving drugs and alcohol weigh especially heavily.
- Be Ready to Put in the Time – Jobs in criminal justice require experience and on the job training to learn how things work in the real world and is a must for advancement. Coming into things with a good education with a criminal justice degree is a big boost and may speed things along considerably, but do not expect it to be a replacement for experience.
- Get Started Today – Many careers in the field have a cut off age, with the national average being at 36, and this is most prevalent in law enforcement jobs. If you know you want to pursue a job in law enforcement or another branch, start thinking about that now and look for opportunities for volunteer in related ways and get to know some people in your local criminal justice services.
- Get Educated – The minimum education for practically all jobs in the field is a High School Diploma. GED’s are accepted in cases where the job does not require any college, but the national averages for hiring significantly favor a HSD over a GED. If your desired job requires a college or university education look into what exactly you need. A Criminal Justice Degree is usually an excellent first step, but some jobs, such as social work, require additional degrees as well. Some jobs may require special certification.
- Do It For Personal Satisfaction, Not the Money – There are many very well paid positions within the scope of public criminal justice careers. Many positions work on the military pay scale as well so you can see the exact amounts you’ll be earning here, or check the Criminal Justice Jobs List chart here for more criminal justice salary info. Pay can be quite good, especially after years of service, along with benefits and pension, but if you plan to get into a criminal justice job for the money you will more than likely find yourself disappointed and grow to dislike your choice each day, something which no one wants for our most important defenders of public law and order.
This video will give you three real life, different perspectives on one of the largest careers in criminal justice, the police officer. Also think about possible advancement opportunities. As stated in #2, experience is vital in criminal justice. If you start off in an entry level law enforcement job such as the police force, with a few years experience you can start applying for different jobs, like FBI or state police service or in related fields like Fish and Game Warden, which may have seemed like unattainable goals when you were fresh out of school.
Why Should You Get a Criminal Justice Degree?
Higher education is important in many ways. It teaches skills like meeting deadlines, working with others and gives you important information that you can apply to your desired job; plus employers give a lot of weight to a candidate with an education over those that don’t, even more when the degree is in a related field. A criminal justice degree program will open up an extremely wide range of possibilities for you. You will learn about:
- in-depth information on the 3 branches of the criminal justice system and if the one you wish to pursue is right for you
- how and why the criminal justice system works and how to effectively utilize it
- on going efforts to improve the system
- programs and internship availability and may receive preferential placement
- other opportunities which may not be available to the general public
There are many criminal justice careers that you can enter with a high school diploma or a shorter training course. These will all be entry level positions. A degree in Criminal Justice opens up many doors that would otherwise have been closed by allowing you to take jobs which require a degree (ex. Bachelor’s Degree for Parole Officer), usually require a certain level of experience (ex. Border Patrol for GL-5 level), let you take the same entry level jobs but at a higher level and wish higher pay (ex. police officer) or pursue higher education for jobs that require it (ex. lawyer).
As you advance beyond the entry level positions in the criminal justice system, the need for a degree becomes higher and higher, and though advancement is possible, a degree will help you move up the ranks much more easily and may even be almost a requirement for certain promotions. Additionally, a degree allows you to move laterally within the three branches. Employers will be eager to recruit you after a few years of experience and good performance, as they know that a degree shows dedication to the profession as well as lends you a lot of credibility.
Committing to any college degree is a big investment in your future and will pay off many fold throughout your life. This is true of almost any degree, however a criminal justice degree is beneficial for a very wide array of jobs and also teaches you important and very related skills for the field. A criminal justice degree is the way to go. Note – For some specialized positions like forensics of varying types (accounting, computer, engineering) or IT, a criminal justice degree will be a favorable bonus, however you will likely also require a degree related very closely to the field like forensic science, chemistry or physics to name a few. If you have a specific goal in mind, make sure that the degree you choose is right for you, and remember that minors in Criminal Justice are available as well for these instances.