Criminal Justice Jobs and Career Planning Guide

Criminal Justice is a field that includes everything from FBI Field Officers and Courthouse Bailiff to Paralegals and Forensic Technicians of all kinds. By examining your interests and skills you can find a branch that is going to be a good fit for you and set you up for life with a great career.

criminal justice jobs guide

What are the Different Branches of Criminal Justice Jobs?

The field of “Criminal Justice” is extremely large and very diverse in terms of job requirements and training and constantly evolving. In the United States, there are three main branches of the criminal justice system. These are:

  1. Corrections System – The role of the corrections system is to enforce punishments and carry out the sentences of the courts. handle parole and monitor and assist people on probation. At this level the incarceration, punishment and rehabilitation of convicted criminals is handled. Examples include parole officers, prison guards and other staff up to the prison warden.
  2. Court System – The role of the courts are to provide thorough investigations into criminal matters, see that the facts are found and to determine guilt or innocence of accused parties. The courts are responsible for providing “Justice for All”. At this level the guilt of suspected criminals is determined. Example Court Jobs include bailiffs and court reporters as well as attorneys and judges.
  3. Law Enforcement – Law enforcement is the first stage in the criminal justice system. There are a large array of different jobs from office and support workers to forensic and analysis personnel to the “boots on the ground” police officers and other field agents of agencies like the FBI, DEA, ICE, US and Air Marshals, Secret Service and Border patrol.  At this level crimes are investigated and suspected criminals are arrested.In addition to the field agents of these organizations, examples include Forensic Technicians in everything from accounting to computers, detectives and Crime Scene Investigators.
  4. Private Sector – An add on to this list of  jobs is the private criminal justice sector, who often work in conjunction with the “official” branches. Though obviously not associated with the government, the private sector provides an interesting area for careers. They may have many similarities to other jobs, the difference being that you will be employed by yourself or a private company. Examples include Private Investigator, Security Officer, Bounty Hunter or Loss Prevention Specialist.

If you are looking for careers in criminal justice, your choices will almost certainly be included in one of these three categories. Each category is very different from the others which is why the field is so large as well as having local, state and federal levels. In addition to each branch of the system being different, the types of jobs are extremely varied too.

This can make choosing a criminal justice job a tough choice, but the clear separation can also make it very easy if you do a bit of research and can find the path that really speaks to you.

Help Choosing the Right Criminal Justice Career

Now that we’ve answer the question, “What is Criminal Justice?” we can move on to finding the right branch for you. Making a career choice is always an important and usually difficult decision and if you are considering careers in criminal justice we can help you consider the different factors for making the right choice.

First of all, keep in mind that while a field position is probably the most dangerous, all jobs in criminal justice are potentially dangerous. Every attempt should be made to prevent dangerous situations but keep in mind that danger is always present, although that is true of everyday life. If you are interested in making the world a safer place, then you are on the right path.

career choices in justice

Important Skills for Different Fields

Take stock of yourself. Why do you want to join the ranks of criminal justice workers? Many people have an idea or are drawn to a particular job for a particular reason. It is important that the job you choose is a good fit for your personality and that you truly enjoy it, so consider this step carefully.

Law Enforcement has two main sections, the field agents and the investigators.

Field agents are the ones interacting with the public, dealing with situations as they happen and discovering things for the first time. Good qualities include: quick thinking, good physical fitness, taking initiative, working with a team, being able to empathize with people, staying cool under pressure, being an objective listener and good at dispute resolution.

Investigators usually come in after the field agents have discovered something. It may be a crime scene, piece of evidence or trying to determine and prove how a sequence of events occurred. Good qualities include attention to detail, taking a methodical, step-by-step approach, patience, being able to handle a “gross” situation, good logical and objective deductive reasoning, conscice communication and reporting ability.

Officers of the Court include both the legal workers and support workers.

Legal Workers such as the paralegals and prosecutors must have an in-depth knowledge of the law and a drive to see that justice is served. Good qualities include diligence in research, debate and public speaking skills, proficiency of understanding and following rules to the letter, ability to listen, understand and connect with others and good stress handling.

Court Support Workers differ in requirements by job but you should have a professional attitude and somber demeanor as a courtroom is generally not a place for joking around.

Corrections Workers may work inside a prison in many capacities or outside the prison in rehabilitation.

criminal justice careers prison guard

Prisons Workers should be aware that a prison is a potentially dangerous environment and it is your job to try to make everything run as smoothly as possible for both yourself and inmates. Important traits include building rapport and interpersonal skills, understanding of internal politics, zero tolerance for deviation from rules, a strong sense of self respect and good teamwork and communication skills.

Probation and Other Rehabilitation Officers need to be a little bit more empathetic when dealing with people. While they may not need to be as strict as inside a prison they must remember not to be too open. Important skills include communication and relationship building, compassion and a caring attitude (a hard shell with a soft heart), critical thinking and being a keen judge of character and the intent of others.

A strong sense of right and wrong and a desire to see justice done is important throughout the criminal justice world, if these things aren’t important to you, it may be better to move on.

Background Checks

Careers in criminal justice require people who are trustworthy and can be counted on to be upstanding and moral citizens. Due to the requirements of the job in a position of authority and trust your past will be examined for any sign that might lead an employer to believe that you might not be trustworthy. If you are looking into a job in criminal justice, make sure that none of the following apply to you.

  • Felony or Serious Misdemeanor Charges – If you have a felony on your record there is very little chance of entering the criminal justice workforce. Other charges may lead employers to believe that you are untrustworthy or have bad judgement like DUI, violent crimes, perjury or theft.
  • Drug Use – Similar to above, if you have drug charges against you it is a black mark on your record. As well you will not be permitted to use drugs while employed and random drug testing may be something you will need to deal with.
  • Military Service – Service in the armed forces can be a highly valuable asset when looking for a job, however if you received a dishonorable discharge from the military it is hard to come back from.
  • Poor work or credit history – A bad attitude will not work well with the justice system. One isolated incident can be overlooked but a string of bad references sends up red flags. Money issues also send up an alert as it can not only be an indicator of poor decision making but can also tempt someone towards accepting bribes.
  • Past Affiliations – Working with criminals or as part of a gang in the past is a serious issue for law enforcement and other agencies. Not only does it suggest bad character, but hiring someone to a position of authority who has gang or criminal connections may open the door for many illegal activities to go unreported.
  • Lying or Falsifying a Report – You will be asked to fill out an application when applying for a job. If you lie on your application or during the interview and are caught it will not support that you are a truthful person.
military service for cj careers

Past military service will help your search for a career in criminal justice

Before considering a criminal justice job take a look into your past. If you have a clean record then you are an optimal candidate and should go forward with your goals, however if you have any of these dark marks on your record, even if you have reformed, it may disqualify you from a career in criminal justice.

Criminal Justice Schooling, Programs and Training Requirements

Education requirements for jobs in the criminal justice sector range from a high school diploma up to a Master’s Degree and even high education is possible depending on your interest and requirements of your field.

After completing the required level of in school education, there may be other special programs or training courses available (optional or mandatory) which will complete your initial education. Once these are complete, there may be continuing education opportunities available on an ongoing basis to refresh or teach new skills in the field.

Criminal Justice Accredidations

College and University programs related to criminal justice careers can go by many names. An Associates, Bachelor or Master’s in Justice Studies or Criminal Justice , Doctor of Business Administration – Criminal Justice are all available programs. There may be degrees which offer criminal justice as a minor like BA in Political Science – Criminal Justice Minor or even specialized degrees like an MBA in Homeland Security, BSCJ in Juvenile Justice, BS in Criminal Justice – Computer Security/Forensics or Master’s in Justice Studies – Cybersecurity.

As you can see, criminal justice degrees are widely varied and also available with very specialized training. If you do not know what specifically you want to focus on, it may be helpful to take a more generalized course and then transfer into a more specialized field.

Top Criminal Justice Schools

When choosing a college or university it is important to look closely at your particular field of study for things like professors, programs offered and highest degree level available (Associates – PhD), awards and any other special considerations about that department. Also, be sure to consider which branch you are most interested in.

1. University of Maryland at College Park

The program has been running since 1969 and boasts the #1 ranked doctoral program in the United States. Prominent professors include the Director of START, the global terrorism database, and the Director of Center for Substance Abuse Research which adds a lot to their terrorism study and substance abuse programs.

They offer BA, MS and PhD programs in a combined Criminology & Criminal Justice Degree(CCJD). In addition to this program, an international exchange program for law classes is run with the Nanjing University of China as well as an internship program. An added benefit is the closeness to Washington, DC which makes this program a real short step to recruitment into federal justice agencies. Certainly one of the best criminal justice schools.

2. Florida State University

The FSU College of Criminology & Criminal Justice offers a top training program and the #1 ranked faculty in terms of research, FSU professors are involved in some of the most cutting edge research in the field.

Programs include the BA in Criminology and Criminal Justice and in Computer Criminology (though perhaps this should be renamed) as well as a Master’s and PhD program.

3. Sacramento State University/California State University

Criminal justice at Sac State is one of the most popular and largest in the country. Even so, it is still an impacted program as of 2012, with limited availability to new students. The popularity of this program is a real testament to its high standards and relevant training.

Bachelors and Masters program are offered with courses in Corrections, Law Adjudication, Law Enforcement and Criminological Theory.

4. George Washington University

The program is heavily based in criminology, as it is run by the sociology department, however it is a great program which includes forensic science training as well, which is a big bonus if that is relevant to your interests. Other options will also allow you to tailor your degree to suit your preferences.

A Bachelor of Arts is offered with either a major or minor in Criminal Justice.

5. CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice

A senior CUNY (City University of New York) college, John Jay is a dedicated Criminal Justice school and provides some specialized degree programs. Often ranked as one of the top public schools for law enforcement in the region.

Criminal Justice BA Programs include: Crime Control and Prevention, Institutional Theory and Practice and Criminal Justice Management

6. Sam Houston State University

Another of the largest and most prestigious programs in criminal justice, it has been running since 1963. Departments include Criminal Justice/Criminology, Forensic Science as well as Security Studies for a very indepth program with great programs for law enforcement, corrections and forensics.

BA, MS and PhD programs are all offered along with minors in Forensic Science or Anthropology.

Other Top Rated Criminal Justice Schools

Name of School
State - City
Approximate Acceptance Rate (%)
Average SAT Score Requirements ( /2400)
First Year Tuition Estimate In State ($)
Student Population (Approximate)
George Washington UniversityMD - Washington, D.C.30196045,00025,000
John Jay College of Criminal Justice CUNYNY - New York4314255,40014,800
University of MarylandMD - College Park4717209,10037,200
Florida State UniversityFL - Gainesville5317806,50041,500
Sacramento State UniversityCA - Sacramento69951/1600 (math/reading)6,60028,500
Sam Houston State UniversityTX - Huntsville6715006,60018,000
Miami UniversityOH - Oxford72177511,20017,400
University of New HavenCT - West Haven70157031,5006,400
George Mason UniversityVA - Fairfax5517257,00033,300
Western New England UniversityMA - Springfield79159029,5003,700
University of TulsaOK - Tulsa40192532,0004,100
Texas State UniversityTX - San Marcos65154034,0005,600
Rowan UniversityNJ - Glassboro5616308,90011,700
University of HartfordCT - West Hartford42163530,5007,000
Northern Kentucky UniversityKT - Highland Heights6314857,80015,700
Armstrong Atlantic State UniversityGA - Savannah7315073,6007,500
Siena Heights UniversityMI - Adrian61147020,5002,700
Texas A&M International UniversityTX - Laredo4613703,5007,000
University of IndianapolisIN - Indianopolis70150523,5005,400
Southern Utah UniversityUT - Cedar City5715105,0007,750

These represent some of the best criminal justice schools in the United States with programs that will give you an incredibly strong base for criminal justice careers in any field. If you’re wondering how a degree will set you apart or what you can do with a criminal justice degree read more here.

Criminology vs Criminal Justice

These two fields may sound similar, but you will find that they have different meanings.

Criminology is literally “the study of crime”. It looks at crime and criminal behaviour from an academic position and examines how and why crime happens in a society as well as why individuals commit crimes and how this can be prevented.

A criminologist is an academic profession, more in line with a sociologist than a police officer or other criminal justice officer. This is a field for those who want to study the whys of crime and shape how our society deals with crime and criminals.

Criminal Justice is closer to the real world application of criminology. While Criminologists are looking at how and why crime happens, the Criminal Justice Departments are at work preventing, solving, bringing to justice, punishing and rehabilitating those who commit crimes in the real world.

This is the field for those who want to do and make a difference in the world today dealing with crime.

Though some Criminologists may consult on cases from time to time, if you are truly looking for a Criminal Justice Job, then Criminology is probably not the correct path for you. Many schools offer a Criminology AND Criminal Justice Degree as a bit of background in Criminology is helpful in Criminal Justice.

Criminal Justice Careers Case Study – How to Become a Police Officer

We’ll look at some step by step instructions on becoming a police officer, one of the most popular and well known jobs for criminal justice majors. So that we can be as specific as possible, this guide will cover becoming a police officer in Dallas, Texas.

how to become a police officer

1. Age and Other Basic Requirements – There are some basic qualifications that a police officer must meet such as age, felony or other convictions, high school diploma or GED and US citizenship. This is a great example of the requirements for entry level criminal justice jobs. You must also file the proper paperwork. Some departments have higher age limits or more college training. All examples for the Dallas PD are below.

How to become a police officer in dallas

2. Be Physically Fit – A fitness test is a standard part of entrance into a police department. Some are more strenuous than others and you should familiarize yourself with the test and be in good health.

Dallas PD fitness test

3. Interview Process – You will go through a rigorous interview process which goes over a significant amount of personal information, personality analysis and background. A drug test is usually standard procedure.

dallas pd interview

4. Basic Training – Similar to the military, potential officers receive training at a police academy before becoming police officers. This is a long and intense training program usually lasting 30+ weeks and covering all the information needed to start field training. An example for the DPD can be found here.

dallas pd benefits

5. Find a job – If you have coordinated with a department before hand then you may have a job lined up already or recruited during basic training. Otherwise you will need to find a job. Consider the area you will be working in for things like crime level, unemployment and standards of living. If you’d like more information on what it takes to become a police officer, check out the in-depth guide which contains step by step instructions, salary information and more tips.

Bonus – Special skills like legible note taking, typing, knowing a second language, previous military experience and higher education may help you find a job and even earn you high pay off the bat.

Additional Information about a Job as a Police Officer

Risk – 1 Year statistics from June 2013-2014 show 66 fatalities of law enforcement officers of which 25 were firearms related and 26 were traffic related. The most dangerous states were: California – 8 fatalities, and Florida, Texas and Virginia – 4 fatalities.

Police Officer Salary – The Bureau of Labor Statistics for Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers shows a total of 635,380 officers at an average wage of $28.33/hr or $58,720/yr with the lowest wages around $32,670/yr up to around $90,700/yr in May 2013.

Future Employment Opportunities – Employment numbers in 2012 for Police and Detectives was at 780,000 with the expected growth from 2012-2022 at 5%. For the best opportunities at employment consider a BA degree, law enforcement or military experience and learning a second language.

What Can You Do With a Criminal Justice Degree? – The Best Jobs for Criminal Justice Majors

If you’re sitting up at night wondering, “What can I do with a criminal justice degree?”, then you are in luck because this is one of the largest industries in the country and the criminal justice system is not going out of style. Your criminal justice degree will make a big impact finding jobs in criminal justice. Here are some of the most popular and in demand jobs in the field.

intelligence analyst

In Demand Jobs in Criminal Justice

Intelligence Analyst – Government or Private Business

Branch – Law Enforcement/Private Sector

What it is – You may be familiar with intelligence analysts for the NSA or other organizations from popular TV shows, well an Intelligence Analyst uses  their skills by analyzing data on financials and criminal trends, monitoring crime rates, examining sources of loss and other factors to generate reports on how to improve the effectiveness of anti-crime efforts. Business Analysts look at data on profits, market trends and other economic factors

Degree Requirement – Bachelor’s. Forensic accounting and/or computer related degree will be helpful.

Job Postings from July 2012-2013 – 6,968 for Government 49,366 for Private

Median Salary (2013) – $76,730/yr for Government $82,340 for Private

# Employed (2012) – 115,000 for Government, 206,000 for Private

Projected Growth by 2022 – -2% to 2% for Government 3% – 7% for Private Low

Related Fields – Intelligence Manager

Retail Loss Prevention Specialist

Branch – Private Sector

What it is – Assist retail outlets minimize loss from theft by implementing systems to monitor, audit and investigate risks from employees and customers.

Degree Requirement – Associate’s or Bachelor’s

Job Postings from July 2012-2013 – 2,911 for Associate’s 1,736 for Bachelor’s

Median Salary (2013) – $30,020/yr

# Employed (2012) – 83,000

Projected Growth by 2022 – 8%-14% High

Related Fields – Commercial Security Guard

Mental Health Counselor

Branch – Corrections

What it is – A counselor who deals with issues like addiction, stress management and self esteem to help with rehabilitation and prevention of related problems. Very important for correctional facilities and parolees for rehabilitation.

Degree Requirements – Bachelor’s

Job Postings from July 2012-2013 – 9,456

Median Salary (2013) – $40,580/yr

# Employed (2012) – 128,000

Projected Growth by 2022 – 22%+ Extreme

Related Fields – Mental Health Therapist

Social Worker – Health Care/Child,Family,School

Branch – Corrections

What it is – A social worker identifies people who need help and takes steps that they feel will help people live a safer, healthier life and deal with overwhelming challenges. A child/family/school social workers deals with these issues in the home, with foster children or at educational facilities. They also evaluate these changes on an ongoing basis. Common clients are children, people with disabilities and people with illnesses or addictions.

Degree Requirements – Bachelor’s

Job Postings from July 2012-2013 – 6,585 for Social Worker, 9,527 for Health Care, 7,867 for Child

Median Salary – $44,200/yr for Social Worker (2012), $50,820/yr for Health Care, (2013), $42,120/yr for Child (2013)

# Employed (2012) – 607,300 for Social Worker, 146,000 for Health Care, 286,000 for Child

Projected Growth by 2022 – 19% for Social Worker, 22%+ for Health Care, 15-21% for Child

Related Fields – Psychologist

Police Patrol Officer

Branch – Law Enforcement

What it is – The entry level position for working at a police or sheriff’s department. Patrol the streets preventing crimes, enforcing laws, directing traffic.

Degree Requirements – High School, Associate’s, Bachelor’s

Job Postings from July 2012-2013 – 1,112 for Associate’s, 1,202 for Bachelor’s

Median Salary (2013) – $56,130/yr

# Employed (2012) – 654,000

Projected Growth by 2022 – 3% – 7% Low

Related Fields – Sheriff’s deputy, Public Safety Officer

Paralegal

Branch – Courts

What it is – Work with lawyers or legal departments to support lawyers by conducting research, drafting documents and maintaining files and schedules

Degree Requirements – Associate’s or Bachelor’s

Median Salary (2012) – $46,990/yr

# Employed (2012) – 277,000

Projected Growth by 2022 – 17% High

Related Fields – Legal Assistant, Legal Secretary

Criminal Justice Careers Case Study – The Social Worker

We’ll look at some step by step instructions on becoming a social worker, one of the most popular and well known jobs in the corrections branch and really make a difference. To be specific, we will look at becoming a social worker in California. Social worker is one of the most in demand jobs with a criminal justice degree, though criminology and psychology are also useful.

1. Should You Be a Social Worker – Making the choice to go into social work can be very rewarding, as you are constantly helping other people. However it can also be difficult and trying and may give you a grim view of the world after constantly dealing with the toughest side of things. As a social worker, it is important to:

  • Listen well
  • Be thoughtful and understanding
  • Speak well with others and develop rapport
  • Control your emotions
  • Be organized
  • Be flexible
  • Read others emotions and cues

2. Education for a Career in Criminal Justice Social Work – Becoming a social worker and working in the criminal justice world requires being educated with a Bachelor’s Degree or higher, generally in social work or a related field like psychology. Having at least a minor in criminal justice will also put you far ahead of the rest when it comes to landing a job as a corrections social worker working in a prison or with parolees.

After graduation you will need a license to practice as a social worker. In California one step of this is 3200 hours (Eighty 40-hour weeks) of supervised work experience over 104 weeks (2 years). After the work experience, you are required to pass a written exam administered by the Board of Behavioral Sciences. You will then join the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). To keep your license in California, you must complete 36 hours of continuing education every 2 years to renew your license. These requirements vary by state and you should read up on the specifics if you are pursuing social work as a career.

3. Employment – As a social worker looking for work in criminal justice with your license in hand, you have many options and will be highly in demand. You may work in a prison or in conjunction with a prison, with the court system or even directly with law enforcement.

Some criminal justice jobs include - Parole Officer, Probation Officer, Court Coordinator for Drugs or Mental Health, Victim Advocate, Expert Witness, Conflict Mediator

Though Parole/Probation Officer may be the most common job, there are many opportunities available for social workers both in and out of the criminal justice system.

Check out a day in the life of a prison Social Worker.

List of Criminal Justice Jobs By Branch

As you’ve no doubt discovered, the field is wide and varied. To help give you some options we’ve compiled this list of some of the most popular careers in criminal justice

Law Enforcement

Accounting, Forensic

Air Marshal

Animal Cruelty Investigator

ATF Agent

Border Patrol

CIA Agent

Coast Guard

Canine Officer

Computer Forensics

Crime Lab Analyst

Crime Scene Investigator

Customs Agent

DEA Agent

Deputy U.S. Marshal

Detective

FBI Agent

Fish & Game Warden

Forensic Engineer

Forensic Psychologist

Fraud Investigator

Homeland Security Agent

ICE Agent

INS Agent

IRS Agent

Police Patrol Officer

Public Safety Officer

Secret Service Agent

Sheriff’s Deputy

State Trooper

Court System

Bailiff

Court Clerk

Court Reporter

Judge

Medical Examiner

Prosecuting Lawyer

Paralegal/Legal Assistant

Corrections

Correctional Officer

Corrections Counselor

Parole Officer

Probation Officer

Prison Guard

Prison Warden

Private Sector

Bounty Hunter/Bail Enforcement Agent

Loss Prevention Manager

Private Investigator

Security Analyst