Criminal Justice 101: Everything You Need to Know About This Rewarding Career Path

Published on: July 10, 2023

Considering a career in criminal justice? If so, then a degree in criminal justice, criminal justice administration or a related field can help you get your foot in the door. Before you start working toward your degree, though, it’s important to have a solid understanding of what a career in criminal justice entails. By knowing the ins and outs of the criminal justice system, the types of jobs people with this degree have and what to look for in a criminal justice degree program, you can start on your path with confidence.

Why Choose a Criminal Justice Degree?

A formal degree may not be required to begin working in the criminal justice field—but it’s a competitive job market, so anything you have that sets you apart from other candidates will benefit you. Likewise, the education that comes along with a degree will more effectively prepare you for the challenging yet rewarding work you’ll be doing in the field.

Of course, there’s also the fact that people who carry a bachelor’s degree make an average of $22,000 more per year than those with a high school diploma alone.

Why Criminal Justice Matters

In the United States, the criminal justice system is important because it’s designed to ensure justice for all. This includes systems that are in place to protect not just innocent people but to ensure that those charged with crimes receive a fair judgment. When the criminal justice system works as it should, our communities are a safer place and those who commit crimes have an opportunity for rehabilitation.

Understanding the Law

A big part of succeeding in the criminal justice field is simply understanding the law. However, this is where things get complicated—as the United States has more than 30,000 different federal legislation statutes alone. Likewise, individual states also have their own laws and regulations in place. Those who work in criminal justice have an important responsibility to know the laws within their jurisdiction and how they apply.

Find Your Role in the Justice System

There are so many opportunities to work in the criminal justice system no matter where your specific interests may lie. Whether you’re more interested in rehabilitating those who have been convicted of crimes or prefer to work on the law enforcement side of things, there’s a role out there for you.

How to Choose the Right Criminal Justice Program

There are dozens (if not hundreds) of schools that offer criminal justice programs, so how can you possibly narrow down your options and choose the one that’s best for you?

There are many things to keep in mind, such as the school’s reputation for its criminal justice degree program and the types of degrees offered. A bachelor’s degree is the most common and usually takes about four years to complete, but you might also consider schools that offer associate degrees, master’s degrees and even certificate programs to suit your exact needs.

Consider, too, what kind of schedule you’ll need to complete the program. If you already work or have other obligations, then a traditional campus with classes every weekday may not work for you. Instead, you might do better with online classes you can complete on your own schedule or a blend of online and evening/weekend classes on campus. Make sure that the school you select offers the flexibility you need to work toward your criminal justice degree while you take care of your other life responsibilities.

How Long Does the Degree Take to Complete?

You’ll also want to consider how long the degree will take you to complete, especially if you’re eager to start working in the field. If you’re enrolled full-time, a bachelor’s degree program will usually take four years (eight semesters) to complete. However, an associate degree can be completed in as little as a few semesters—whereas a master’s degree usually takes an additional two years beyond undergrad.

On the other hand, if you’ll only be able to enroll on a part-time basis, you should expect your schooling to take longer unless you choose a school that also offers spring and summer semester classes. Taking courses year-round can be a great way to expedite your degree and start working in the field sooner.

Exploring the Benefits of a Criminal Justice Degree

Having a criminal justice degree opens all kinds of opportunities for future work, all of which can be extremely rewarding. For example, if you’re interested in working with people who have been convicted of crimes, you could work in corrections as a counselor or rehabilitation specialist. This can be a great way to help these people reform and prepare to re-enter the real world.

On the other hand, if you’re more interested in the legal side of things, you can work as a court reporter, a public defender or even a judge with a criminal justice degree. Some people who go on to become lawyers begin with a criminal justice degree as a starting point.

A law enforcement career is also a viable path with a criminal justice degree. Working as a patrol officer, federal agent or detective can be an extremely rewarding job where you can solve crimes and hold people accountable for them. In this sense, you’ll be working to make the streets where you work safer for everybody.

Challenges of a Criminal Justice Degree

Of course, some inherent challenges may come along with pursuing a criminal justice degree. For starters, many hiring agencies will be looking for candidates with at least a bachelor’s degree in the field. Because these degrees can easily take several years to complete, the gap between when you start your program and when you start working in the field can be quite large.

The good news? There are plenty of ways to get your foot in the door and start getting experience in your field before you finish your degree program. Many agencies hire interns for desk positions inside courthouses and police departments, so you can gain some valuable real-world experience as you complete your studies.

Another possible challenge to consider is that some specific jobs in the field may require advanced degrees. This means that in order to move up the career ladder, you may need to return to school for a master’s degree or other certificate.

Of course, there’s also the nature of the work itself. Some (not all) jobs in criminal justice require shift work, so you may find yourself working overnights, afternoons or other less conventional schedules. Long hours are also not uncommon, especially when you’re working on the investigations or law enforcement side. The work itself can be demanding, which can lead to burnout. Fortunately, there’s a greater focus than ever on training criminal justice workers to find a healthy work/life balance, including managing stress and reaching out for support when needed.

Common Misconceptions of Criminal Justice

Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions floating around out there about working in criminal justice. Some believe, for example, that working in law enforcement is the only career path for those with criminal justice degrees. In reality, there are a wide range of jobs that you can do with this type of degree, many of which have nothing to do with enforcing laws or arresting people.

Likewise, some are hesitant to pursue a career in criminal justice because they worry about work/life balance and overall happiness. In the past, it has been reported that those working in criminal justice roles (such as law enforcement) see higher rates of divorce and other lifestyle problems. In recent years, however, many of these myths have been debunked. People working in criminal justice can lead happy lives with healthy relationships just like everyone else.

What Can You Do With a Criminal Justice Degree?

One of the best things about having a degree in criminal justice is that there are so many different career avenues you can explore. No matter where your specific interests lie, there’s likely to be a role out there for you. From criminology and criminal investigations to law enforcement and corrections, the possibilities are nearly endless.

Likewise, as you gain more experience in your field, you could even go on to become an instructor in a criminal justice degree program or a trainer within your own agency. This can be a great way to apply your knowledge and experience in a new and rewarding way, providing valuable instruction and training to those who are just starting out in the field.

Industries that Hire Criminal Justice Majors

Many different industries may hire somebody with a criminal justice degree, including:

  • Law enforcement agencies, such as police departments and other public safety agencies
  • Civil and criminal courts at the state and federal level
  • Corrections facilities, such as jails, prisons and rehabilitation centers
  • Crime labs
  • Legal firms, including defense and prosecution law firms
  • Private sector businesses, such as companies that need their own security on a small or large scale

Jobs for Criminal Justice Majors

Whether you’re interested in an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree, there are a number of jobs available to criminal justice majors across a variety of industries. Ultimately, pursuing the right job is all about where your interests and passions lie.

Jobs in Law Enforcement

If you’re interested in the law enforcement side in criminal justice, consider the following job opportunities once you have your degree:

  • Police/patrol officer
  • Detective
  • Sheriff
  • Federal agent
  • Corrections officer
  • Probation officer

Jobs that Involve Courts

If you’re more interested in the legal side of the criminal justice system, consider these roles (some of which will require additional education):

  • Judge
  • District attorney
  • Public defender
  • Paralegal
  • Court reporter

Working for the Government

Many people who carry criminal justice degrees end up working for the government in some capacity. Government jobs can be great because they often come with decent benefits and a great deal of job security. Some examples of government jobs in criminal justice include:

  • Police officer/sheriff
  • Correctional officer
  • Crime analyst
  • FBI Agent
  • Secret service agent
  • U.S. Marshal

Your Story Starts Here

There are a lot of things to know about criminal justice degrees and career paths, including the types of degree programs that are out there and some of the most common advantages and drawbacks to this type of work. At the end of the day, if you have any kind of passion for the country’s justice system, then working in this field can be an extremely rewarding path; many criminal justice professionals would even refer to it as a calling.

Ready to start the path towards a new career? Park University offers many options for a degree in criminal justice: associate’s degrees, bachelors (BA/BS/BPA), graduate certificates, and even an MPA. Request more information to get started with your application today!

Park University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Park University is a private, non-profit, institution of higher learning since 1875.