Exploring Criminal Justice Careers

Find Your Niche in Forensics, Corrections, Law Enforcement & Homeland Security

Criminal justice refers to the system by which a society maintains social order, controls crime and keeps citizens safe. The field of criminal justice provides career paths for corrections officers, homeland security advisors and financial crime investigators, just to name a few. This guide goes deeper into employment opportunities by outlining education and job requirements and providing an overview of salary and job growth projections.

Milestone Map: Criminal Justice Career Path

There are multiple avenues for advancement in the criminal justice field. Below is just one set of possibilities, using the example of a fire investigator, who may be called on to investigate arson or identify criminal negligence.

Career Path: Fire Investigator

EMT Training: Got certified as an emergency medical technician.

First Job: Started an entry-level position as a firefighter, putting out wildfires on the frontlines.

Bachelor’s Degree: Earned a bachelor’s degree in fire science management.

Firefighter Training: Completed fire science training at a fire academy, learning about firefighting tactics in residential, commercial and industrial structures.

Certification: Finished a state-level certification program and earned a voluntary certification from the National Fire Protection Association.

Broadened Career Scope: Moved into a position as a fire investigator and learned to identify the causes of fires.

Criminal Justice Career Profiles

A network of local, state and federal agencies, the criminal justice system is responsible for preventing and dealing with crime. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2012 more than 2.4 million people were employed in criminal justice occupations, which can be broadly categorized into corrections forensics, homeland security, law enforcement and legal services. Learn more about the careers in these categories below.

Corrections

The correctional system is responsible for punishing, treating and rehabilitating individuals who commit crime. Careers in corrections fall into three categories: imprisonment, parole and probation, and administration.

Correctional Officers

Correctional officers work in prisons and jails. They supervise inmate activities, inspect facilities and enforce rules to maintain order and ensure prisoner safety. They may search prisoners for contraband or assist in inmate rehabilitation services. Overall, corrections officers’ primary responsibility is the safe and secure operation of correctional facilities.

Projected Job Growth: (2014-2024) 4%

Median Salary (2014): $39,700

Typical Education: High school diploma and formal training; federal positions require bachelor's degrees or three years’ experience.

Job Requirements: Finish training academy; federal correctional officers must complete 200 hours of training during first year.

Probation Officers & Correctional Treatment Specialists

Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists assess parolees and develop treatment and rehabilitative plans for newly released individuals. Typically, all probation and correctional treatment specialists work for local and state governments, monitoring probationer progress and connecting them to education programs, job training and counseling.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 3.6%

Median Salary (2014): $49,060

Typical Education: Bachelor's degree in social work, criminal justice, or related field

Job Requirements: Complete training program and pass certification examination, background check and drug tests.

Forensics

Forensics is the application of science to solve crimes. This can involve analyzing DNA evidence, using physics to determine bullet trajectories or testing chemicals found at a crime scene.

Forensic Science Technicians

The primary responsibility is to determine what evidence should be collected at a crime scene, document and catalog that evidence, take photographs and draw sketches, and report findings. Traditionally, they work for police departments, but they may also be employed at crime laboratories or morgues.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 27%

Median Salary (2014): $55,360

Typical Education: Bachelor's degree in natural or forensic science

Job Requirements: Voluntary certification from the American Board of Criminalistics.

Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security is tasked with keeping the country’s airports, borders, waterways and seaports safe.

Air Marshals

Federal air marshals work for the Transportation Security Administration and are tasked with ensuring the safety of passengers, aircraft and airports throughout the United States. Air marshals pose as regular passengers and watch passenger behavior to detect and prevent violent, criminal or hostile acts.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): N/A

Median Salary (2014): Based on government grading scale

Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree or three years’ work experience

Job Requirements: Complete Federal Law Enforcement Training and Federal Air Marshal Service Training program.

Customs & Border Patrol Agents

Customs and border patrol agents ensure the country’s security at each of its entry points and along the border. U.S. customs agents protect the public against threats by monitoring travel to and from the United States, inspecting passengers and cargo, and managing import regulations. Border agents defend the country’s borders against drug smuggling, illegal entry and terrorism.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): N/A

Median Salary (2014): $79,870 (all detectives)

Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree or three years’ work experience

Job Requirements: Must be under 37; pass fitness test, medical examination, background check, polygraph and drug test; complete 10-week training program.

Emergency Management Directors

Emergency management directors develop the resources for and responses to natural disasters and emergencies, including staffing, primary responder operations, equipment coordination and public communication. They collaborate with law enforcement, healthcare providers, emergency medical services and government agencies at all levels during emergencies.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 6%

Median Salary (2014): $64,360

Typical Education: Bachelor's degree

Job Requirements: Professional certification required in some states.

Secret Service Agents

Secret Service special agents’ primary missions are to investigate financial crimes (e.g., credit card fraud) and to protect U.S. leaders. Agents typically spend six to eight years in a field office before taking protective assignments for three to five years, and eventually moving on to assignments in Washington or abroad.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): N/A

Median Salary (2014): Based on government grading scale

Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree or work experience

Job Requirements: Must take written and physical examinations, complete background check, and pass medical and polygraph testing.

Transportation Security Screeners

Transportation security screeners provide security to airport travelers by checking all baggage and passengers entering the terminal. Working for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), these professionals maintain security checkpoints, operate metal detectors, control traveler entry into secured areas and screen bags for prohibited items.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): N/A

Median Salary (2014): $38,090

Typical Education: High school diploma

Job Requirements: Complete 120 hours of training, pass TSA testing, and finish Median certification process.

Law Enforcement

Law enforcement professionals are tasked with upholding the law and safeguarding the public.Employment avenues are available at the local, state and federal levels.

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agents

DEA special agents investigate individuals breaking substance abuse laws, collect evidence, and search and arrest subjects involved in drug trafficking. Agents partner with other federal agencies and liaise with local, state and even foreign agencies to develop and implement drug intelligence and surveillance programs.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): N/A

Median Salary (2014): Based on government grading scale

Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree or work experience

Job Requirements: Must be under 36 at hiring, complete written exam, drug test, medical and psychological assessment, polygraph and background check. Complete 18-week training program.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Agents

FBI special agents work in areas ranging from terrorism to white-collar crime, public corruption to violent crime. They conduct investigations into cases at the local, state and federal level, collect and examine evidence, interrogate subjects and witnesses, and testify about cases in court.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): N/A

Median Salary (2014): Based on government grading scale

Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree

Job Requirements: Must be between 23 and 36 and have lived in the U.S. or its territories for three of last five years. Must complete 10-week training at FBI Academy.

Fire Inspectors & Investigators

Fire investigators determine the causes and origins of fires. They analyze fire scenes, interview witnesses, collect and document evidence and coordinate with laboratories to analyze that evidence. Working with local and state officials, fire inspectors maintain detailed records and may be called upon to testify about their findings in court.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 5%

Median Salary (2014): $56,130

Typical Education: Post-secondary emergency medical technician program

Job Requirements: State-level certification or certification from the National Fire Protection Association.

Fish and Game Wardens

Fish and game wardens are law enforcement agents who protect wildlife and natural resources. Employed at the local, state or federal level, wardens are assigned to patrol specific areas and cite or arrest individuals who violate wildlife regulations. They may also be responsible for issuing hunting licenses, investigating illegal dumping or pollution, or educating the public.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 2%

Median Salary (2014): $50,880

Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree

Job Requirements: At federal level, must be 21 to 36, pass physical exams and undergo 20 weeks of law enforcement training. At state level, may be required to pass examination.

Police Officers & Detectives

Police officers protect public safety by patrolling communities and responding to reports of crime. They pursue and arrest individuals who break the law. Detectives are law enforcement investigators who gather evidence to solve criminal cases. Most police officers and detectives are employed by local government, but some work at state or federal agencies such as the FBI.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 4%

Median Salary (2014): $58,630

Typical Education: Ranges from high school diploma to post-secondary education

Job Requirements: At least 21 years old; meet physical requirements and complete a local, state or federal training academy program.

U.S. Marshals

A branch of the Department of Justice, the U.S. Marshals Service is responsible for enforcing laws of the federal courts. Marshals work in several major areas, including witness protection, judicial security, fugitive recovery, prisoner transport, tactical operations and asset seizure.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): N/A

Median Salary (2014): Based on government grading scale

Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree or work experience

Job Requirements: Must be 21 to 36, complete a background check, physical exam, and complete a 21-week basic training program.

Legal

The U.S. legal system is comprised of judicial bodies and government agencies that uphold and enforce the law. Career opportunities are available at all levels of government, with employment paths available with state and federal courts or government agencies.

Bailiffs

Bailiffs are employed throughout the judicial system and serve as law enforcement officers in courtrooms. They are responsible for maintaining and enforcing the rules of the courtroom, protecting juries, providing courthouse security, guarding judges and delivering confidential court documents.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 5%

Median Salary (2014): $38,150

Typical Education: High school diploma

Job Requirements: N/A

Court Clerks

Court clerks perform a range of clerical duties under the direction of a judge, such as maintaining daily court calendars, recording minutes at court proceedings, arranging appointments for the judge, reviewing and preparing legal paperwork, and handling courtroom evidence.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 4%

Median Salary (2014): $35,460

Typical Education: High school diploma

Job Requirements: N/A

Administrative Law Judges, Adjudicators & Hearing Officers

Judges and hearing officers are responsible for managing court proceedings, working with individuals to resolve administrative disagreements, handling negotiations between two parties, and making legal decisions about court cases. Judges and hearing officers may also conduct legal research.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): -4%

Median Salary (2014): $87,980

Typical Education: Law degree (doctorate)

Job Requirements: Political appointment or election to post; federal administrative judges must complete an examination.

Lawyers

Lawyers represent clients to handle disputes, contracts and legal issues. They may practice in areas such as intellectual property, criminal law, corporate law or environmental law, and their tasks vary by specialization and employer. Lawyers may formally represent a client in a courtroom setting, handle case law research, or help clients in arbitration.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 6%

Median Salary (2014): $114,970

Typical Education: Law degree (doctorate)

Job Requirements: Must pass state bar examination.

Paralegals & Legal Assistants

Paralegals, most of whom work at legal firms, function in a manner similar to a lawyer. However, they are barred from offering legal advice, representing a client in court and setting legal fees. Most paralegals coordinate legal cases, assist lawyers with case planning, draft legal correspondence, conduct legal research and interview clients.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 8%

Median Salary (2014): 8,350

Typical Education: Associate degree

Job Requirements: Some employers prefer candidates who attain certification.

Nontraditional Criminal Justice Careers

Alternative career opportunities exist in areas related to, but slightly outside of, traditional criminal justice fields. These options can be good choices for those with specialized skills and knowledge.

Computer Forensics Investigators (Information Security Analysts)

Computer forensics investigators work with and for law enforcement agencies. They recover and examine information from computers, networks, databases, smartphones and other devices where data is stored. This information may be used to investigate a crime or be brought as evidence in a criminal proceeding. Investigators may be asked to testify about their findings.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 18%

Median Salary (2014): $88,890

Typical Education: Bachelor's degree in computer science or related field

Job Requirements: Some employers prefer candidates with voluntary certifications, such as Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP).

Forensic Accountants

Forensic accounting is a specialized area of accounting that deals with investigation and litigation support. Forensic accountants use their auditing, accounting and investigative skills for both criminal and civil matters. They may be hired to investigate securities fraud, money laundering or identify theft. On the civil front, they might be asked to examine financial assets in a divorce case.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 11% (all accountants and auditors)

Median Salary (2014): $90,634 (Non CFE accountants)

Typical Education: Bachelor's degree in accounting, forensic accounting, or finance

Job Requirements: Certified Fraud Examiner, Certified Public Accountant, or Chartered Accountant designations may be required.

Forensic Anthropologists

Leveraging scientific techniques, forensic anthropologists aid law enforcement by analyzing skeletal or decomposed human remains. They attempt to identify the age, sex, height and ethnicity of the victim and the general time of death. Most forensic anthropologists work at academic and research institutions, with some employed in medical examiners’ offices.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 4% (all anthropologists)

Median Salary (2014): $59,280 (all anthropologists)

Typical Education: Master's or PhD degree

Job Requirements: N/A

Forensic Nurses

Forensic nurses care for perpetrators and victims involved in criminal and traumatic events. They may specialize in fields such as domestic violence, child abuse or elder neglect. Forensic nurses evaluate and observe patients, collect and document evidence, and provide medical testimony in criminal and civil proceedings. They work across the healthcare and legal industries, including in hospitals, medical examiners’ offices and correctional facilities.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 16% (all nurses)

Median Salary (2014): $66,640 (all nurses)

Typical Education: Associate or bachelor's degree in nursing

Job Requirements: Registered nursing license required along with Advanced Forensic Nursing Credentialor Certified Forensic Nurse credential.

Forensic Psychologists

Forensic psychologists apply their knowledge of psychological research and techniques within the judicial system. The scope of their work includes assessing child custody situations, screening law enforcement applicants, interviewing and assessing defendants in insanity cases, providing expert testimony in court cases, and serving as consultants to legal teams. They may be employed in correctional facilities, mental health hospitals, private practice or government agencies.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 19% (all psychologists)

Median Salary (2014): $70,700 (all psychologists)

Typical Education: PhD with postdoctoral work in forensic psychology

Job Requirements: State license is required and certification from American Board of Professional Psychology is recommended.

Sociologists & Social Workers

Social workers are located throughout the court and law enforcement systems and are particularly prevalent in juvenile justice cases. Social workers might organize pre-trial drug diversion programs, supervise offenders after release, connect prisoners to support services, and conduct incarceration assessments.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 12%

Median Salary (2014): $45,500

Typical Education: Bachelor's degree in social work; clinical social workers require a master's degree

Job Requirements: State licensure is typically required.

Substance Abuse Counselors

Employed in a variety of settings, ranging from prisons to mental health centers to halfway houses, substance abuse counselors assess and treat individuals dealing with drug addiction, alcohol abuse and other behavioral disorders. Using treatment plans, they teach life and coping skills to clients, refer them to job training and other resources, and coordinate with professionals such as probation officers to track progress.

Projected Job Growth (2014-2024): 22%

Median Salary (2014): $39,270

Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree

Job Requirements: Private practitioners must be licensed in their state; to be eligible for licensure, they must have a master’s degree and clinical experience.

International Careers in Criminal Justice

The need to protect U.S. and foreign citizens against terrorism, extradite suspected criminals and combat cross-border cybercrime requires the work of criminal justice professionals abroad. Learn about employment opportunities in information technology, diplomacy, clandestine operations and legal services below.

Bureau of Diplomatic Security

International Opportunities

Worldwide 

Handles law enforcement for the U.S. Department of State, visiting foreign dignitaries and international diplomatic missions. Job titles include special agent, security engineering officer, security technical specialist, diplomatic courier and civil servant.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

International Opportunities

Worldwide 

Federal agency responsible for collecting global intelligence related to national security, with broad employment opportunities in intelligence analysis, security and cybersecurity, legal services and clandestine operations.

Interpol

International Opportunities

190 countries 

International police organization that connects member countries to identify and capture criminals. Employment arenas include protective services, financial crime, intelligence analysis, cybersecurity, counterterrorism and legal services.

FBI Legal Attachés

International Opportunities

64 offices worldwide 

Special agents assigned to work as liaisons abroad with foreign law enforcement agencies. They are responsible for obtaining information about crimes that could impact U.S. interests or citizens, building information networks and ensuring access to evidence and intelligence that could prevent terrorist attacks.

United Nations (UN)

International Opportunities

Worldwide with 193 member states 

Global organization responsible for maintaining international peace and security. Diverse employment opportunities exist in peace and security, human rights, and economic and social development.

United Nations Office of Drugs & Crime (UNODC)

International Opportunities150 countries 

Global organization that fights illegal drug trade by combating problems such as money laundering, corruption, organized crime and human trafficking.

Top 6 Skills for Criminal Justice Careers

While the different career paths in criminal justice are broad and varied, certain qualities are common throughout the field. 

1.Communication

Strong, effective writing and speaking skills are critical because communication is central to every aspect of criminal justice careers.

Being able to write articulately is one of the most important aspects of the job. The Supreme Court could very easily review what you write, so taking writing classes should be a priority. When taking criminal justice classes, you should never pass on the opportunity to take public speaking classes. This profession provides the opportunity to talk with children, victims, witnesses, attorneys, judges and politicians. Being able to communicate with a variety of persons, including the media is a vital part of the job. Being bilingual is also a plus, so taking foreign language classes is important.Thomas H. Williams

2. Problem Solving

Because they may face complex scenarios, criminal justice professionals should be able to adapt to rapidly changing situations, make quick decisions and rationally think through possible outcomes.

3. Physically Fit

Many careers in criminal justice are physically demanding, so prospective candidates should be in shape to pass physical training programs and meet job requirements.

4. Leadership

Strong leadership skills are required to direct others and respond to critical issues.

5. Collaborative Work Ethic

By their nature, criminal justice careers require teamwork and collaboration. Prospective candidates must be able to work well with others, listen and function as part of a team.

We all know from experience once you get into the criminal justice profession, there is very little that you do independently. Learning about your craft and working with other ethnic groups builds the foundation where a student can leave the classroom better armed from having gotten a degree and be better able to adapt to the growing diversity in public settings.Thomas H. Williams

6. Integrity & Altruism

Individuals should be honest with a great level of integrity and an ability to handle sensitive issues responsibly. A selfless attitude with a sincere desire to help others is highly valued.6

Additional Resources

American Bar Association *The ABA provides a range of resources regarding criminal law, including court case updates and links to resources in academia, corrections, prosecution and research.*
Department of Justice *The DOJ publicizes job vacancies at agencies as well as attorney and law student opportunities at the federal level.*
National Criminal Intelligence Resource Center *Cosponsored by the Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance, and U.S. Department of Justice, the NCIRC offers a wealth of resources for professionals in law enforcement operations and practices.*
National Criminal Justice Reference Service *The NCJRS is a resource hub with information about criminal justice topics ranging from juvenile justice, the court system, crime prevention and corrections.*
Office of Personnel Management *The OPM is the federal department responsible for managing federal job announcements and professional development training for federal agencies and employees.*

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