What Is Criminal Justice? A Complete Guide to Criminal Justice Degrees and Jobs

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What Is Criminal Justice Exactly?

Criminal justice entails the assessment of crime and the delivery of justice. It can refer to investigation and law enforcement, the law and justice system, forensic psychology and crime scene investigation, and the correctional and rehabilitation system.

You can jump right into the criminal justice field with just a certificate or earn a criminal justice degree. Some students do both, holding criminal justice jobs while working toward online degrees in the field.

In this guide, we walk you through the various criminal justice careers you can pursue and the educational paths you can take to get there.

What Types of Criminal Justice Programs Are There?

If you wish to pursue a career in criminal justice, there are several educational options you can choose from.

Students can find jobs in the field at every level, even with a six-month certificate. Note that you can always advance your education as you advance in your career.

Explore below to learn more about criminal justice programs in your state and what kinds of programs you can enroll in.


Certificate in Criminal Justice

If you’re eager to join the workforce, you can complete a certificate in criminal justice.

Certificate programs typically take six months to a year to complete. You’ll take foundational courses like criminology, introduction to criminal justice, criminal behavior, and criminal justice ethics.

You can get a general criminal justice certificate or a certificate in a specific subfield, like forensic science, criminal law, cybersecurity, law enforcement, and criminal investigation.

A criminal justice certificate can qualify you for jobs such as:

  • Correctional officer
  • Forensic investigator
  • Law enforcement officer
  • Municipal clerk

Associate in Criminal Justice

In a criminal justice associate program, you’ll learn communication skills, research literacy, statistical analysis, and cultural awareness. Associate degree programs typically last two years. Afterward, you can transfer credits to a bachelor’s degree.

Common courses include introduction to criminal justice, the United States judicial system, criminal procedure, criminology, and justice administration.

An associate degree in criminal justice prepares you for many entry-level careers in criminal justice, such as:

  • Court administrator
  • Fire investigator
  • Paralegal
  • Police officer
  • Private investigator

Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice

In a criminal justice bachelor’s degree program, you’ll take courses like behavioral psychology, criminology, victimology, ethical dilemmas, forensic science, and the American justice system.

Bachelor’s programs typically take four years to complete and comprise around 120 credits. An online criminal justice program or part-time program can offer ample flexibility for those hoping to begin working in criminal justice while they study.

In addition to being a minimum requirement for graduate school, a bachelor’s in criminal justice can qualify you for careers like:

  • Criminal investigator
  • Detective
  • FBI agent
  • Forensic psychologist (prepares you for a graduate program in forensic psychology)
  • Forensic science technician
  • Lawyer (prepares you for law school)

Master’s in Criminal Justice

With a master’s degree in criminal justice, you can qualify for leadership positions, raise your salary potential, and advance in your career. These programs typically last two years.

Master’s in criminal justice courses generally focus on the theory behind many criminal justice topics and how to apply those theories in leadership roles. You’ll learn about administrative and leadership preparation and analysis and research methods.

Graduates of a master’s in criminal justice program can pursue the following roles:

  • Correctional officer supervisor
  • Criminal profiler
  • Cybersecurity investigator
  • Intelligence analyst
  • Victim advocate

Ph.D. in Criminal Justice

While most careers in criminal justice don’t require a Ph.D., a doctorate can be a great choice for those who wish to establish a career in academia and become experts in their field.

The first year of a Ph.D. in criminal justice program typically covers an advanced examination of criminology, criminal justice policy, the legal system, and research design.

Doctoral programs can take students anywhere from 4-7 years to complete depending on their subject specialization and research project.

Why Accreditation Matters for a Criminal Justice Degree

When a college or academic program has been accredited, it means that independent accreditors have evaluated its educational quality and determined the institution or program has met certain standards.

Legitimate accrediting bodies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

To check whether a school is accredited, look for its name in the ED’s database and on CHEA’s website.

Accreditation is essential for ensuring that you receive a high-quality education and that you can qualify for federal financial aid. It is also important for applying for licensure or graduate school. Future employers may only recognize a degree from an accredited institution.

Criminal Justice Jobs and Salary Outlook

You can pursue many careers with a criminal justice degree. For example, you could go into law enforcement and investigation, correctional rehabilitation and policing, forensic science and research, or the court and justice system.

Both salary averages and job growth rates vary significantly for criminal justice careers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that law enforcement workers as a whole earned a median annual salary of $61,190 in May 2021. The number of jobs in this field is projected to fall 2% from 2021-2031.

Careers in the court system, like lawyer and judge, tend to earn more and have a more positive job outlook. For instance, the projected job growth rate for lawyers is 10% from 2021-2031.

10 Popular Criminal Justice Jobs
Job Median Annual Salary (May 2021) Job Growth Rate (2021-2031) Minimum Education Required
Lawyers $127,990 10% First-professional
Detectives and Criminal Investigators $83,640 -1% High school diploma
Transit and Railroad Police $64,930 3% High school diploma or bachelor’s
Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers $64,610 3% High school diploma or bachelor’s
Postsecondary Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Teachers $64,600 10% Doctorate
Forensic Science Technicians $61,930 11% Bachelor’s
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists $60,250 0% Bachelor’s
Private Detectives and Investigators $59,380 6% High school diploma
Bailiffs $48,320 -4% High school diploma
Correctional Officers and Jailers $47,920 -10% High school diploma

Source: BLS

Frequently Asked Questions About Criminal Justice

What is the highest-paying job in criminal justice?

Judges have the highest-paying job in criminal justice. These professionals earned a median annual salary of $128,710 in May 2021, according to the BLS.

Another lucrative position is lawyer. The BLS reports that lawyers earned an annual median salary of $127,990 in May 2021. Lawyers also have the opportunity to advance to partner-level positions and can earn as much as seven figures at successful firms.

Is criminal justice in high demand?

The demand for criminal justice careers varies widely depending on the job and field.

Lawyers, forensic scientists, law enforcement educators, and private investigators are all in-demand jobs with positive projected growth rates. On the other hand, correctional officers, bailiffs, and detectives are projected to experience negative job growth in the coming decade, according to the BLS.

Is a criminal justice degree hard?

A criminal justice degree can be fairly rigorous. You’ll typically be required to do extensive research, draw conclusions in essays, analyze crime data and current trends, and eventually complete field training.

Difficulty is subjective and will depend on your personal strengths and interests. If you listen to crime podcasts and enjoy puzzle-solving, you’ll likely thrive in a criminal justice degree program.

Is there a lot of math in criminal justice?

Criminal justice programs often require a year of math courses, usually in algebra and statistics. Math is not a huge part of a criminal justice degree, but the subject is still important for your foundational education.

In a criminal justice career, you may use math to analyze crime statistics, measure crime scene angles to calculate the order of events, and understand probabilities.

Are criminology and criminal justice the same?

While sometimes used interchangeably, criminology and criminal justice are, in fact, distinct disciplines.

Criminology entails the study of the psychological behavior of criminals and the sociological impact of crime. This field is more research-focused and seeks to answer the “why” — namely, why do people commit crimes?

Criminal justice, by contrast, focuses more on the justice system, law enforcement, and the correctional system. It’s more action-based and seeks to answer the “how” questions — how can we prevent crime? How was this crime committed?