Criminal Justice Careers Types of Jobs, Required Education, and Salary Potential

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MoneyGeek Staff

Police officer. That’s the typical image that comes to mind when people think of someone who works in criminal justice. While law enforcement officers serve a critical function as first responders, there are numerous other jobs in criminal justice, from paralegals who work for attorneys to bailiffs who keep order in a courtroom. FBI agents and corrections officers are also part of the mix, and that’s still just a handful of examples in this broad field. Learn more about criminal justice careers, potential salaries, and education requirements to determine if this is the right path for you.

Exploring Careers in Criminal Justice

Societies need rules to function smoothly and peacefully, and by extension, someone to enforce those rules. Whether on the front lines as a law enforcement officer, in a crime lab working with forensics, or as part of the legal system bringing those who break the rules to justice, the varied efforts of workers throughout criminal justice combine to maintain a safe, functioning society. Below are examples of careers within this field:

Bailiff

Bailiffs are the law enforcement officers of the court system. Their duties include announcing a judge’s entrance, delivering documents to a presiding judge, escorting jury members into and out of the courtroom, and monitoring sequestered jurors to ensure they do not have contact with anyone.

  • JOB OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 5% to 8%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Most positions require at least a high school diploma and on-the-job training.

Security Guard

Security guards patrol, guard, and monitor their assigned areas to prevent theft, violence, or infractions of rules. Work may be performed by monitoring surveillance cameras from a central location or by patrolling on foot or in a vehicle.

  • JOB OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 5% to 8%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    High school diploma.

Jailer

Jailers guard both inmates and corrections employees in jails and prison complexes, according to established policies, procedures, and regulations. The job may also include searching cells and transporting prisoners to court, medical appointments, or other confinement facilities.

  • JOB OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 2% to 4%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    High school diploma and on-the-job training are required for most positions.

Criminal Investigator Supervisor

These management-level professionals are in charge of supervising a group of assigned criminal investigators. They are also responsible for ensuring that police officers collect evidence thoroughly and properly, and that investigations are completed and documented according to established policy. Accuracy is of the utmost importance as prosecutors build their cases based on these investigative reports.

  • JOB OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 27%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Master’s degree in criminal justice or law enforcement.

Forensic Examiner

Forensic examiners analyze evidence as either general examiners or specialists in a certain area. They may work in the private sector for insurance companies, or in the public sector for law enforcement agencies. Specialty areas include pathology, biological, engineering, media, and others.

  • JOB OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 27%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    A master’s or other professional level degree.

Forensic Psychologist

Forensic psychologists determine whether an individual is mentally stable enough to stand trial and they also provide consultation during court cases or may help investigators with criminal profiling. Other responsibilities include promoting the mental health of convicted criminals through a variety of treatment procedures, programs, and services.

  • JOB OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 19%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    A master’s degree in psychology is necessary; some positions may require a doctorate.

Emergency Management Director

These professionals develop emergency management plans at the local, state, and federal levels. Plans involve responses to events such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and other major incidents. Emergency management directors are usually on the front lines of coordinating the efforts of multiple agency response teams.

  • JOB OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 13%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Master’s degree in emergency management.

Fire Investigator
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 6%

  • Education and Training:

    Bachelor’s degree in fire science, engineering or chemistry, with experience as a firefighter or police officer.

Private Investigator
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 5%

  • Education and Training:

    Minimum of high school diploma, but some jobs require a two- or four-year degree in criminal justice or police science.

Air Marshal
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 4%

  • Education and Training:

    Bachelor’s degree, usually in law enforcement.

Police Officer
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 4%

  • Education and Training:

    Applicants must have at least a high school diploma, although many federal agencies require a four-year college degree in law enforcement or criminal justice. Knowledge of a foreign language is a plus, especially at the federal level.

Data Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014 and Occupational Information Network

How Much Do Criminal Justice Jobs Pay?

The number of jobs in criminal justice is growing faster than those in other careers and the high demand is translating to increased salaries. Some areas are also hiring more than others, such as Washington, D.C., New York, Delaware, Florida and Virginia, and the higher cost-of-living in these areas is also driving pay up. Take a closer look at national salary trends for various types of legal and criminal justice jobs:

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015

Deciding if the Criminal Justice Field Is Right for You

Because of the breadth of the criminal justice field, it’s difficult to nail down specific traits or preferences that are common to people that choose this profession. However, most positions fall into one of two general categories—law enforcement and the legal process—and individuals in each often share certain strengths.

Law Enforcement

Most people in this field thrive on interacting with others, even in the stressful situations faced by law enforcement officers. They usually have sound judgment and good decision-making skills. In addition, law enforcement officers must be persuasive communicators, skilled at gaining control of situations that are sometimes unpredictable or volatile.

Legal

In the legal arena, patience and persistence are the hallmarks of professionals who must deal with numerous people, from criminals to law enforcement officers to the many people who hold specialized jobs in investigative or judiciary capacities. These individuals are resourceful, with good research skills, and are able to apply logic to any number of situations or problems in order to “connect the dots” in facts surrounding a case.

Skills for Success in Criminal Justice

Criminal justice and legal professionals need a host of interpersonal and management skills, as well as expert knowledge and specific skillsets for certain specialty areas. They must also be well-versed in the tools that are relevant to the career, which can vary from firearms to advanced software for tracking crime data. Below are some of the common skills and technologies used in criminal justice:

Organization

Because so many criminal justice roles depend on the use of evidence, it’s important to be able to organize evidence and facts into a logical order or sequence, and to maintain a chain of custody to prevent tampering. In other capacities, keeping track of caseloads, coordinating team efforts, and recording documents also require strong organizational skills.

Interviewing

Extracting information from people, especially those who may be reluctant to give details, is a critical skill. Interviewers must be comfortable talking to a wide range of people and know the right questions to ask in order to get the information needed.

Decision-making

Criminal justice professionals do a lot of thinking on their feet—often in undesirable circumstances. Professionals who are responsible for people’s lives and livelihoods—even in non-emergency situations—must be able to make logical, even-handed decisions.

Communication

Verbal and written skills are critical across the gamut of the criminal justice career field. Most jobs require written reports, so it’s vital to create clear, accurate written accounts of events.

Computers and electronics

Most criminal justice jobs require the use of computers and other electronic equipment, such as body cameras. It’s also routine for criminal justice professionals to use informational databases such as the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification system (IAFIS) or the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

Firearms

Individuals in direct law enforcement usually carry a sidearm and also know how to use other types of firearms such as shotguns and Tasers.

Communication equipment

Two-way radios link first responders to supervisors and backup assistance. Law enforcement officers also depend on the electronic communication of visual information such as photos of evidence.

Postsecondary Education Options

Various levels of postsecondary education options exist in the criminal justice field. In general, education is sequential, so students may start with a two-year associate degree – or four-year bachelor’s degree – and then continue to work their way up the educational ladder as it suits their career goals. While it can easily take a decade to reach the doctoral level, criminal justice professionals are on the job long before that, building on their education gradually while simultaneously gaining on-the-job experience. Potential degree options within criminal justice are discussed below to give you an idea of what to expect during your academic journey.

Associate Degree

For many entry-level criminal justice jobs, an associate degree is the minimum requirement. In the course of these programs, students get a basic understanding of the criminal justice system as well as an overview of criminology and law enforcement. Most associate degree programs take two years to complete. Sample entry-level jobs with an associate degree could include sheriff’s deputy, paralegal, or computer forensic investigator. In addition to general education coursework, examples of course titles in a criminal justice associate degree program are:

  • Judicial Administration
  • International Criminal Justice
  • Juvenile Justice System
  • Criminal Law
  • Security
  • Ethics and Criminal Justice
Bachelor’s Degree

The next educational step – or starting point for some – is the bachelor’s degree. At this level, you’ll gain more in-depth knowledge of the policies and practices commonly used in criminal justice. You’ll also develop research and analytical skills that can be applied to a wider range of criminal justice occupations. Typical topics covered in this degree program include evidence recovery, crime forensics, criminology, correctional systems, criminal law, and communications. Individuals with a bachelor’s degree might work as an air marshal or computer forensic investigator, serve in general law enforcement positions at the local or state level, or take positions in security management in the private sector. Examples of bachelor’s level coursework include:

  • Domestic Violence
  • White Collar Crime
  • Race, Ethnicity, Crime, and Criminal Justice
  • Community Corrections
  • Law and Social Control
  • Communication, Conflict, and Negotiation
Master’s degree

Opportunities open up immensely with a master’s degree in criminal justice. Many federal positions with the FBI, CIA, NSA, DEA, and Department of Homeland Security – both in the field and at the management and supervisory level – become possible with a graduate degree. While there are some opportunities in the private sector, most positions at this level are in public service. During an 18-month to two-year program, students learn about analytical methods, forensic behavior analysis, terrorism, and cybercrime. Courses often include:

  • Crime, Mass Media, Society
  • Women and Criminal Justice
  • Law Enforcement Intelligence Operations
  • Homeland Security
  • Delinquency and Treatment Approaches
  • Comparative Constitutional Law
Doctoral degree

Though typically not required, some individuals working in criminal justice earn a PhD. Those who do so often aim to teach criminal justice at a college or university or do research for a private or public entity. Others take high-level administrative, supervisory, or managerial positions with investigative consulting firms, public policy groups, or corrections and government agencies. During these three- to four-year programs, students pursue a selection of core subjects that emphasize criminal justice theory, research, and policy. The program typically ends with a comprehensive exam and dissertation and defense. Core coursework in a PhD program could consist of classes such as:

  • Contemporary Criminological Theory
  • Statistics
  • Criminal Justice Policy
  • Qualitative Research Methods
  • Research Design for Causal Inference
  • Seminar on Criminal Justice Policies and Practices

Certificates

While certificates are not educational end goals in criminal justice, they are good options for providing the needed boost within a career or to make a career change. Some can serve as a launchpad to go on to obtain a bachelor’s degree, while others are aimed at giving students knowledge in a specific area to improve their credentials and make them more marketable. Certificate programs usually require about 15 credit hours and include courses in criminology, victimology, forensic psychology, and police and court procedures.

Specializations and Employment Settings

Due to the depth and breadth of the criminal justice field, there are numerous specializations within it. These specialty areas usually corresponding to the type of workplace and/or employer. Professionals may work for government agencies at the local, state or federal level as law enforcement officers or support staff; in corrections facilities dealing with incarcerated criminals; or in any number of investigative or social work roles, both in the public or private sectors.

While some jobs—such as standard police patrols—have been around for centuries, the rise of computer technology and improvements in areas such as forensic science have created many new specialties. Take a look at some of the major areas:

Corrections

One area of specialization within the criminal justice field is corrections. Most of these positions are found within a private or public jail or prison. However, a probation officer—tasked with monitoring the activities of released inmates—may be headquartered at an office building for a government agency, as well as spend significant time in the field.

Cybercrime

A growing area of specialization is cybercrime, a combination of computer science and criminal justice. In fact, through 2024, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an 18 percent increase in jobs for information security analysts, who specialize in investigating and protecting against cybercrimes committed via the Internet or other with other computer technologies. These professionals are experts in computer forensic investigative techniques and are able to trace criminal activity based on electronic footprints. They may work for private companies as security experts, for public agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, or for the cybercrime division of the FBI.

Forensic science

Forensic science is about collecting and analyzing evidence. Professionals in this specialty may be called to crime scenes to search for and gather evidence and may spend time in laboratory settings to examine and analyze the collected evidence. Employment in the specialty field is growing rapidly, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting 27 percent growth through 2024.

Exams, Certifications, and Credentials

Many criminal justice specialties have exams or certifications that are either required for employment or can significantly enhance the chance of being hired. Certifications demonstrate that professionals have acquired specific competencies within a given area and demonstrate a commitment to the field. Following are some of the certification options within criminal justice:

  • Criminal Justice Awareness and Terminology
  • Certified Criminal Justice Professional (for work with drug offenders)
  • Certified Legal Assistant (for paralegals)
  • Professional Peace Officer

Requirements vary by certification, but may include significant additional training. For example, the Certified Criminal Justice Addiction Professional (CCJP) credential usually requires several hundred hours of addiction education and participation in a supervised practicum, as well as passing an exam.

Other careers may require examinations as well. Most states require private investigators to pass an exam demonstrating basic knowledge of the criminal justice system, including legal and ethical considerations. Police officers also take an entrance exam before entering police academy training.

Resources for Finding a Job

Whether you are looking for an entry-level job or are a current professional seeking to advance to a supervisory or managerial position, several job boards list openings at various levels. Below are some of the ones most helpful in the criminal justice field:

  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF)

    The ATF fights terrorism, aims to reduce crime, and protects the public. The site has sections for special agents, industry operations investigators, attorneys, professional/technical roles, and internships. For job openings, you’ll be redirected to USAJobs.gov, but before applying, you can get more detailed information on careers and training on this site.

  • Corrections One

    Potential applicants can browse listings or search by position type and state. Recruiters can also post jobs to this site.

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation

    From their Job Opportunities menu selection, you can enter keywords to search jobs internally (for current FBI agents only) or externally (for all applicants).

  • Federal Bureau of Prisons

    The site lists various openings at facilities located throughout the country; users can select multiple criteria to narrow searches, including job type, salary, and location.

  • USAJobs.gov

    Many Federal government job announcements, including positions for the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration, are posted on this one-stop resource for Federal employment opportunities. You can search postings by location or keyword or simply browse all openings.

Building Your Experience: Criminal Justice Internships

A summer or more long-term internship is a great way to get valuable experience in criminal justice and also to see if a fulltime career in this field is right for you. Explore some of the current internships available at the time this page was created to see how you can get your foot in the door and start building a strong resume.

Cyber Security College Intern/Hewlett-Packard

Location: Roseville, Calif

Interns work alongside professionals to create solutions aimed at helping curtail cybercrime

Directorate of Operations Undergraduate Internship Program/CIA

Location: Washington, D.C.

In this full-time, paid internship, participants work with professionals who collect and disseminate foreign intelligence information to the National Security Agency, Department of Defense and State Department.

Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers Internship Program

Location: Various U.S. cities

College students participate in 12-week sessions with either a law enforcement or non-law enforcement (administrative) focus. Time is divided between work to support the FLETC, and training courses.

Honors Internship Program/FBI

Location: Washington, D.C., Quantico, Va., or an FBI field office

In this 10-week summer program, interns work side-by-side with FBI employees in jobs that combine high technology and law enforcement.

Pathways Internship/ ATF

Location: Varies

As part of the federal Pathways internship program, students from the high school to graduate levels may work at part- or-full time internships with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Some internships may lead to permanent positions.

Volunteer In Police Service/Fresno Police Department

Location: Fresno, Calif.

An excellent way to gain policing experience, this unpaid internship requires a commitment to a 50-week program working four hours per week under the supervision of a mentor.

Professional Associations & Organizations

Joining a professional organization is an ideal way to network with other like-minded individuals, keep abreast of the latest tools, techniques and trends, and find professional and job resources. Here are some professional organizations within the criminal justice field:

Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences

This international association promotes education, research and policy within the criminal justice field.

American Correctional Association

The association’s goal is to serve all disciplines within the corrections community through certifications, professional standards, accreditation, research, and professional development.

American Society of Criminology

Members from the academic, scientific and professional arenas are dedicated to pursuing knowledge about crime and delinquency, including consequences and prevention methods.

International Association of Women Police

This association’s mission is to unite and strengthen women in policing professions.

National Black Police Association

Dedicated to promoting justice, fairness and effectiveness in law enforcement, members focus on the effects of policing in minority communities, and serve as advocates for minority police officers.

National Criminal Justice Association

This organization works at the national level to help shape criminal justice policy at all levels of government.

National Sheriffs’ Association

Through research, education and training, this organization is dedicated to raising the level of professionalism of those working in the criminal justice field.

Updated: August 18, 2017