Criminal justice careers and degrees


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Introduction to criminal justice

Our political traditions are based on the agreement that all members of a society enter a social contract by which we forfeit some rights – for example, the right to club your neighbor over the head and steal his goat – in exchange for mutual security. Acceptance of this arrangement is necessary to transform chaos into order, the foundation of a society in which we all, more or less, can thrive. Alas we are not angels, and we must pass authority to the state to enforce this social contract.

This article outlines the contours of the criminal justice system meant to enforce this social contract and lays out the different career pathways available to potential students.

Criminal justice and criminology

The terms criminal justice and criminology are often assumed to have the same meaning. While they share some similarities, there are distinct differences between these fields.

Criminal justice is concerned with protecting people and delivering justice in society. Law enforcement, courts, and corrections facilities form the basic components of this system. It also includes rehabilitation agencies and probation or parole departments.

Criminologists study the reasons an individual commits a crime, how to effectively deal with crime, how society responds, and how to prevent future crimes.


Criminology focuses on the study of criminal behavior on individuals and society. Criminologists study the reasons an individual commits a crime, how to effectively deal with crime, how society responds, and how to prevent future crimes. Considering the best ways to successfully rehabilitate offenders, criminology focuses on how factors like race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or education influence crime.

Criminology students may have different career aspirations than those taking a criminal justice path. They look toward a career in investigative services, behavioral, or forensic sciences conducting research interviews, compiling statistical crime data, and formulating strategies for crime prevention. Criminology professionals provide law enforcement organizations with the tools and information they need to fight crime.

Anatomy of the criminal justice system

As a wise woman once told me – you can’t have a criminal justice system without the justice. The definition of justice has been the subject of much conversation over the past few millennia, but for our purposes we will simply claim that justice is not simple revenge or retribution, but must exist within a moral framework balancing punishment, rehabilitation, and deterrence. Our system is theoretically designed to get this balance right. What does that mean in practice?

Today’s law enforcement and criminal justice systems are interconnected. Law enforcement officials protect and serve their communities, responding to and investigating reports of crime. The accused is judged in a court of law which establishes guilt or innocence, and then determines appropriate punishment.

There is a specific sequence of events that occurs from the moment that a person enters the criminal justice system until they are released from prison, probation, or parole:

  1. law enforcement receives a report of a crime
  2. the police conduct research into the crime and arrest the suspect
  3. the suspect is charged and prosecuted, released from police custody or held in jail awaiting trial
  4. an attorney is called, or appointed if the suspect cannot afford one
  5. court case – where judge or jury decide whether the suspect is liable for the crime, and if so, the suspect is sentenced
  6. possible outcomes if sentenced are typically a formal warning, fines, probations, or incarceration in a correctional facility – depending on the crime committed

An individual that commits minor offenses or has no prior record may be eligible for a diversion or drug treatment program rather than entering into the criminal justice system. A grand jury may be convened before an arrest in certain serious felony cases such as those concerned with criminal organizations or large drug operations.

Some offenders leave the corrections system immediately after completing their prison term, though many go on parole after their release. Offenders can be returned to prison if they commit new crimes while on parole.

Different jurisdictions, including local, state, or federal agencies, often work together. There may be an agreement that one jurisdiction may try a suspect in court first, or that a federal official may take the suspect into custody.


The first jail to become a state prison in the United States was in Philadelphia.  Built in 1773, the Walnut Street Jail did not discriminate against gender, age, crime – admitting anyone sent to the facility.  Prisons in the border states on the eastern side of the continent soon followed, and by 1800 had increased to 5 prisons in total.

Once considered solely a system of punishment, the corrections system moved their focus to rehabilitation. This change can be attributed to people like Elizabeth Fry, social activist and prison reformer, whose work to improve prison conditions is based on her belief that: “Punishment is not for revenge but to lessen crime and reform the criminal.” While this view remains is somewhat debatable, prison as a crime deterrent and factor to reduce recidivism is accepted by many as one of the reasons for its continued presence.

Corrections officers enforce prison rules and help maintain order. They write reports, inspect the facility, and search for contraband. These officers also transport or escort inmates to different areas.

Just considering what a prison is actually for, incarcerating people against their will who have committed of crimes, it is not surprising that this environment is stressful for both inmates and employees.  People who work in corrections need to have a deep understanding of how this dynamic can play out in a crowded space occupied by individuals who are trapped in this situation.  Successful corrections officers can typically stay calm in high stress situations and know how to identify and avoid aggressive behaviors.  They require patience, good interpersonal skills, and the capacity to deal with criticism while maintaining integrity and professionalism.

Corrections professionals need to be responsible, able to work independently, and willing to follow company policies, such as the American Correctional Association (ACA) code of ethics. This code states that officers “respect and protect the civil and legal rights of all individuals” and maintain relationships with colleagues to promote mutual respect. Corrections officials also need to promote a safe, harassment-free workplace.

There are a variety of degree programs in corrections. Some programs may focus on working at the state or federal level, while others focus on community corrections.

Students who complete an associate degree are eligible for an entry-level corrections officer position, though many careers require a bachelor’s degree and specialized training. Examples include a corrections supervisor, program coordinator, or warden. Prospective students should check that their planned program meets the educational requirements for their intended career path.

Working within the field of corrections offers numerous career possibilities in addition to becoming a prison guard. Some graduates choose a career in probation or parole, treatment facilities, or at medical facilities for inmates. There are also opportunities in the education department at correctional facilities or in courts, where officers protect juries or serve as court bailiffs.

Law enforcement

Years ago, sheriffs were the only law enforcement officers within a jurisdiction. As populations grew, so did the need for local police departments. The first local police department was established in 1844 in New York. Chicago, Cincinnati, and New Orleans soon followed and before long, police departments formed across the country.

Today, law enforcement officers perform multiple duties, including deterring crime, responding to reports of crimes, and making arrests. They uphold laws and protect life and property within their jurisdiction. Law enforcement officers are trained to de-escalate a tense or dangerous situation.

From the perspective of a police officer or detective, the criminal justice process has the following steps:

  1. police officers identify and arrest a suspect at the scene of a crime
  2. the crime is assigned to detectives to investigate
  3. the suspect appears in court and a judge or jury determines the suspect’s guilt
  4. guilt is determined and a sentence imposed
  5. the convicted individual enters the corrections system

There are 3 levels of law enforcement: local, state, and federal. The various levels work independently but can collaborate to uphold the law.

Explore careers in law enforcement

The best law enforcement officers are able to maintain self-control in extremely difficult situations. This requires a high level of integrity, particularly because they may be expected to work independently. Law enforcement officers are expected to have respect for the law and the people they serve, with a commitment to fairness and equality before the law.

To be successful as a law enforcement officer you must be reliable, dependable, and responsible. The FBI notes additional key qualities, including service, honesty, integrity, humility, and purpose, along with having a positive and constructive attitude.

Managers in law enforcement provide employees with encouragement and support. A desire for continuous improvement requires officers in a supervisory position to promote changes that improve their department’s service.

The educational requirements for law enforcement vary based on several factors. Individuals that want to secure an entry-level position often choose to complete an associate degree in law enforcement. Education requirements vary by jurisdiction. Michigan, for example, requires a minimum of an associate degree for recruits. Applicants for advanced positions, such as police administrator or training officer, may need a master’s degree. A district court services manager needs at least a bachelor’s degree, although a graduate degree is preferred.

Prospective students should check with the jurisdiction where they want to work to learn about the minimum educational requirements.

Police officers are often the first thing that comes to mind when law enforcement is mentioned, but this is not the only role in police departments. Officers can find specialized roles in narcotics or homicide units, as detectives, and as supervisors. Police departments may require a minimum of an associate degree for officers. Some departments may also allow officers to start working while still in school.

While police departments are the primary employer for local law enforcement officers, there are employment opportunities in private investigation agencies, financial institutions, medical facilities, casinos, retail loss prevention, and fish and wildlife.

An individual that works in law enforcement may work for federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), or the U.S. Marshals Service. Federal law enforcement positions often require on-site specialized training for officers.

Federal and national security

Federal national security job responsibilities and training expanding beyond those of local law enforcement. Federal law enforcement officers can go anywhere in the country, whereas local and state departments work within their jurisdiction. The  Office of Justice Program (OJP) represents these federal-level roles and was developed as part of the Department of Justice to provide resources to prevent crime and strengthen the criminal justice system nationwide. OJP officials sometimes partner with local and state divisions.

The U.S. Marshals Service hires tactical operations officers and deputy marshals for fugitive operations. They hire aviation enforcement officers and judicial security professionals, both of which require specific training programs. Meanwhile, the CIA has programs for students to work alongside experts to gain real-world experience. Careers in the CIA include roles like intelligence analyst, staff operations officer, or science, technology, and weapons analyst.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) offers programs for students and recent graduates interested in working with them to defend the nation against digital, technological, natural, and man-made threats while building a secure infrastructure. Recent graduates who apply to the program within 2 years of completing a degree or certificate may be able to step into a permanent position after completing training. Professionals working at CISA perform roles such as cyber defense forensics analyst or vulnerability assessment analyst.

Explore careers in federal and national security

Federal officers are required to demonstrate integrity, honesty, and attention to detail. They show initiative and a willingness to take on additional responsibilities as necessary.

Employees that work in federal law enforcement, such as the Department of Homeland Security, are encouraged to use existing skills and talents in their work with the agency.

Federal law enforcement officials benefit from ongoing training, changes in duties, and significant job security. The role of national law enforcement continues to evolve as threats to national security emerge and new technologies are developed.

Some federal law enforcement positions require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Applicants commonly hold a degree in law enforcement, corrections, or criminology. Concentrations related to career interests are often available and can include cybersecurity, forensic investigation, or national security studies.

Many positions require an advanced degree, or a degree outside of law enforcement. FBI forensic accountants, for example, may have an undergraduate degree in forensic accounting, while an intelligence analyst may be hired without any previous experience.

Some jobs list only a high school diploma as the educational requirement. These include officers with the uniformed division of the U.S. Secret Service and transportation security (TSA) officers. However, the evaluation criteria considers a candidate’s previous experience, education, and training. Hence, it is advantageous to have a degree in law enforcement or a closely related discipline.

The National Security Agency (NSA) does not list general degree requirements, but notes that salaries are based on the  candidate’s education and experience. Candidates with an interest in inspection, investigation, and compliance should have a degree in criminal justice, criminology, or another accepted area, such as law. Education in criminal justice or criminology is also listed for positions in security and law enforcement and in the NSA departments of law and legal services. There are also careers in intelligence collection and intelligence analysis.  A second language definitely does not hurt.

All federal law enforcement officials go through a rigorous training program to gain the expertise to excel in their specific position.

In addition to special agents, the FBI offers positions in intelligence and surveillance. They also hire interpreters and language analysts. These professionals use their knowledge in culture and language to help defend the U.S. against crimes related to espionage, cybercrime, and counterintelligence threats.

The OJP requires professionals at many levels, including departments for civil rights, crime prevention, courts, tribal justice, and forensic sciences.

The Secret Service has career positions for special agents and uniformed officers that protect facilities and high-profile individuals. They also perform investigative assignments.

Professionals in national law enforcement often choose to enhance their skills through training programs and advancement opportunities. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) indicates that the Federal Protective Service, a branch of the DHS, represents the primary service provider for security and law enforcement at federal government facilities. There are several roles in the DHS that do not require applicants to have previous law enforcement experience.

Those considering a career with the Federal Protective Service are most successful after earning a degree in law enforcement or criminal justice. These professionals undergo rigorous training in areas such as dealing with weapons of mass destruction, assessing and responding to risks and vulnerabilities, supporting law enforcement, and counterintelligence investigations.


The courts are important at all levels of law enforcement. Local courts hear misdemeanor offenses that have minimal penalties. Examples of positions that may be available in the local court systems include bailiffs, screening officers, court administrators, deputy administrators, court reporters, and clerks.

State courts hear felony cases and certain civil cases. These courts are the final arbiters of the laws and constitution of each state. The accused typically enters the corrections system if found guilty. Corrections officers receive inmates from law enforcement officers and transport them to the state or federal corrections facility. Corrections departments transport individuals to other jurisdictions if there are charges pending elsewhere.

Some state court positions include judges, court bailiffs, court clerks, and transportation officers. Court administrators, prosecutors, program specialists, home detention officers, support specialists, and case managers often work for state courts. Public defenders can serve as attorneys for impoverished defendants in criminal courts.

The federal court system has jurisdiction over cases involving the government, constitution, and federal laws.


The federal court system has jurisdiction over cases involving the government, constitution, and federal laws. They also have jurisdiction over disputes between states and foreign governments. Bankruptcy cases are heard in the federal courts, as are cases related to naturalization and cases that reach the court of appeals or supreme court.

Employees in the federal court system include court clerks, administrators, screening officers, staff attorneys, judges, magistrates, judicial assistants, probation officers, or investigators. Careers are also available for support services and operations professionals, policy development professionals, technology professionals, and interpreters.

Attorneys work at all law enforcement levels representing defendants. An appeals attorney represents defendants that file an appeal for their conviction. Prosecutors are government attorneys who present a case against the individual accused of a crime.

The role of the states in criminal justice

States make their own laws to govern and protect their citizens. This means that each state determines its specific requirements for law enforcement and corrections licensing, certification, and training.  Texas, for example, requires that all jailers, peace officers, and telecommunicators complete a basic licensing course and pass a state licensing exam before being hired as law enforcement officials. The Ohio Peace Office Training Commission, which oversees the professional standards for Ohio law enforcement officers, stipulates that peace officers complete a training program approved by the commission.

All states require a minimum number of training hours. It is the responsibility of the individual states to ensure that law enforcement officers and corrections professionals receive sufficient training.

States cannot break federal laws.


States cannot break federal laws. State legislators, for example, cannot pass laws that deprive individuals of their constitutional rights. Should legislators breach this law, the state can be sued under the Supremacy Clause, Article V, Clause 2, which specifies that the U.S. Constitution and the Laws of the United States are the “supreme law of the land.” It also specifies that state judges are bound by both the constitution and state laws.

States often work with law enforcement officials in other states or at the federal level to protect and serve the public. For example, suspects wanted in one state may be apprehended in a different state. State and federal officials also work together in investigations in areas like fighting terrorism and reducing illegal drugs.

Future challenges in the criminal justice system

There are several challenges facing the criminal justice system today. Increasing diversity in workforce (for example employing more women and people from different ethnic backgrounds), community race relations, and domestic terrorism are some examples. Cybersecurity threats, both domestic and abroad, are another emerging challenge facing the criminal justice system.

Training criminal justice professionals in the latest technologies can help people working in criminal justice detect risks and respond to threats. Criminal justice professionals who have completed courses and training in technological advances  may be better prepared to meet new challenges.

The criminal justice system continues to evolve based on societal needs, new laws, changes to existing laws, and technological advances.


Criminal justice legislators and managers must examine the trends shaping the future of the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system continues to evolve based on societal needs, new laws, changes to existing laws, and technological advances. The addition of new agencies and organizations, along with evolving ideas on how to respond to criminality in society all have a role in today’s justice system.

Should you start a career in criminal justice?

Do you have a sense of pride in your work and a commitment to protect and serve the public? Are you honest and trustworthy with a strong sense of integrity and selflessness? Can you adapt to this changing landscape as policies trend away from punitive strategies toward more rehabilitative ones? If this sounds like you, you may be well-suited to a career in the criminal justice system.

National Institute of Justice (NIJ)
The National Institute of Justice is an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. Its objective is to research and develop tools for the criminal justice community to help them make informed decisions to reduce crime and improve the justice that is delivered.

American Correctional Association (ACA)
The National Institute of Justice is an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. Its objective is to research and develop tools for the criminal justice community to help them make informed decisions to reduce crime and improve the justice that is delivered.

American Society of Criminology (ASC)
The National Institute of Justice is an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. Its objective is to research and develop tools for the criminal justice community to help them make informed decisions to reduce crime and improve the justice that is delivered.

Crime and Justice Research Alliance (CJRA)
The CJRA is a centralized resource for research on crime and criminal justice issues. Policymakers, students, and the public can access research on crime and criminal justice issues via their website.

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