In general, criminal justice refers to the vast collection of laws, professionals, courts, government agencies, and institutions that collectively make up the legal system. Because the field is so broad, there is tremendous diversity among the related occupations. Data for the careers listed below is collected from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), ProjectionsCentral, and O*NET Online.
More narrowly defined, criminal justice often refers to policing efforts, criminal investigations, and the correctional system. Described in detail by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), some of these criminal justice jobs include:
Police officers are primarily responsible for maintaining order and public safety. They work in well-defined jurisdictions, such as counties, precincts, or states, where they monitor potential criminal activity, regulate traffic, and respond to emergencies. These professionals have special law enforcement powers, such as the ability to arrest lawbreakers and issue citations. Officers can also be called upon to testify in court proceedings.
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists
Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists work with law offenders in various capacities. Those who work in prisons may regulate prisoners' schedules, determine their eligibility for parole, monitor their rehabilitation progress, and ensure their safety. Others may monitor formerly incarcerated persons to ensure they are abiding by the stipulations of their parole or release. In many cases, this involves helping an individual secure a job, inspecting their living arrangements, and maintaining close contact with their family members and associates.
Private Detectives and Investigators
Unlike police officers who are employed by local, state, or federal agencies, private detectives and investigators work for individual clients. These professionals may be hired to find information about a variety of cases, including insurance fraud, missing persons, theft, or stolen identities. While private detectives and investigators don't have law enforcement powers, they carry out many of the same duties under the same restrictions as their publicly-employed counterparts, such as conducting interviews, surveilling suspects, and testifying in court.
Lawyers work for individuals, businesses, and organizations in settings that require legal representation. These may include court proceedings, in which lawyers seek to defend their clients by interpreting the law, regulations, or previous rulings and recommending a course of action. Lawyers may work for the government as well, where they prosecute people who have broken the law or defend clients who are unable to afford their own attorney.
Criminal justice graduates can also find work in federal government agencies, often focusing on large-scale crime, interstate crime, terrorism, and national security. Among the specific criminal justice degree jobs are:
In today's data-driven world, intelligence analysts play an important role in collecting and analyzing information relevant to law enforcement officers. Their day-to-day duties can include monitoring public forums, using sophisticated software to track suspicious activity online, and gathering evidence for perceived security threats. Most intelligence analysts work for federal law enforcement agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or the National Security Agency (NSA), where they concentrate on analyzing domestic and international terrorism and other criminal activities.
Judges, who are also called magistrates or magistrate judges in some parts of the country, administer justice in our courts by presiding over court trials. They are often responsible for determining the sentence for a person who has been convicted of a crime in a criminal trial, or they may determine the defendant's liability in a civil trial.
Court clerks are another vital part of the legal system. They perform all of the clerical duties related to courts of law, including preparing the dockets, organizing potential jurors, keeping track of evidence, and maintaining records.
Fire inspectors examine buildings and other structures to make sure they are in line with safety codes, and they are often called upon to investigate the cause of fires and explosions. This may require them to utilize law enforcement powers, such as conducting investigations, interviewing witnesses, or charging suspects in cases of arson. Fire inspectors may be required to testify in court when there are criminal proceedings against a suspected arsonist.
Mental health is also closely connected to the criminal justice system. Many criminal justice graduates have a strong desire to assist individuals who have been convicted of crimes, have been the victim of criminal activity, or are members of vulnerable communities, such as children. Some decide to build a career in counseling by taking steps to become a counselor, possibly by combining a criminal justice bachelor's degree with a graduate degree in counseling or therapy. Others choose to serve the public through occupations like these:
Social and Community Service Managers
Social and community service managers help develop, implement, and evaluate public programs. Those with a criminal justice background may often work on programs that aim to improve public safety and order. As part of their job, social and community managers work closely with community members to identify their needs. They also work to secure funding and analyze data to determine whether a particular program is effective.
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors
Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors often specialize in working with specific types of clients. In general, however, they offer guidance and support to those who are dealing with mental health issues, problematic behavior, and addiction. After evaluating a client, they develop and implement a treatment plan and bring in additional resources if needed.
Social workers assist individuals by helping them identify their strengths and needs and by offering support in dealing with life's changes and challenges. These professionals may also connect their clients with resources like healthcare and job placement programs. They continue to monitor each client's situation to provide ongoing support and prevent future issues.
While a few criminal justice jobs require only a high school diploma or associate degree, many require a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. Most on-campus or online criminal justice degree programs require the completion of about 120 credit hours, and full-time students usually earn their degree in four to five years.
There can be a fair amount of variation in criminal justice bachelor's programs, so it's important to choose a program that aligns with your career goals. For example, if you're interested in developing technical skills in forensics or data analytics, you may want to choose a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree. But if you're learning toward a role in public service or planning to pursue further education in law, you may want to opt for a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree.
Similarly, many schools offer concentrations that help you prepare for specific careers for criminal justice majors. Some of the many possibilities include law enforcement, legal studies, investigative forensics, cybersecurity, homeland security, and restorative justice.
A few careers in criminal justice also require an advanced degree. For instance, if you hope to become a criminal justice educator at the college or university level, you'll need at least a master's in criminal justice. If you aspire to work as a lawyer or someday become a judge, a professional doctorate in law — known as a Juris Doctor (JD) — and several years of work experience are essential.
One of the most popular career choices for criminal justice graduates is to become a detective. Most detectives work for their local police force, state police force, or a federal agency, but some work independently as private investigators. Here, we explore detective careers in more depth.
In general, detectives are assigned to investigate serious crimes like robbery, fraud, or homicide to determine who committed the crime. While working on a case, detectives need to identify possible suspects and motives. They also collect evidence that can be used in court to prove the identity of the person who committed the unlawful act and explain how the crime was committed.
A detective's workday is likely to involve a wide variety of tasks. They spend a lot of time conducting interviews, discussing cases with fellow detectives, and drawing conclusions. They're also likely to use computers to research and view information related to their cases, such as public records or video surveillance footage. When they've collected enough evidence to make an arrest, they participate in the arrest process, and they're likely to be called upon to testify in court.
Detectives split their time between working in their office and going out in the field. In the office, they're likely to be conducting research on their case and writing reports. Outside the office, they can often be found examining the crime scene, interviewing witnesses and suspects, and gathering information from other sources. Investigators often work long hours at any time of the day or night.
Collaboration is an important part of investigative work. Detectives routinely work with crime scene investigators, forensic science technicians, medical examiners, lawyers, and others. Additional soft skills that can be valuable in this role are communication, active listening, observation, attention to detail, empathy, and creative problem-solving.
Currently, there are three major employers of detectives and criminal investigators. According to the BLS, there are 44,300 employed in local government, 40,130 employed by the federal executive government, and 22,060 employed by state government The following is the Census Bureau's demographic breakdown of this group of professionals:
The BLS provides additional detail on specific state employment levels:
Looking to the future, the BLS notes that nationwide demand for detectives and criminal investigators is expected to increase by 3% through 2032. There are many individual states projecting even more substantial increases in detective jobs:
To become a detective, you first need to meet certain requirements. According to the BLS, you must be a U.S. citizen, at least 21 years old, in good physical condition, and free of any felony convictions.
Candidates for detective jobs also need to have some prior work experience in law enforcement, which is why most police detectives begin their careers as police officers. A common career path is to train at a police academy, work for several years as an officer, pass a written exam, and then advance to the role of detective. Individuals who are hired by state or federal agencies also undergo extensive training before going to work as investigative agents.
Depending on where you live, your local law enforcement agency may require all new officer recruits to have a high school diploma, some college coursework, or a bachelor's degree. However, police departments almost always require officers to have a bachelor's degree before they can advance to the level of detective. Federal agencies, such as the FBI, also typically require job candidates to hold a bachelor's degree.
Entry-level detectives may be assigned to work with one or more experienced investigators to receive additional on-the-job training until they have mastered common practices and procedures. In larger police departments, state agencies, and federal agencies, detectives may specialize in investigating one particular type of crime.
Determining whether a career in criminal justice is worth it depends on your career goals and personal priorities. Viewed strictly from a financial standpoint, the salaries for many of the related occupations are not that high, so if you need to earn a college degree to qualify for your chosen job, you may not see the best return on your investment. It's also important to note that some occupations in this field can be physically demanding and even dangerous. Despite these drawbacks, a career in criminal justice could be exciting, intellectually stimulating, and rewarding.
A criminal justice degree is versatile, preparing you for quite a few different career paths. You may decide to go into law enforcement at the local level by becoming a police officer, detective, or criminal investigator. You can also go to work for a state or federal agency involved in law enforcement or homeland security. Additionally, you'll find opportunities to serve the public in human services, correctional system, or court-related roles. With additional education, you could become a lawyer, judge, or college professor.
According to the BLS, the median annual wage for detectives and criminal investigators is $86,280, but salaries range from $47,990 to $150,570. California, New York, and Arizona are among the states offering the highest salaries.
The number of years it takes to become a detective varies depending on your circumstances and where you work. In general, however, most states prefer to hire candidates who hold a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and have several years of work experience in law enforcement. You could accelerate the process by earning an online degree while concurrently working as a police officer.