Criminal Justice Guide
Resources on this page
See if you qualify for a career in criminal justice based on your personality and background.
Prepare yourself for the classes you'll take while pursuing your degree.
Compare the pros and cons of online, traditional, and hybrid programs.
See how you'll fare on the job market with criminal justice training and education.
The goal of a criminal justice system is to maintain social order by creating laws that prevent and reduce crime. This system is defined by the interactions of four main constituents:
- A legislative body that creates, amends and ratifies laws.
- An adjudication process that defines how lawyers and courts must objectively conclude someone is guilty of breaking a law, and levy punishment.
- Law enforcement, which intervenes when someone has violated a law.
- A penal system that handles the incarceration and rehabilitation of criminals in jails and prisons, or on parole or probation.
In America, when someone violates a law, the four facets of the criminal justice system work together to respond: the person is arrested and/or taken into custody by law enforcement, held accountable in front of a judge in court, and may have to serve a punishment under the direction of corrections personnel. Police officers, lawyers, judges, probation officers, and corrections officers all work within the system to ensure that it is fair and efficient.
The field of criminal justice is, therefore, broad and multi-disciplinary, and presents numerous directions for study and eventual employment. The subject helps students examine criminal law, understand criminal behavior, predict trends in criminal offenses and victimization, and evaluate the overall effectiveness of laws, courts, jails, and law enforcement parties responsible for controlling crime.
Take Stock of Your Interests: Is CJ the Right Major?
To study criminal justice, and eventually work in the field, you should be interested in…
- Crime prevention
- Criminal law
- Helping others
- Criminal rehabilitation
- The administration of justice
You should also know…
Many criminal justice careers involve direct contact with community members, suspects, victims of crimes, and other criminal justice professionals. As a result, most criminal justice agencies have procedures in place to evaluate a prospective employee’s suitability based on his or her character or conduct. The purpose of these evaluations is to determine whether or not a candidate will uphold the agency’s integrity and reputation.
If you are interested in a criminal justice career, you should be willing to submit to a background investigation, drug testing, a medical examination, and psychological or character assessments. Job disqualifiers vary from agency to agency, but the most common are:
- A felony conviction
- Poor credit history
- Illegal drug activity
- A domestic violence conviction or deferred adjudication
- A DUI/DWAI conviction within three years prior to application
Find out about Classes you Will Take
If you’re interests are a good fit for the study of criminal justice, and you don’t envision any barriers to future employment, then the next step is to gain a good understanding of what you’ll learn if you pursue a degree in the field.
Criminal justice degrees include both theoretical and practical courses that work together to give you a comprehensive knowledge of criminal law, crime and delinquency, courts, law enforcement, and correctional facilities.
Theoretical courses include topics like minority crime, crime and social policy, criminology, or critical issues in corrections. Applied courses include things like DNA profiling, criminal procedure, and investigative procedure. To illustrate how these two components work together, consider the example of a police officer.
Let’s assume the officer has completed a criminal justice associate’s degree online, which has provided a “textbook” understanding of what crime is and how the criminal mind works. The officer’s theoretical understanding will help when attempting to recognize criminal activity or potential threats. This understanding moves from theoretical to practical application when the officer acts on his knowledge to investigate a crime or apprehend a suspected criminal.
Learn the Theory of How to Practice Criminal Justice
The theoretical aspect of a criminal justice degree examines the motives and behavior behind crime, crime prevention, and criminal justice. When you study theory, you are attempting to understand the underlying cause of certain actions or situations in order to know how to identify the best solutions to address those actions.
Theoretical learning in criminal justice will helps you understand the current practices and trends in the field so you’ll know what to expect once you graduate and start working.
Put your Learnings into Action
The practical aspect of a criminal justice degree teaches you how to apply the theories you learned to real situations. In applied criminal justice classes you will move beyond research and work on situational projects and assignments that allow you to demonstrate your understanding of theories and their applications. This can help you to think strategically, critically, and analytically, allowing you to analyze problems and identify your own innovative solutions when no pre-defined answer is available.
You will examine fundamentals of criminal investigation, including crime detection, case preparation, and interrogation. You will also learn the laws related to evidence collection and preservation, as well as how to manage a crime scene.
You will explore the objectives, use, and limitations of low-cost, short-term methods designed for the treatment, control, and re-education of offenders in a variety of institutional settings. You will also evaluate the effects of trained and untrained criminal justice personnel in correctional institution interventions.
You will examine the historical and contemporary role of criminal justice agencies in communities, and ways agencies can be agents of change to increase public safety and trust. You will investigate the advantages and disadvantages of citizen and community involvement, outreach, participation and mobilization as it relates to community and criminal justice.
You will explore organizational change methods specific to criminal justice agencies, and methods for maintaining the capacity for organizational change within the criminal justice system. You will learn management methods related to human resources, budgets, project planning and implementation, and organizational behavior.
Choose Your Path to a Degree
If you like the sound of what you’ll study in criminal justice, and would like to move forward with a degree, you have three options for where you can earn it:
By pursuing a campus-based degree, you will have face-to-face time with your professors if you need help with an assignment. Additionally, professors are experts in their fields and it is important to observe how they conduct themselves and communicate with their colleagues as professionals.
Participation in group projects and study groups can help you develop team building and interpersonal skills that are critical to professional success. You will also have access to social gatherings like sporting events and concerts, and a direct line to networking opportunities like job fairs, symposiums, and internships.
There are some disadvantages to attending an on-campus program, however. Since you have to be on-campus to attend class, you may have to pay for transportation. You may also have to pay to live in a campus dormitory, which requires specific additional costs associated with food and lodging.
You will have to spend time traveling to and from campus, which could be a heavy commute if you attend college in a major city. Also, your job, extracurricular activities, and other responsibilities have to be coordinated against your class schedule, which can vary by semester. You may also encounter a delay in taking the courses you need to graduate, because classes might not be offered every semester, or may fill up too quickly.
- Work full-time.
- Don’t live near a college campus.
- Have commitments that keep them from following a regular class schedule.
If you choose to study online, you will still have to turn in your assignments by specific deadlines and complete your courses within a set frame of time. However, you’ll be able to study at your own pace, and if you’re employed, you can keep your job while pursuing your degree in your free time.
Another benefit to studying online is that you can develop computer and Internet research skills that will help you in your career. Studying independently requires you to take responsibility for your own learning outcome, so successfully completing an online criminal justice degree can foster a strong sense of accomplishment and project your commitment to discipline to prospective employers.
A challenge to studying online is that it requires a lot of self-motivation and excellent time-management skills. If you have bad study habits, are not organized and disciplined, and have historically low motivation, you may be easily distracted from studying and fall behind in your coursework.
Another disadvantage is that even though you can communicate with your professors and other students using email, discussion boards, and instant messaging, it’s not the same as face-to-face interaction, and you may experience feelings of isolation. Also, not being on campus means you can’t take advantage of professors’ office hours, which can be a challenge if they aren’t available when you’re studying or need help.
Finally, it may be difficult for you to complete the hands-on practical coursework or labs you need, even in a simulated classroom or lab exercise.
However, they also require some on-campus sessions, which can help you maintain a sense of connection and collaboration with other students and your professors, while reducing the amount of time you spend commuting. The in-class component of these programs can help some students transition into online learning without completely giving up the feel of the traditional classroom experience.
The disadvantages of participating in a hybrid program are a combination of the on-campus and online program disadvantages.
For example, although you will attend classes on campus, you still may not have access to resources such as the library, the student bookstore, or even some of your professors, if your classes are held during the evenings or on the weekends.
And because hybrid classes are typically held in the evening, you may spend a significant amount of time in traffic traveling to campus during busy hours. You will also incur costs associated with transportation and parking.
Additionally, attending required evening or weekend sessions means you will have less personal time, which may be an issue if you have a family or other commitments. You will need to have the same self-motivation, time management, and organization skills required of online learners in order to keep up with project deadlines.
Carefully Consider Whether to Study Criminal Justice Online
Online criminal justice schools can be convenient options, especially for students with work or family responsibilities. Studying online does have some major advantages, such as the flexibility to work at your own pace and on your own schedule, and the absence of traffic and transportation costs.
But there are also caveats to studying online.
Earning an online criminal justice degree may mean you won’t have access to traditional college experiences and resources, such as participation in sports or student government, which can broaden your learning experience and help you develop leadership skills. If social interaction with other students is important to you, you should search for online community groups and online chapters of national criminal justice student organizations, such as Alpha Phi Sigma.
Additionally, if you are considering an online criminal justice degree in an area like forensics or law, a completely online degree may not be a practical option for you. The study of forensics, including crime scene investigation, forensic nursing, or forensic psychology, will require you to complete a considerable amount of lab work or clinical hours, which can’t be completed online.
“Taking theoretical courses online wouldn’t really negatively affect a student’s job prospects,“ says forensic technician student Ally Southerland. “However, courses like forensic photography or fingerprinting require lots of hands-on practice, which would make taking them online extremely difficult.”
Southerland also notes that taking practical courses online can limit your ability to gain experience in areas that are critical for job success. Therefore, you may be taking a risk with your career if you choose to take all of your practical training courses online.
If you’re interested in pursuing an online degree, it’s still possible to have a high-quality theoretical learning experience while taking advantage of the technological resources and schedules of online schooling. However, before committing to an online degree program, you should thoughtfully consider your career goals, and carefully research degree requirements to ensure that distance education will be a practical choice for you.
Online or On Campus, Give Yourself Enough Time for the Degree You Want
The time it takes to complete a criminal justice degree depends on: the specific criminal justice major or concentration you choose; the level of the degree; the number of credits you take per semester; and whether you attend school full- or part-time.
- Associate’s Degree: An associate’s degree in criminal justice usually requires 60 to 64 credits, or about 18 months to two years for the average full-time student.
- Bachelor’s Degree: A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice usually requires 120 to 128 credits, or about four years for the average full-time student.
- Master’s Degree: After earning a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in criminal justice usually requires 30 to 33 credits, or about 20 months to two years for the average full-time student.
- Doctoral Degree: After earning a master’s degree, a doctoral degree in criminal justice usually requires 72 to 92 credits, or about five to seven years for the average full-time student.
Ensure you Understand the Importance of Accreditation
Accreditation certifies that the education you get from a criminal justice school meets a specific level of quality. Accrediting organizations, which are private, national or regional educational associations, produce evaluation standards and conduct assessments to determine whether or not those standards are met. Institutions and programs that apply and meet those standards are considered accredited.
It’s important to note that although many criminal justice colleges are accredited, most of the degree programs themselves are not. This is because there is no specialized or programmatic accrediting agency for criminal justice programs in the United States. Programmatic accreditation is often optional; if the program you’re interested in joining does not have this type of accreditation, it’s not necessarily an indication of its quality.
Although there is not a specialized agency that accredits criminal justice programs, there are organizations like the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) that offer program certification. Certification, like accreditation, holds programs accountable for meeting standardized levels of educational quality. ACJS certifies associates, bachelors, masters, and doctoral criminal justice programs.
Typically, program accreditation or certification is not a requirement for employment in criminal justice. However, in most every case, your degree must be from an accredited college or university. Therefore, it is imperative that before you enroll in a school, you verify that the institution is accredited by a national or regional accrediting agency, recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, to ensure you receive a quality education that is comprehensive and will prepare you for a career in the field.
Investigate the Jobs You’ll be Qualified For
The criminal justice employment sector is growing rapidly, which means there are many career options and opportunities for growth and advancement. A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is a typical access point to a successful career in areas like law enforcement, corrections, and crime scene investigation. However, after you receive your degree, you may need further training at a police academy for most law enforcement jobs.
You can become a crime researcher, an administrator in a criminal justice agency, or a lawyer by completing graduate programs in criminal justice or attending law school. Ultimately, even earning a criminal justice associate degree online can prepare you for employment in a variety of organizations such as police departments, correctional facilities, law firms, courthouses, or social service agencies.
Police officers take an oath of duty to protect life and property in the communities they serve by investigating suspicious activities, issuing citations to individuals who break the law, and apprehending suspects accused of criminal behavior. Police officers also respond to emergency situations and investigate traffic accidents.
|Projected national job:||7%|
|Entry-level education:||High school diploma or GED|
|Work environment:||Police officers typically work in the field on patrol and at accidents and crime scenes.|
Correctional officers supervise inmates and individuals awaiting trial or sentencing. They also enforce the rules and regulations of the correctional facility in which they work.
|Projected national job growth:||5%|
|Entry-level education:||High school diploma or GED|
|Work environment:||Correctional officers typically work in federal, state, or local correctional institutions.|
Probation officers are responsible for overseeing adult or juvenile offenders who have been placed on probation instead of sentenced to time in prison. They typically track offenders’ treatment and rehabilitation to ensure they aren’t violating probation requirements or endangering their community.
|Projected national job growth:||18%|
|Entry-level education:||Bachelor’s degree|
|Work environment:||Probation officers work in an office setting within correctional institutions or government agencies, and also in the field performing home and worksite visits.|
Forensic science technicians and are responsible for collecting and analyzing evidence from crime scenes. They work with the police to help catch, convict, or acquit suspects in criminal cases. Because these technicians typically work in police department crime labs where they use science and technology to decode collected evidence, careers in forensic science can require additional math and science courses beyond what’s required for a typical criminal justice bachelor degree.
|Projected national job growth:||19%|
|Entry-level education:||Bachelor’s degree|
|Work environment:||Forensic science technicians typically work in police department crime labs, medical examiner offices, and on location at crime scenes.|
Prosecution attorneys typically work in government agencies as district or assistant district attorneys, while defense attorneys are private counsels who represent individuals who are accused of a crime. Outside the courtroom, lawyers advise and advocate for their clients’ best interests in legal, personal, and business matters.
|Projected national job growth:||10%|
|Entry-level education:||Professional degree (JD)|
|Work environment:||Lawyers typically work in law offices, government agencies, and in civil and criminal courts.|