How You Can Affect Social Reform and Change with a Master’s in Criminal Justice

The U.S. has no shortage of hotly debated criminal justice issues. Individuals, communities, political parties, and interest groups hold a variety of passionate — often opposing — viewpoints, which can make enacting nationwide social change a long and arduous process. Current key justice issues in the fabric of the American social movement include environmental justice, racial and minority justice, mental health justice, LGBTQ+ justice, and juvenile justice.

Current key justice issues in the fabric of the American social movement include environmental justice, racial and minority justice, mental health justice, LGBTQ+ justice, and juvenile justice.

Many criminal justice professionals help influence change in these areas by working directly in the justice system, using their voices and personal experiences to help advocate for reform from the inside out. Others work toward reform by engaging in outside advocacy, research, and political action; this can be done through volunteer work or employment with relevant organizations and nonprofits dedicated to driving research, public education, and nationwide change.

Undergraduate degrees in criminal justice and related subjects provide students with a broad survey of general and career-specific knowledge that is suitable for entry-level pursuits. Those who pursue a master’s degree build on this solid foundation by focusing on leadership and research; this graduate-level education allows individuals to contribute significantly to growth and innovation in their fields. A master’s degree prepares criminal justice professionals to make a significant impact on social reform.

Environmental Justice

Environmental justice emerged as an important idea in the second half of the 20th century, making it a relatively new concept in the U.S. political sphere. Broadly, this social movement focuses on the distribution of environmental risks and benefits. Minority-dominated areas and low-income communities disproportionately play host to waste management and high-pollution sites, including landfills, incinerators, and areas used for hazardous waste disposal. Known as environmental discrimination, this issue is tackled by environmental justice organizations and activists.

Another notable issue focuses on the protection of indigenous sites and natural resources, especially in the face of industrial development. This type of injustice was highlighted by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s high-profile protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016-2017.

The goals and campaigns of environmental justice are multifaceted, requiring the work of skilled individuals in many disciplines. Those interested in a career that can contribute to the environmental justice effort can consider positions involving research, policymaking, consulting, and education.

Important Legislation

Executive Order 12898Issued by President Clinton in 1994, this executive order requires all federal agencies to identify and address any adverse environmental or human health impacts of their programs, policies, and activities that disproportionately affect minority and low-income communities. The order directs each agency to develop strategies for implementing environmental justice.
Executive Order 13045Issued by President Clinton in 1997, this executive order seeks to address environmental health hazards that disproportionately affect children. Under this rule, the EPA must evaluate the effects of certain planned government regulations on children’s health and safety. The EPA must also justify how and whether said regulations are preferable to reasonable alternatives.

Recommended Degree Pathway

Individuals seeking a career in environmental justice might consider first completing an undergraduate program in environmental science. They can then enroll in a graduate program geared toward their desired impact, such as a master’s program in criminal justice or political science. Students might also consider this formula in reverse, completing a bachelor’s in a career-oriented field and then earning their master’s in environmental justice.

Environmental Justice Organizations

United States Environmental Protection AgencyThe EPA is an independent federal government agency established to protect environmental and human health. Concerning environmental justice, the EPA provides grants, project funding, and additional resources to communities around the United States. Students and graduates can access a wealth of environmental justice information and resources on the EPA’s website.
Children’s Environmental Health NetworkCEHN recognizes the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on low-income communities and communities of color. Through legal advocacy and public education, CEHN works to protect all developing children from environmental health hazards and to promote a healthier environment nationwide. Current students and recent graduates can pursue internships and volunteer opportunities with CEHN.
Indigenous Environmental NetworkNative groups and individuals established IEN in 1990 to address environmental and economic justice issues impacting indigenous peoples. This grassroots movement works to develop economically sustainable communities and mechanisms to protect sacred sites and natural resources in the U.S., Canada, and around the world.

Racial and Minority Justice

Increased racial tensions may seem like a recent trend driven by changes in the social and political climate. However, the U.S. is no stranger to racial justice issues. Our criminal justice system, in particular, maintains a fraught relationship with minority populations. The so-called War on Drugs in the 1980s caused a 500% spike in incarceration rates and disproportionately impacted minorities. Today’s incarceration rate of African Americans is more than five times that of white Americans. Additionally, though African Americans and Hispanics make up less than a third of the population, they account for more than half of all incarcerated individuals nationwide.

Supporting criminal justice reform and other racial justice campaigns is vital to ensuring and affirming the dignity and rights of Americans of color. College graduates can help make a difference in racial and minority criminal justice issues by working directly in the criminal justice system or by pursuing change through adjacent fields like social services and politics.

Important Legislation

First Step ActSigned into law in 2018, the First Step Act strives to reform the federal prison system and reduce recidivism rates. Provisions include mandating de-escalation training for correctional officers, expanding compassionate release for terminally ill inmates, and allowing federal judges to bypass mandatory minimums when sentencing nonviolent drug offenders with no prior criminal history.
Fair Sentencing ActSigned into law in 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act strives to lower disproportionate incarceration rates in communities of color by eliminating the five-year mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack cocaine as well as reducing the existing disparity (implemented by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986) between sentencing related to crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

Recommended Degree Pathway

The best degree path for a student interested in minority criminal justice reform depends on how they want to enact change, e.g., in a leadership position within the prison system or in research/political advocacy roles on the outside. One pathway to consider is earning an undergraduate degree in ethnic studies and a master’s in criminal justice.

Racial Justice Organizations

The Sentencing Project
This research and advocacy organization works to reduce the rate of incarceration sentences throughout the U.S. and address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. College students and graduates can access detailed, state-by-state data and additional research resources and publications on the organization’s website.
Black Lives MatterThis chapter-based, member-led organization — originally sparked by an activist movement — seeks to end violence and systemic racism toward Black people. Individual chapters organize to build influential power and to intervene against violence committed within local communities. College students and graduates can access a variety of racial justice resources on BLM’s website.
Mexican American Legal Defense FundMALDEF was formed in 1968 to help protect the civil rights of Latinos living in the United States. Today, MALDEF functions as a legal and political advocacy group, working in defense of education access, civil rights, employee rights, and fair justice access. College students and graduates can access resources like research publications on MALDEF’s website.

Mental Health Justice

Approximately one in five American adults experience some form of mental illness in any given year. Mental health is one of the most widespread issues in American society, yet it also stands out as one of the least understood, least accepted, and least addressed. Private citizens and political leaders alike tend to dismiss mental health problems and/or write off those who suffer from them. This type of prevalent social stigma leads to decreased access to mental health services. Increasingly, law enforcement officers — who often lack crisis intervention training — act as first responders to situations involving individuals struggling with severe, untreated mental illness. This lack of training can result in dangerous situations for suffering individuals and officers alike.

The U.S. faces an urgent need to increase both mental health justice and access to mental healthcare for the benefit of all Americans. College graduates can help in this complex area of social reform by pursuing leadership roles in criminal justice or careers in social services, politics, and advocacy.

Important Legislation

21st Century Cures ActEnacted by the U.S. Congress in 2016, this act provided funding to the National Institutes of Health for mental health research and development. Funding also provides community grants for mental health resources, suicide prevention, intervention programs, and de-escalation training for law enforcement.
Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction ActPassed into law in 2004, this act authorizes the awarding of federal grants to organizations and eligible state, local, and tribal governments. Grants are used to create and expand mental health courts and programs for adults and juveniles facing criminal charges who suffer from mental health issues or apparent symptoms.

Recommended Degree Pathway

College students who want to assist in reforming mental health treatment in the world of criminal justice might consider pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master’s in criminal justice. Alternatively, they could pursue an undergraduate degree in criminal justice and a master’s in human services counseling or crisis response.

Mental Health Justice Organizations

Mental Health AmericaFounded in 1909, MHA strives to promote mental health as a critical part of overall human wellness in America. This nonprofit, community-based organization engages in advocacy and provides resources and services to those suffering from mental illness. College students and graduates can find a wealth of information on MHA’s website.
National Alliance on Mental IllnessOne of the largest grassroots organizations dedicated to mental health, NAMI consists of state organizations, local affiliates, and volunteers. NAMI priorities include public education programs and political advocacy. College students can join an on-campus chapter of NAMI and find mental health information on the organization’s website.
National Council for Behavioral HealthThis nonprofit is comprised of more than 3,000 member organizations offering mental healthcare services across the United States. Through political advocacy, the organization strives to guarantee mental healthcare access for all Americans. The organization’s website contains a variety of informational resources on policy action and mental illness.

LGBTQ+ Justice

A 2011 survey by The Williams Institute estimated that roughly nine million individuals — or about 4% of the U.S. population — identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. However, much has changed over the past decade. With growing societal acceptance and legal protections, more Americans than ever now live outside of the closet — so much so that millennials hold the informal title of “the gayest generation in history.”

Despite immense progress, the LGBTQ+ community still faces significant discrimination today. Many restrictive state laws deny certain legal benefits to same-sex spouses. In some jurisdictions, LGBTQ+ parents face discrimination in fostering and adoption. Transgender Americans also suffer from staggering rates of violent hate crimes.

Federal recognition of same-sex marriage did not mark the end of the journey toward LGBTQ+ equality. College students interested in this important social cause can make an impact through careers in advocacy, politics, and human services.

Important Legislation

Equality ActOriginally proposed in 1974 and still striving for approval today, the Equality Act would, if signed into law, amend the Civil Rights Act to outlaw discrimination nationwide on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in areas including employment, housing, and public accommodations. Currently, discrimination in these basic areas remains legal in several states.
Executive Order 13087Signed by President Clinton in 1998, this executive order prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in federal government positions. An additional 2014 amendment added language to protect against gender identity discrimination. These protections only apply to federal government employees, leaving many LGBTQ+ Americans vulnerable to local and state employment discrimination.

Recommended Degree Pathway

Professionals working in government, criminal justice, advocacy, and law must work together to continue advancing nationwide protections for LGBTQ+ people. Earning an undergraduate degree in LGBTQ+ studies with a master’s in criminal justice, political science, or strategic communication can help propel your career in this area of social reform.

LGBTQ+ Justice Organizations

Human Rights CampaignOperating as the largest LGBTQ+ advocacy and political lobbying organization in the U.S., this organization focuses on protecting and expanding legal rights and protections for LGBTQ+ people. Political priorities include marriage equality, anti-discrimination legislation, and hate crime legislation. Students and recent graduates can apply for HRC internships and access online resources relating to LGBTQ+ issues.
National Center for Transgender EqualityFounded in 2003, this nonprofit organization works to advance the equality of transgender Americans, primarily through political advocacy and media activism. Key NCTE issues include employment and housing discrimination, criminal justice reform, violence and hate crimes, and healthcare access. Current students and recent graduates can apply for NCTE internships.
Lambda LegalLambda Legal is a civil rights organization focused on securing full recognition of the rights of LGBTQ+ people and all individuals living with HIV/AIDS. This organization engages in impact litigation, societal education, and public policy work. Students and graduates can volunteer their time and access information on LGBTQ+ issues through Lambda Legal’s website.

Juveniles and the Criminal Justice System

Adult court systems generally focus on punishment and penalties, while juvenile court systems focus on rehabilitation and diversionary programs. However, some Americans under the age of 18 — particularly in the case of violent crimes — are tried as adults. In a 1998 study of 40 major urban counties, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that more than 7,000 juveniles were charged as adults in criminal court cases.

The act of charging juveniles as adults often comes under ethical and moral scrutiny. Proponents believe that violent crime is violent crime, even if committed at a young age. Critics, however, argue that charging young people as adults discounts vital considerations, including the still-developing brains of juveniles and parental responsibilities.

Professionals who advocate for change in the juvenile justice system include politicians, psychologists, and leaders in the criminal justice system.

Important Legislation

Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention ActOriginally signed into law in 1974, this legislation provides federal funding to states who adhere to the following: disallowing detainment of truants, runaways, or curfew violators in juvenile facilities or adult jails; disallowing contact between adult and juvenile offenders; and limiting placement of juvenile offenders in adult jails.
Juvenile Justice Reform ActSigned into law in 2018, this legislation reauthorizes the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to reflect the latest research and criminal justice practices. The reauthorization improves educational services for juveniles in facilities, eliminates the use of restraints on pregnant girls, and strives to address trauma faced by youth and their families.

Recommended Degree Pathway

To promote continued improvement of the juvenile justice system, prospective college students might consider pursuing leadership careers by obtaining an undergraduate degree in juvenile justice and a master’s in criminal justice. Graduate programs offering a family and community justice concentration may also be particularly relevant.

Juvenile Justice Organizations

Coalition for Juvenile JusticeCJJ brings together state advisory groups, organizations, adults, and youth to work toward the reduction of juvenile delinquency and to uphold higher standards of care for youth in the justice system. CJJ offers public education, promotes evidence-based policies, and helps states meet the requirements of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.
National Juvenile Justice NetworkWith 53 organizational members across 43 states, NJJN is one of the leading voices in the movement for juvenile justice system reform. NJJN advocates for both state and national policy reform to support the dignity of youth in the justice system. NJJN works in partnership with the overarching movement for racial justice.
National Center for Youth LawNCYL is a nonprofit law firm working to support low-income youth by transforming public agencies that serve them. Focus areas include education, foster care, juvenile justice, immigration, and mental health. College students and graduates can access a variety of scholarly resources on NCYL’s website.

Criminal Justice Expert Insight

Miriam Northcutt Bohmert

Miriam Northcutt Bohmert, assistant professor of criminal justice at Indiana University, is an expert in topics related to gender, social justice, sexual assault, restorative justice, prisons, and community supervision. Northcutt Bohmert has worked with the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Justice on issues concerning prisoner reentry. She is also a member of the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and the American Sociological Association.

Dr. Northcutt Bohmert has been published in several academic journals, including Criminal Justice & Behavior, Criminal Justice Policy Review, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, British Journal of Criminology, The Prison Journal, and Social Forces. Northcutt Bohmert received her Ph.D. in criminal justice from Michigan State University, her MA in sociology from Bowling Green State University, and her BA in sociology from Hope College.

Explore Criminal Justice Programs

In some jurisdictions, securing employment as an entry-level police officer may only require individuals to complete non-degree police academy training. For other jobs in criminal justice and adjacent fields — especially leadership positions — college programs provide the key to success. Today, students can earn a variety of degrees both online and on campus.

Criminal Justice Bachelor’s Programs

A bachelor’s degree fulfills minimum education requirements for many entry-level and advanced criminal justice careers. You can visit this page to access detailed information about common curriculum components, degree cost and financing, considerations to keep in mind when choosing a program, and national salary data and employment outlooks for graduates in the field.

Criminal Justice Master’s Programs

While many bachelor’s degree graduates pursue immediate employment in the workforce, others seek out additional training by enrolling in a master’s program. For aspiring criminal justice professionals, complementing undergraduate education with a master’s in legal studies or a master’s in criminal justice can open the door to advanced job opportunities.

These two degrees share a number of overlapping characteristics and learning outcomes. The key difference lies in the overall focus: law enforcement (in a criminal justice program) or the justice system (in a legal studies program). On the two pages linked above, prospective students can explore information about each degree type, including curriculum components, employment outlooks, and financing options.

Learn More About Criminal Justice Careers

Eager to learn more about educational and employment options in criminal justice? Visit this page for an in-depth exploration of potential pathways. Learn more about undergraduate and graduate degrees, investigate available online programs in your home state, and browse more than two dozen legal and criminal justice careers.