Criminal Justice Careers
A career in criminal justice could land you in a courtroom or a forensics laboratory, a town police officer’s uniform, or inside a massive federal agency. This page will cover the three main branches of criminal justice and some of the most popular careers within each branch. You’ll get an understanding of the educational requirements and a peek at what you can expect, depending on which career you choose.
How to Begin a Career in Criminal Justice
The Bureau of Justice Statistics developed a flowchart that outlines the many varied paths suspects can take from the moment a crime is committed to the time they exit the system. The visual aid is a massive and tangled web that, at a glance, looks more like a New York City subway map than an instructional chart. It details dozens of points into, out of, and through the system—and each one requires the work of criminal justice professionals.
The three branches of criminal justice offer a vast and varied pool of career choices. Likewise, your choices of majors, concentrations, and degrees are equally varied.
Many jobs involved with each of those varied paths begin with a bachelor’s degree. It is possible—in some fields in some parts of the country—to begin a career with a high school diploma. In most cases, however, you’ll need an undergraduate degree or at least an associate degree to be a competitive candidate, even if it’s not technically required. This is especially true for large federal agencies like the FBI, DEA, and the Department of Homeland Security.
Jobs in the Three Branches of the Criminal Justice System: An Overview
All careers in criminal justice fall under three broad umbrella groups:
Law enforcement officers are the first line of defense. They enforce the laws of their communities and country and intervene when people break those laws.
Law enforcement personnel patrol communities, conduct investigations, work to prevent crimes, apprehend the perpetrators of crimes, conduct surveillance, make arrests, and gather evidence to build cases against suspects. This page profiles police officers, detectives, forensic science technicians, and homeland security agents, but the list of law enforcement careers is much longer. Among the professionals not discussed here are police dispatchers, customs and border patrol agents, crime scene investigators, FBI and DEA agents, and federal marshals. Law enforcement officers and organizations often work together.
Police officers are usually the first to make hands-on contact with people suspected of breaking the law. They patrol neighborhoods, respond to emergency calls, pursue, apprehend, and process suspects, gather evidence, interview witnesses, enforce traffic laws, investigate accidents, testify in court, and enforce court orders.
According to the most recent data (May 2017) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 662,390 police and sheriff patrol officers work America’s streets and highways. Their median annual salary is $61,050.
The vast majority of police departments require a high school diploma, and many require a minimum of an associate degree. Others will only consider applicants with a bachelor’s degree, a credential that is often required for career advancement even in the departments that don’t require one for new hires. Police officers must also complete specialized training at a police academy and in most cases complete a probationary period of employment.
Although they generally have police powers, detectives focus on conducting post-crime investigations more than crime prevention and suspect apprehension. America’s 103,450 detectives earn a median salary of $81,920, according to the BLS. They use preliminary evidence gathered by police officers to investigate crimes. During the course of their investigations, they’ll gather evidence of their own, including physical, testimonial, forensic, digital, statistical, documentary, and demonstrative evidence to further their investigations, identify and track down suspects, and build cases.
Detectives work for police departments and sheriff’s offices as well as for federal agencies like the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Postal Service. Traditionally, law enforcement detectives must first serve as uniformed patrol officers. They often have to pass advanced examinations to be promoted to the status of detective.
Forensic Science Technicians and Forensic Scientists
You’ll have to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher to become one of America’s 16,700 forensic science technicians, according to BLS data from 2018. If you do pursue a career in this exciting discipline, you might work in the field, in the laboratory, or both. Tasks include analyzing crime scenes, looking for evidence, and determining what evidence to collect and preserve. You might record the crime scene through photography or other documentation, or work to recreate the scene of a crime or an accident.
In the lab, you’ll analyze evidence collected in the field, including anything from biological evidence like hair and blood to physical evidence like tire tracks, tool marks, or shell casings. You might also consult with other experts in fields like toxicology or DNA and be called to provide expert testimony in court. According to BLS, job growth in the field is projected to grow by 14%—much faster than average—between 2018-2028.
Homeland Security Agents
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is a massive, sprawling federal agency that was formed in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Like all big federal agencies, most DHS careers require a bachelor’s degree, particularly for those interested in career advancement. Statistics on potential salary and projected job growth are hard to come by, but DHS states that more than 240,000 people work in the department—that’s nearly a quarter-million employees in a single federal agency.
Those employees have a huge variety of duties, all of which are focused on the same general mission: safeguarding the United States of America. Its agents work in cybersecurity, border enforcement, and aviation. They inspect chemical facilities, respond to disasters, and pursue leads about domestic and foreign terrorist plots, just to name a few of the agency’s responsibilities.
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Criminal justice professionals work to prove or disprove charges against apprehended suspects or decide their level of culpability.
The courts are where the people apprehended by law enforcement officers receive due process regarding their guilt or innocence for the crimes they’re charged with committing. Like law enforcement, the courts are organized at municipal, state, federal, and special-jurisdiction levels, and the judicial process varies from one court to the next. Generally, however, pretrial services are followed by an arraignment, which is followed by a trial and, if guilt is determined, sentencing and appeal. Criminal courts employ paralegals, judges, and attorneys, which are profiled in this section. The courts, however, rely on many other professionals to function, including bailiffs, stenographers, and clerks.
Paralegals support lawyers and law firms throughout all phases of legal cases. If you choose to become one, you’ll conduct research, investigate and gather facts, produce legal documents, interview witnesses, draft correspondence, summarize reports, arrange evidence, and assist at trial.
According to 2018 BLS data, paralegals earned a median annual salary of $50,940. The most common entry-level credential is an associate degree, which usually takes two years to complete. Jobs in the field are expected to grow by 12% between 2018-2028, which is much faster than average.
Also commonly called lawyers, attorneys work on both sides of criminal proceedings and play a crucial role in America’s criminal justice system. Every criminal suspect is entitled to representation by one, according to the U.S. Constitution. Attorneys work as prosecutors representing the government’s attempt to prove the guilt of the people charged as well as in defense of the accused. Defense attorneys might be private attorneys or public defenders.
According to BLS data from 2018, attorneys earn a median salary of $120,910 per year. The field is projected to grow at an average rate of 6% between 2018 and 2028. To become an attorney, you must earn a bachelor’s degree and then go to law school. You’ll earn a specialized doctoral degree that gives you the title of Juris Doctor. Finally, you’ll have to pass your state bar exam.
Judges serve as umpires during trials and all other court procedures. In non-jury trials, they determine guilt or innocence. They oversee fair proceedings by ensuring both the prosecution and defense follow proper procedures. They research legal precedent, evaluate arguments presented by both parties, oversee jury selection, determine which pieces of evidence are admissible, write opinions, issue instructions, and render decisions.
According to BLS data from 2018, America’s 45,000 judges earned a median salary of $117,190 and job growth is projected at 3%, which is slower than average. To become a judge, you’ll have to earn a law degree and serve for an unspecified number of years to gain courtroom experience.
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Those who are found guilty of crimes and require incarceration or supervision are then turned over to America’s large and crowded corrections system.
Once criminal suspects plead guilty or are convicted in the courts, they are turned over to the custody of the third branch of the criminal justice system: corrections. The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration and correctional supervision. 6.7 million Americans are under correctional control, with 2.3 million in jail or prison and the rest under the supervision of parole or probation. The correctional system also relies on professionals like parole officers, prison wardens, jail administrators, and case managers.
Also known as community supervision officers, probation officers ensure that people sentenced to probation are complying with the terms of their supervision. That could involve making sure they’re working or looking for work, avoiding the company of criminal associates, not in possession of weapons, and not participating in criminal activity. Probation officers assist the people they are supervising in their rehabilitation, test for drugs, interview their friends, relatives, and associates, and submit reports and make recommendations about their status in the criminal justice system.
Probation officers earn a median salary of $53,020, according to BLS data from 2018. There are currently 91,600 positions, and job growth is projected to increase by a slower-than-average 3% between 2018-2028. Typically, a bachelor’s degree is required for this career.
In many cases, you can become a correctional officer with only a high school diploma. A particularly stressful and potentially dangerous job, the position requires you to oversee the prisoners in your custody. They might be people who were sentenced to jail or prison after being found guilty, or they might be presumed innocent while awaiting trial. Correctional officers enforce rules and keep order in correctional facilities, supervise, transport, and restrict the movement of prisoners.
According to BLS data from 2018, correctional officers earned a median salary of $44,400 a year. There are currently about 453,900 correctional officers working in America’s jails and prisons, but that number is expected to decline by 7% between 2018-2028, with 31,500 jobs expected to disappear during that decade.
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Discover More about Criminal Justice Pathways
Full Q&A with Criminal Justice Major Sarah Pierre