When you hear the term “criminal justice,” you may automatically think about becoming a lawyer or police officer. While these jobs do fall under the cluster of criminal justice, this really is a vast field with many other careers. If you’re interested in finding a career in this field that’s for you, read more on how you can pursue a career in Criminal Justice in the U.S. below.
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Believe it or not, you can actually begin your career in the criminal justice field with a high school diploma or less. Some of those careers include:
- Court Clerk
- Correctional officer
- Forensic Science Technician
- Legal Secretary
- Private Detective/Investigator
Although these careers only require a high school diploma or less, you should still research the type of skills and/or certification needed for the job. For example, it would be required for a legal secretary to be familiar with legal terminology and have a certain typing speed.
A 2-year degree would lead to careers such as a court reporter, paralegal assistant or police/patrol officer. You can take courses at a typical 2-year college to be a paralegal assistant. Your coursework would include taking classes in legal writing, immigration law, paralegal office systems, and civil litigations. This is a supportive job that is a great way to get your foot in the door to learn more about law and the criminal justice field.
A program to become a police/patrol officer would include taking courses in interacting with a diverse community, interviewing and report writing, traffic investigations, first aid, and emergency vehicle operations. These courses will vary depending on the program you enroll in.
A 4-year degree won’t quite get you to being a lawyer, but can still lead to great stepping stones to get there. Careers you can become with a bachelor’s degree include probation officer, detective, or criminal investigator. Your background for these careers will be very diverse as there is no “pre-law” major to study. Those interested in law as a career usually major in areas that would provide them an advantage in the law field, such as psychology, criminology, social work, business or criminal justice. Those wanting to be a specific type of lawyer may do undergraduate work in health sciences to become a medical lawyer. Although your bachelor’s degree can be broad before beginning your law program, you should still make sure your bachelor’s degree program allows you to gain skills and knowledge in the area of law that interests you, and that you are able to clearly communicate those proficiencies.
Topics covered in a criminology degree program would include theories and patterns of criminal behavior, forensic psychology, juvenile justice system, basics in criminal law, victimology, and law enforcement systems. Studying criminology exposes you to all areas of the criminal justice system and allows you to understand the criminal justice system from the perspective of all parties involved: professional, the offender, the victim, and society.
Beyond a 4-Year Degree
Time for law school! This is where you become a lawyer! The length of law school programs varies by institution, but it usually takes 3 years if you are a full-time student (taking the recommended number of classes/credit hours to graduate in the time it is suggested that the degree would take to complete). While courses in a criminology program provide an overview of how the criminal justice systems work, courses in a law program are much more in-depth. As you study criminal law, procedural rules and professional responsibility, you are also studying past cases to understand how these concepts and laws were applied and practicing interviewing skills, counseling, negotiation, and state practices.
To get into a law program, you would have to take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). To practice law in any state, a person must have received a Juris Doctor (i.e. law degree) from an institution and be admitted to the state’s bar under rules established by the jurisdiction’s highest court.
You can learn more about careers in criminal justice using the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.
- Free Coursera courses: An Introduction to American Law (University of Pennsylvania)
Check with your institution of interest to find out more about their admissions application, program requirements, and the best way to map out your future for studying criminal justice.