There’s a lot you can do with an associate’s degree in criminal justice, which happens to be one of the fastest online associate’s degrees a student could pursue. Whether you end your college education at the associate’s degree level or use your associate’s degree as a starting point for a higher level of education, this is a field in which many different careers are available. In fact, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recognizes 27 different crime-related occupations, ranging from the obvious – police officers and jailers – to the often unheard-of, like locksmiths and safe repairers. The BLS divides these professions into two categories: those focused on monitoring crime and catching criminals and those that revolve around trying criminal cases in court and on punishment in the criminal justice system. An associate’s degree in criminal justice will qualify you for at least entry-level roles in many of these occupations.
If there’s one career most closely related to a criminal justice education, it’s likely that of police officer. These sworn law enforcement personnel perform duties that range from patrol and responding to emergency calls to apprehending suspects with an arrest warrant issued. Police officers may work in general law enforcement or handle crimes of a specific nature.
How does an associate’s degree prepare you to be a police officer? In many states, you don’t necessarily need a college education at all to work in this field, according to the BLS. What is most important in preparing for this role is academy training in laws, emergency response, civil rights, police ethics, traffic control, first aid and firearm use and self-defense training. However, completing an associate’s degree program in criminal justice – especially an accelerated program that condenses your studies into as little as 12 months of coursework – gives you a stronger foundation. You may also benefit from salary incentives for having a college education, which can take the form of a percentage-based pay increase of up to 10 percent or a flat-rate bonus, paid monthly or annually, that can be as much as $2,000.
Nearly one-quarter of all police patrol officers have an associate’s degree, according to O*NET. Having an associate’s degree actually places you among the most highly educated workers in this occupation, in which 35 percent have only a high school diploma and 27 percent have a post-secondary certificate.
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For some police officer roles, you may need a bachelor’s degree to qualify, or at least you may benefit from having a four-year degree. If you want to work in a federal law enforcement agency, you’re likely to need a bachelor’s degree, the BLS reported.
Criminal Investigator or Private Detective
An associate’s degree is often enough formal college education to prepare you for a career in investigating crimes, whether as a police detective or a private investigator. Criminal investigators that are part of the police force often begin their careers in entry-level police officer roles, with the same educational requirements as other officers, and work their way up to more exciting and prestigious detective roles over the course of their careers.
Private detectives, on the other hand, most commonly work for the investigation, guard and armored car services industry, the finance and insurance industry, the government or themselves, the BLS reported. They may come from diverse backgrounds and often have extensive experience in a relevant career or specialized knowledge or skills in deduction. For private detectives, it’s often your results, reputation and skills, rather than your formal college experience, that matters most. A criminal justice curriculum at the associate’s degree program lays the groundwork for success not only in private investigator roles but also in the many different careers related to this occupation, from bill collector and insurance claims adjustor to paralegal and law enforcement officer.
Among police detectives, an associate’s degree is the second most common level of education, accounting for 19 percent of the profession, O*NET reported. The largest share of police detectives – 38 percent – report having only a high school diploma. The percentage of private investigators who have an associate’s degree is similar, at 16 percent, O*NET reported. However, as a whole, the private investigator occupation tends to be more highly educated than the police detective occupation, with 38 percent of private investigators holding a bachelor’s degree.
The noted that private investigator is often a second career for former police detectives or military intelligence personnel who start their service roles young and are able to retire from these roles early. Indeed, the average age of a private detective in the U.S. is 44.
Criminal Prosecution or Defense Paralegal
If it’s the legal aspects of the criminal justice system that most interest you, rather than responding to crimes and catching criminals, then you can leverage your associate’s degree to work as a paralegal. In matters of criminal law, both the prosecution and the accused’s defense have need of the skills of these legal paraprofessionals, who work alongside licensed attorneys to handle tasks that include investigation, research and the drafting of legal documents.
Although the BLS considers an associate’s degree to be the level of education needed for an entry-level paralegal position, many candidates choose a paralegal degree program over a criminal justice program. Paralegal programs place more emphasis on developing the skills you need to handle the types of work most commonly delegated by attorneys – but they also include studies in all areas of law, not only the criminal justice matters that interest you. You can make your criminal justice associate’s degree studies more relevant to a legal assistant career by using elective courses to learn skills like legal research and writing or by going on to complete an additional paralegal certificate program, The Houston Chronicle reported.
Other career options with an associate’s degree, if you want to work in a courtroom, include court clerk, for which 10 percent of the occupation holds this level of degree, and court reporter, for which 34 percent of the occupation has this level of degree.
After a criminal conviction, a lawbreaker may be sent to jail or prison. In a role as a correctional officer, or prison guard, you would be in charge of supervising inmates and maintaining the order and safety of a correctional facility. Although this job is an important one, it’s generally not one that requires a great deal of formal education. In fact, only two percent of correctional officers have an associate’s degree, making them the most highly educated workers in an occupation in which 88 percent of workers report having only a high school diploma. Generally, correctional officers develop the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in their jobs not in college but instead through months-long training at an academy, the BLS reported.
Academy training is paid, but at a lower rate than you would expect to earn once you complete your training and are a fully qualified correctional officer.