Law and criminal justice are interconnected. After all, a crime is the violation of a law. Whether you should pursue a law degree for a criminal justice career, and at what level of study, depends on what you want out of your career. If by law degree you mean a Juris Doctor, the degree awarded after completing graduate-level work in law school, then your best criminal justice career options include criminal defense attorney, prosecutor and judge. Undergraduate students of law, such as pre-law bachelor’s degree programs, are more likely to move into traditional criminal justice roles in law enforcement and corrections than law school graduates are.
Criminal Defense Lawyer
In the United States, people who are accused of breaking the law have the right to be represented by a criminal defense lawyer. Some defense lawyers work for private law practices and must be hired, often at an hourly rate or on a retainer, by the accused. Others are public defenders, employed by the government and appointed to provide legal representation for alleged criminals who cannot afford or choose not to hire their own attorney.
As a criminal defense lawyer, your responsibility is to seek the best realistic outcome for your client. Alleged lawbreakers are intended to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and it’s the lawyer’s role to ensure the client is treated fairly, including that evidence against the defendant has been obtained legally and that charges are reasonable and based in proper investigative work. At times, a criminal defense lawyer must represent someone who claims to be innocent. Other times, doing your duty by your client may mean representing someone who admits guilt through actions like presenting mitigating evidence or negotiating a plea agreement in exchange for a more lenient sentence.
The stakes are particularly high in the area of criminal law, where justice, public safety and individuals’ freedom depend on the outcome of a case.
On the other side of criminal law is the prosecutor, an attorney working for the government to try cases of criminal wrongdoing and convict individuals who are found guilty. The prosecutor’s aim is to bring to justice those who violate the law. Getting justice can help victims and the public, especially in cases where an offender poses a threat to the general population or to other intended victims. The serious consequences of a criminal conviction – like incarceration, separated families and poor future job prospects after rehabilitation – make it important that only those truly guilty of a crime are convicted and that sentences are not too harsh to fit the crime.
Because individuals are considered innocent until proven guilty, that burden of proving guilt is supposed to fall on the prosecutor. It is ethically important for prosecutors to charge alleged criminals only with crimes that are warranted by the evidence and to use only evidence that has been gathered in accordance with appropriate laws and procedures in their efforts to prove guilt.
There are also many opportunities for attorneys to work in professional support roles within law enforcement agencies, especially at the federal level. Attorneys working for the Secret Service, FBI and CIA handle a variety of tasks and types of legal work.
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As the overseers of the courtroom, judges play a crucial role in the criminal justice system. In jury trials, a judge presides over the proceedings, determines if any presented evidence or arguments are inappropriate to include in the trial, maintains order of the proceedings and instructs the jury on its responsibilities and deliberation process. A judge may also be responsible for sentencing an individual who has already been convicted of a crime. In other words, a sentencing judge decides the penalties that an individual must face. Judges typically need a law degree and years of experience practicing law as a licensed attorney.
At different levels of government and in different states and jurisdictions, judges may be nominated, appointed or elected.
Opportunities With Undergraduate Pre-Law or Legal Studies Degrees
If your law-related degree is at the undergraduate level, like a bachelor’s degree in pre-law or legal studies, your criminal justice job opportunities are actually more plentiful. Finishing your law degree could make you appear overqualified for many criminal justice job roles, for which even a bachelor’s degree is often optional.
A Juris Doctor degree requires three years of demanding graduate-level study. Going to law school also requires a significant financial investment, with U.S. News & World Report putting the average cost at $49,095 at a private institution, $40,725 at an out-of-state public institution and $27,591 at an in-state public institution. This investment is reasonable to become a lawyer, an occupation for which the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a median annual wage of $120,910. However, it may not make financial sense for law school graduates to settle for the lower salaries associated with most criminal justice jobs, such as a $44,400 median wage for correctional officers, a $50,090 median wage for private investigators and a $63,380 median salary for police officers and detectives.
Without this additional financial burden or salary expectation, having an undergraduate background in legal studies can be an asset for candidates aspiring to a criminal justice career. After all, having a thorough understanding of the foundations, theories and policy of law, justice, punishment and politics is a valuable start to work within the criminal justice system. With an undergraduate pre-law background, you might choose to become a paralegal in criminal defense or prosecution, a law enforcement officer or a probation officer.
Other career options with a pre-law degree include law librarian, labor specialist, real estate agent, private investigator, political aide and many other diverse types of opportunities.