As a field of academic study, criminal justice focuses on the different institutions that make up the criminal justice system at the state, federal and local levels. Students who major in criminal justice learn about the court system, the corrections system and the role of law enforcement. Often, interdisciplinary coursework draws from fields like sociology, psychology and criminology to help students understand the social, cultural, psychological causes and effects of crime, although the focus of a criminal justice program is on the infrastructure and processes of the criminal justice system. This degree path can be valuable to students pursuing any role in or adjacent to the criminal justice system, from jobs in law enforcement and corrections to roles in private investigation and private sector security.
Law Enforcement Officer
Although not all jobs in law enforcement require a college education, criminal justice is a popular major among students pursuing these jobs. Whether you want to work for the local police force as a patrol officer or as a highly specialized agent of a federal government bureau, developing a strong understanding of criminal justice principles, practices and issues can only help you get closer to your goals. Among those law enforcement roles in which a college degree is not required, having one is often incentivized with monetary bonuses.
The most common job in the police and detective occupation is police and sheriff’s patrol officer, which makes up 687,100 job roles in America, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Detectives and criminal investigators account for another 110,700 jobs. Fish and game wardens and transit and railroad police are also part of this occupation, contributing 6,400 and 4,500 jobs, respectively.
The vast majority of police and detectives – more than three-quarters of the profession – work for local governments, the BLS reported.
Corrections is a crucial part of the criminal justice process. In correctional facilities like jails and prisons – and, in some cases, in community-based corrections programs – correctional officers supervise those charged with or convicted of a crime. A corrections officer’s job is part security and part rehabilitation, as they work to prevent breaches, escapes and threats to public or inmates’ safety while also working to help prepare incarcerated individuals for their return to society.
More than half of the 434,300 correctional officers in the U.S. work for state governments, the BLS reported. Over one-third work for jails operated by local governments, while just 4 percent of the occupation work for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Paralegals, also called legal assistants, play an important role in the legal industry. These paraprofessionals provide valuable services to attorneys, including research, investigation, evidence collection and organization and drafting documents, the BLS reported.
Like attorneys, paralegals may focus on working in a specific area of law. A criminal justice program isn’t the best option for aspiring paralegals interested in working in corporate law, family law or personal injury law. However, if you want to work in criminal law – either assisting criminal defense lawyers in representing accused individuals in trials or in prosecution as part of a District Attorney’s office – then criminal justice may be just the background you need to get started.
The BLS reported that there are 325,700 paralegals working in the United States, with 73 percent of them employed in the legal services industry. This job is seeing rapid growth, with the BLS expecting a much faster than average growth rate of 12 percent over a decade.
Majoring in criminal justice may also be a good choice for students who plan to go to law school and practice criminal law as attorneys. However, criminal justice isn’t the only (or best) major for all law school students, especially those interested in civil matters.
Private-Sector Jobs in Loss Prevention, Security and Investigation
A criminal justice degree can also help you in certain private-sector careers. For example, private companies often employ security guards to protect their premises, staff and customers. In retail stores, specifically, loss prevention officers are there to deter and catch shoplifters. Both jobs place a high value on the qualities and training often found in other careers more closely related to the criminal justice field, such as knowing how to monitor the premises for security breaches and to identify suspicious activities.
Investigation is another crucial job role involved in many criminal justice careers, from police detective to paralegal. Even if you don’t want to work directly as part of the criminal justice system, understanding the investigation techniques used in criminal justice occupations can be valuable to those who perform investigative services for private individuals or companies. Private detectives are one example of private-sector investigative jobs, but other investigative roles exist in insurance companies and other industries.
Private investigators may be hired by attorneys and law firms and government entities, while others work for the finance industry, investigation services agencies or themselves.