If you’re interested in criminal behavior, law enforcement, legal studies or the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice may make sense for you.
What Is Criminal Justice?
The simple definition of criminal justice is the structure of laws and the systems, procedures and agencies in place to try, convict, punish and rehabilitate offenders who break these laws.
As a field of study, criminal justice encompasses the major areas of law enforcement, the criminal court system and corrections, according to the University of Massachusetts Global. Criminal justice degree programs are offered at every level of study, from associate’s degrees to master’s degree and doctoral programs.
What Is a Bachelor’s Degree?
A bachelor’s degree is an undergraduate degree awarded at the baccalaureate level. Generally, bachelor’s degree programs require at least 120 credit hours of college-level study.
A student who studies full-time during the fall and spring semesters can typically complete a bachelor’s degree in four years, but graduating on time is contingent on completing all required courses for a program of study, not just meeting the minimum credit requirement. As such, students often take five years or longer to graduate, especially if they changed majors, double-majored, didn’t get full credit for a course when transferring from another institution, failed a course or had trouble getting into the courses they needed.
General education requirements are part of most bachelor’s degree curricula. Students pursuing any major will still complete classes in subjects like writing and communication studies, the physical sciences and biological sciences, the social sciences, mathematics, literature, history, art and psychology.
Is Criminal Justice a Bachelor of Arts or Science Degree?
There are different types of bachelor’s degrees. Undergraduate study programs in criminal justice may award a variety of baccalaureate degrees, including the Bachelor of Science (BS) degree, Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree, Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) degree and even the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree.
Criminal Justice Bachelor of Science Degrees
Most criminal justice degrees awarded are either Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degrees.
Degree programs in which the curriculum involves technical or scientific fields are known as Bachelor of Science degrees. BS degree programs in criminal justice may require students to complete more courses in mathematics and the sciences. They may emphasize technical aspects of the criminal justice field more than other types of bachelor’s degree programs do.
In a Bachelor of Science degree program in criminal justice, you might devote more of your studies to learning about topics like the following:
- Social science research methods
- The use of computer technology and other technological innovations in the criminal justice system
- Techniques of forensic investigation
- The specifics of policing and corrections in the United States
- Criminal psychology or criminology
- Security management practices
If you choose a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice program, you might spend more time learning in laboratories and developing technical skills.
Bachelor of Arts Degrees in Criminal Justice
You might not associate criminal justice with art, but Bachelor of Arts degree programs pertain to the liberal arts rather than the creative arts. The liberal arts refer to the arts, sciences and humanities collectively.
Bachelor of Arts degrees in criminal justice cover the same general areas of the field as Bachelor of Science degrees, including criminal law, law enforcement, the court system and corrections. However, these programs also emphasize areas like the theories and philosophy of criminal justice.
Studies drawn from sociology and the social sciences, especially criminology and political science, are often part of a Bachelor of Arts degree program in criminal justice. Students interested in this path may focus more on the underlying causes of crime and the effects of crime on victims, perpetrators and their communities.
Criminal Justice Bachelor of Applied Science Degree Programs
If Bachelor of Science programs emphasize technical skills and Bachelor of Arts programs emphasize knowledge of the theories that underpin the criminal justice system, a Bachelor of Applied Science degree in criminal justice focuses on practical application.
Bachelor of Applied Science programs are considerably less common than BS or BA programs, but they do exist. The BAS in criminal justice program at Waldorf University includes coursework in the following areas:
- Introductory working knowledge of the components that make up the American criminal justice system
- The judicial process and procedures
- Criminal law and constitutional law
- Corrections theory and practice
- Law enforcement theory and practice
- Criminal investigation techniques
- Management and supervision skills for criminal justice careers
- Leadership and criminal justice organization administration
You will gain some technical skills in a Bachelor of Applied Science program in criminal justice, just as you will gain some knowledge of criminal justice theory. However, developing broad career skills in areas like leadership and management is a bigger focus in applied science programs than in traditional science or arts programs.
Bachelor of Social Work Degrees in Criminal Justice
Some colleges and universities offer programs that combine Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree programs with criminal justice studies. That’s not surprising, because there is a considerable area of overlap between social work and criminal justice. In fact, there is a whole area of social work, called forensic social work, that pertains to the application of social work methods to issues, questions and situations involving law, the court system and corrections. Social workers often work to help both victims and perpetrators of crimes, as well as their families.
Technically, most criminal justice degree programs that award BSW degrees are actually dual-degree programs. The social work program itself leads to a BSW, but the criminal justice curriculum instead confers a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degree.
The dual-degree program in social work and criminal justice at Monmouth University, for example, includes studies in social work practice and methods, corrections, criminal law and procedure, law enforcement, criminology and ethical issues that arise in the criminal justice field. Through the social work components of the curriculum, students participate in fieldwork that provides them with hands-on experience in a helping occupation.
What Type of Criminal Justice Degree Is Best?
From a practical perspective, it probably won’t matter whether your college degree is a BS degree, BA degree or BAS degree. Both the Bachelor of Science and the Bachelor of Arts in criminal justice degrees prepare students for a wide array of career paths. Employment opportunities are likely to be more or less the same with any of these types of bachelor’s degrees. Most employers are more concerned with the fact that you have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice than with what specific degree type you were awarded.
Students with a BS degree are more likely to seek out roles in security, law enforcement or corrections than those with a BA, according to the job search website Indeed.com, but these career opportunities are open to BA graduates, too. If anything, students who pursue a BA tend to do so because they want to keep their options open. It isn’t that they can’t do the same things BS graduates do but rather that the more versatile degree program also allows them to move into many other roles.
Ultimately, which program is best depends on your interests and career aspirations. If you know that you want to be a law enforcement officer, pursuing a BS may give you a slight edge compared to pursuing a BA. On the other hand, if you want to build a broad knowledge of criminal justice topics, you might prefer a program that awards a BA degree.
What Can I Do With a Criminal Justice Degree?
Criminal justice majors can pursue careers in any area of the criminal justice system. The following are just some of the examples of career opportunities available with a background in criminal justice.
Criminal justice is a particularly popular major for aspiring police and law enforcement officers. This major can help prepare students for roles like patrolman and police officer. With experience, you may qualify to run for the elected position of sheriff, a top-ranking officer who is responsible for law enforcement on a county or state level.
Federal Law Enforcement Agents
In addition to local, county and state police, federal agencies also need skilled law enforcement officers. Agencies like Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are just a couple of the government entities in which federal agents with a law enforcement background may find employment.
Law enforcement officers who advance to primarily investigative roles are commonly known as police investigators or police detectives. Although they are also involved in activities like making arrests, police detectives’ primary responsibility is to gather evidence to solve cases of criminal activities.
If you would prefer to investigate mysteries in the private sector, you might consider embarking on a career as a private detective. Most private detectives are veteran detectives who got their start working in law enforcement roles.
A private detective may be involved in investigating criminal matters, including white-collar crime and missing person cases. More commonly, though, private detectives uncover evidence of non-criminal happenings, such as infidelity or hidden assets in divorce cases and breaches of business contracts. Although many of the kinds of cases private detectives handle are civil matters rather than criminal ones, having a background in criminal investigation is invaluable for developing skills in surveillance, investigation and evidence collection.
A forensic investigator or forensic scientist uses their knowledge of scientific techniques to make meaning out of evidence collected from crime scenes, including fingerprints, blood spatter patterns, ballistics and DNA samples. Forensic science technicians who major in criminal justice as undergraduates may go on to earn a master’s degree in forensic science.
A person who is convicted of a crime but not considered a danger to the community may be sentenced to probation in the community rather than incarcerated. Probation officers are the protective services professionals who supervise offenders who were sentenced to probation.
Correctional officers supervise incarcerated individuals in jails, prisons and similar facilities.
Correctional Treatment Specialists
Correctional treatment specialists focus on rehabilitating offenders who are on probation in lieu of incarceration, out of prison early on parole or still incarcerated but approaching their release date. By putting together rehabilitation plans for offenders, correctional treatment specialists equip them with the skills to make the challenging transition back into society and, hopefully, to avoid recidivism or reoffences that land them back in prison.
District attorneys and deputy district attorneys prosecute crimes, bringing criminal charges against alleged offenders. Prosecutors must present evidence that proves the defendant’s guilt.
Criminal Defense Attorney
While prosecutors present the case against the alleged offender, criminal defense attorneys defend the accused against the charges. Some defense attorneys are public defenders appointed to represent defendants who can’t afford to hire an attorney of their choosing, while other attorneys work in the private legal services industry.
Paralegals, or legal assistants, assist attorneys in research and investigation, drafting legal documents and preparing for trials.
Criminal Justice Professors and Researchers
In academia, criminal justice professors teach the next generation of law enforcement and legal services professionals and advance knowledge of the field through research.
The Benefits of Government Jobs in Criminal Justice
You can use your criminal justice degree to work in various criminal justice settings, including areas like private security. However, many of these roles involve working for the government at some level and in some capacity. There are numerous advantages to working for the government, including benefits over the course of your career and a generous retirement package.
A Typical Criminal Justice Program Curriculum
As a general rule, criminal justice programs are interdisciplinary in nature. They bring together aspects of multiple disciplines, including theory and research methods of social science and technical skills of physical sciences, life sciences and computer science and technology.
Students learn both practical pre-professional skills for law enforcement and corrections as well as various methods of social science research needed to achieve empirical validation of theories and procedures. Even business administration skills can make an appearance in a criminal justice curriculum, preparing students for leadership and management roles.
Despite its breadth, the curriculum of a degree in criminal justice typically focuses on areas like the following.
The Criminal Justice System
Through coursework that focuses on the framework of the American criminal justice system, students learn about every stage of the criminal justice process. This coursework equips students to fully understand – and abide by – the proper procedures no matter where in the criminal justice system they end up working.
The Corrections System
Correctional systems are the systems involved in the punishment of criminal offenders, including probation boards, parole programs and correctional facilities where incarcerated individuals are held during their sentence.
To successfully solve a crime and hold offenders accountable, the proper procedures must be followed in collecting evidence and going through the court process, including criminal trials and appeals.
How Popular Are Criminal Justice Degrees?
Criminal justice is a fairly popular undergraduate major. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that 57,339 degrees were awarded in protective services (including homeland security, law enforcement and firefighting) for the 2018 through 2019 academic year.
This figure includes 29,893 bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice/safety studies and 15,091 bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice/law enforcement administration. Another 2,845 bachelor’s degrees were awarded in criminal justice/police science, as well as 1,450 degrees in “other” corrections and criminal justice fields of study and 222 degrees in criminalistics and criminal science. All told, more than 85% of students interested in the protective services are concentrating in some area of the criminal justice field.
The criminal justice field and the broader field of protective services are major occupational areas. More than three million workers in America were employed in the protective service occupations in some capacity as of 2021, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Choosing a Bachelor’s in criminal justice degree program can be challenging precisely because so many colleges and universities offer this major. As you begin your school search, consider what aspects of your education are most important to you. If you’re looking for flexibility, consider schools that offer online programs of study. If you’re eager to get started on your career path, you may want to choose a school that offers plenty of opportunities for fieldwork and relevant internship placements.