If you find meaning in working to rehabilitate convicted criminals into productive members of society, then you might be then you might be the perfect fit for a social services position in the criminal justice system. interested in working in a. Both criminal justice and social work are acceptable programs of study for a career as a probation officer or correctional treatment specialist, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Despite some similarities, these two distinct fields of study differ in many ways, including the focus of the field, the courses taken as part of the degree program and the career opportunities available after graduating with the degree.

The Intersection Between Social Work and the Criminal Justice System

At first glance, the conventional image of a social worker – most likely, a caseworker who places children in foster families – may seem to have little to do what is typically expected from a criminal justice career. Not all social workers work in child protective services, and not all criminal justice positions are law enforcement roles. Within the criminal justice system, there is a need for individuals who are willing to advocate for fair and safe prison conditions, aid families that have been affected by the incarceration of a family member and develop rehabilitation plans for life after a prison sentence. It is in these and similar areas that the fields of social work and criminal justice converge.

Terms like forensic social work, criminal justice social work and correctional social work refer to the profession of providing social services to individuals and families during and after incarceration, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

What Is the Difference Between a Criminal Justice Degree and a Social Work Degree

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Differences in Focus of Criminal Justice and Social Work Programs

The fundamental difference between criminal justice and social work degrees is the perspective from which learners approach the field. College degree programs in criminal justice often focus on learning about the parts and functions of the criminal justice system and the skills needed to work within that system in various capacities. While providing social welfare services is one aspect of the job roles in criminal justice, more popular career paths include law enforcement jobs, work as an attorney and jobs in the court system.

In contrast, social work is the profession of providing social welfare services, which can include help accessing mental health treatment, medical care, housing programs and food stamp programs, to vulnerable populations. Social workers tend to approach their objective of helping people in need from the perspective of viewing the person as part of social, family and community environments. They may look at the factors in the social environment that contribute to addictions, mental health concerns, problematic behaviors and dysfunctional relationships.

Criminal justice social work is underrepresented in Master of Social Work (MSW) programs, according to an MSW writing for Medium. Less than one-quarter of all MSW programs offer even a single course in criminal justice.

Curriculum Differences

In an undergraduate criminal justice program, classes may include Introduction to Criminal Justice, Introduction to Corrections, Police Behavior & Organization, Theories of Criminality, Statistics for Criminal Justice and Courts, Law and Procedure.

Social work majors, on the other hand, study subjects like Introduction to Social Work, Human Behavior in the Social Environment, Social Welfare Policy, Social Research Methods and Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Inequality. Coursework in social research practice exposes students to the skills they need to work with individuals, families, small groups, organizations and communities.

Both fields of study encourage internships, Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programs have more demanding hands-on experience requirements. Accredited BSW programs require at least 400 hours of experience, according to the Council on Social Work Education.

Differences in Career Paths and Prospects

With either a criminal justice degree or a social work degree, there are a multitude of career opportunities open to you besides probation officer and correctional treatment specialist. If you aren’t yet sure that probation officer and correctional treatment specialist roles are the right fit for your interests, strengths and personality, knowing that your degree is versatile enough to prepare you for a range of different career paths can be reassuring. A social work background can prepare you for careers providing social services to children and families as well as working in school and healthcare settings or on advocating for improved social welfare policies and programs.

If you go on to earn your MSW degree, you can work in a clinical role, diagnosing mental and emotional health disorders and treating them through psychotherapy techniques.

Related Resources

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What Can I Do With a Degree in Criminal Justice?

What Can I Do With a Social Work Degree?