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What is criminal justice? Careers, education and more

At a glance

  • The three core branches of criminal justice are law enforcement, the courts and corrections.
  • Careers in criminal justice range from working as a paralegal to serving as a security or corrections officer to a security director.
  • Depending on your career path, you may need to pursue an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree within the realm of criminal justice.
  • University of Phoenix offers criminal justice degrees that provide a solid foundation for a variety of career options.

Criminal justice refers to how society responds to crime. The laws, policies and institutions that exist to respond to crimes are known as the criminal justice system. It encompasses all processes, including determining a crime has been committed, investigating it and establishing probable cause.

But criminal justice is not just about identifying crime and providing judgment; it is about effective communication and rehabilitation as well. After a suspect has been identified, this profession is responsible for determining the best jurisdiction (state or federal), presenting the evidence using communication skills and having a case adjudicated in court. After a suspect has been convicted, the professionals in corrections then seek to execute the judgment of the court and rehabilitate the offender.

A wide range of jobs falls under this broad umbrella. A corrections officer, a homicide detective, an FBI agent and a paralegal, for example, are all part of the criminal justice system. Some investigate crimes, some prosecute suspects in court, and others maintain custody of criminals after they have been found guilty. 

The three main fields within the criminal justice system — law enforcement, the criminal courts, and corrections — require different skills and cover hundreds of jobs and specializations. Despite their differences, however, these fields work together to administer justice after a criminal act. 

The three core disciplines of criminal justice

The jobs that exist within the criminal justice system can be categorized into three core disciplines: law enforcement, the courts and corrections. These disciplines are deeply connected, and the role of one discipline can affect the role of another. 

Law enforcement

Individuals in law enforcement are involved in the deterrence and investigation of crimes. They include police officers, detectives, federal agents and forensic specialists (such as forensic accountants and pathologists). They play a key role in finding the people who commit crimes, as well as discovering the evidence that can prove their guilt or innocence in a court of law. 

The courts

Judges, lawyers and paralegals work together in the court system to ensure that people who have been accused of committing crimes are treated fairly. These individuals seek justice, both by defending the person accused and by presenting evidence that has been found against them. 

Lawyers and judges need law degrees and must pass the bar exam in their state before they can practice law. Paralegals do not need that level of education, but they do usually need an associate or bachelor’s degree.

No matter their role in the court system, all parties need to have extensive knowledge of the local, state and federal laws applicable to the case being tried. 

The courts work with law enforcement to find evidence of crimes and to provide testimony. After a conviction, they work with the field of corrections by determining the length and nature of a person’s punishment, as well as non-institutional sentencing, programs and probation.  

Corrections

The field of corrections focuses on a person’s time after they have been found guilty of a crime. Correctional officers guard inmates in prisons in both the adult and juvenile areas and ensure that they behave in a safe and orderly manner while in custody. These professionals also aid in the rehabilitation of inmates and must therefore be effective communicators.

Parole officers help inmates adjust to life outside of prison. They supervise community service and regularly check in with former inmates to make sure they are following the terms of their parole. 

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Education requirements for criminal justice careers

The criminal justice system offers a wide variety of careers with employment options for people of all levels of education and job experience. While many agencies differ on the required education level to start, it’s important to know what level of education is required for different jobs. This can help you set goals, register for the appropriate degree programs, get the criminal justice degree most suitable for you and eventually find a job you are qualified for and interested in within the criminal justice system. 

High school diploma or other industry certifications

Correctional officers, bailiffs and security guards need to have at least a high school diploma. However, the Federal Bureau of Prisons requires correctional officers to have a bachelor’s degree or one to three years of relevant experience. These jobs involve handling a weapon, working directly with people being tried in the courts and ensuring the safety of other people. On-the-job training is a vital part of these professions. 

While requirements vary among states and regions, there are some places in the United States where a high school diploma is all you need to enter a police academy and train to become a police officer. It’s important to note, however, that many agencies require at least some college courses to enter an academy. 

Associate degree

An associate degree in criminal justice can be a foundation to help provide you with the necessary education and skills to enter into the criminal justice profession. This associate degree may also help you enhance or specialize in your career if you already work in the criminal justice system. 

For example, depending on the organization, an associate degree can provide a corrections officer with the educational foundation to pursue roles like corrections corporal, corrections sergeant or corrections specialist. 

An associate degree in paralegal studies can help you to start a career as a paralegal. This would allow you to assist lawyers with research and other necessary tasks to prepare for upcoming cases. Some courts may require a paralegal have a bachelor’s degree. 

Bachelor’s degree

A bachelor’s degree provides a higher, more specialized level of education. With a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration, for example, you can gain the expertise necessary to apply to become a police captain or detective. A degree gives you the knowledge and skills necessary for more responsibility, leadership and difficult caseloads when working in law enforcement.

If you’re interested in working in corrections, a bachelor’s degree in correctional program support services may help prepare you for a career as a case manager or social services support assistant.

Master’s degree

A master’s degree provides very specialized knowledge in a given field. For example, Master of Science in Administration of Justice and Security can provide the educational foundation for higher-level positions, such as police chief, detective supervisor or criminal justice professor. A master’s degree may not be required for these positions but may be preferred by an agency.

Master of Public Administration degree can provide the educational foundation for opportunities in local government, criminal justice policy or nonprofit organizations that advocate for criminal justice reform or help formerly incarcerated individuals. 

The criminal justice programs at University of Phoenix are educational degree programs. For individuals interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement or corrections or as a peace officer with any particular local, state, federal, tribal or international agency, there are numerous additional qualifications (and often disqualifications), depending on the position.

Before enrolling in a criminal justice program, potential students are highly encouraged to check with the relevant agency for a complete list of position requirements. The University makes no representations regarding whether any particular University program will qualify a graduate for any such position.

Careers in criminal justice

Because it’s such a large and diverse field, criminal justice offers many career options. Let's explore a few across the three core branches of criminal justice.

Law enforcement

Careers in law enforcement include jobs as police captains, detectives and federal agents.

People with a variety of skills can find a job in law enforcement. Those who like numbers and finances can pursue careers as forensic accountants. Those interested in science can find work in crime scene investigation and forensic pathology. 

The courts

Working in criminal courts or a related government agency is a way to bring justice to victims. Careers in the court system include lawyers, paralegals and judges, as well as court reporters and court clerks. Probation officers are another role that falls under the courts. These professionals are responsible for supervising and assisting in the rehabilitation of criminal offenders who were sentenced to probation rather than sent to prison. 

Corrections

Corrections also offers a variety of job opportunities in the prison system, including work as a case manager, parole officer, bailiff and correctional officer. These roles are essential for the proper and seamless function of the criminal justice system.

If you're interested in learning more about education and careers in criminal justice, visit phoenix.edu/criminal-justice