What Can You Do with a Criminal Justice or Law Degree?

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The field of criminal justice is large and career opportunities are many. A criminal justice degree can be your point of entry into a law degree program, or enable you to work in politics, academia, advocacy, corrections, homeland security, or law enforcement—to name just a few criminal justice jobs. To learn more about your options with a criminal law degree, read on.

A criminal justice degree gives you an education in law, legal jurisprudence, and justice for both criminals and victims. Many criminal justice majors use this degree to enter the legal field, and some go to law school to become lawyers. A bachelor’s in criminal justice is a great steppingstone to law school. However, law school is not the only objective you can pursue with a criminal justice degree. An associate or bachelor’s degree in law and criminal justice can be the end–goal of your education, or you can continue on to a master’s or doctorate. You can even earn your doctor of jurisprudence (J.D.). How far you take your education in law and criminal justice is entirely up to you.

The legal field is made up of many specializations, so a wide range of career paths begin with a criminal justice degree, especially careers in the various branches of law enforcement. While some will enter into the incredibly competitive world of corporate law where big clients pays big salaries, others will be drawn to ethically–driven causes like public policy, environmental law, or community issues. How you decide to use your criminal justice or law degree will be entirely up to you.

There are also countless ways to engage with your particular law and criminal justice subfield. Whether you seek the thrill of litigation, prefer spending hours embroiled in research, or desire hands–on work with prisoners or troubled youth, a criminal justice degree can start you on the path to a fulfilling career. If you choose to dedicate time and integrity to your field, you could someday rise through the ranks and become a judge.

Furthermore, many elected officials begin their careers as lawyers. Likewise, research groups and think tanks involved in just about any political issue typically keep at least one criminal justice expert or lawyer on staff.

Those interested in teaching criminal justice can adjunct at a local college. Criminal justice is a popular field of study and educators are always needed. In fact, law professors are some of the best paid scholars in the academic world.

What Kind of Accreditation Should My Degree Program Have?

Accreditation is the process by which colleges and universities are evaluated and validated. Colleges and universities that have earned accreditation have met the standards set by accrediting organizations. These organizations are comprised of faculty from various accredited colleges and universities. Legitimate regional and national accrediting organizations are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Typically, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognizes the same institutions, although CHEA recognition isn’t mandatory. A college or university must be accredited by a Department of Education-recognized accreditor in order for its students to receive federal financial aid.

For a detailed look at the differences between regional and national accreditation, check out What Do I Need to Know About College Accreditation?

What is Regional Accreditation?
Regional accreditation is the signifier of quality education; this includes the currency of curriculum, credentials of educators, and credibility of degrees. Regional accrediting agencies only accredit institutions in their geographical area.
The Six Regional Accrediting Agencies

To find out if a college or university on your list is regionally accredited, check the Department of Education’s Database of Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

What Is National Accreditation?
National accreditation is often perceived as a less rigorous standard than regional accreditation and is governed by educational accreditors agencies that are not restricted by region or geography. This means that one such agency can provide accreditation to any college or university in the U.S. that meets its criteria. National accreditation is commonplace among trade schools, religious schools, and for-profit colleges.
Most regionally-accredited colleges do not accept or recognize credits or degrees earned from colleges that lack regional accreditation. However, national accreditation may be a useful indicator of quality for students pursuing vocational training, competency-based education, or other education models that operate under a for-profit model.

To learn more about National Accreditation, check out Understanding National Accreditation.

For help safely navigating the For-Profit Sector, check out our Guide to For-Profit Colleges: What You Need to Know.

What is Programmatic Accreditation?
There is one additional form of accreditation that is distinct from regional accreditation and national accreditation. Regional and national accreditation are institutional forms of accreditation. By contrast, programmatic accreditation is typically given to specific departments, colleges, or degree programs within a broader institution. While programmatic accreditation agencies often have national jurisdiction, this form of accreditation is totally distinct and separate from institutional national accreditation. In fact, programmatic accreditation will often coexist with regional accreditation. In some disciplines, a degree with programmatic accreditation may even be required to earn a license or enter into professional practice.
This is certainly true for those interested in practicing law. Accreditation from the American Bar Association (ABA) is absolutely mandatory for a school to grant an advanced law degree. At the time of writing, the ABA has lent its stamp of approval to 203 schools. The ABA provides the definitive accreditation service for law schools. There is no way for a school to legally provide the J.D. degree without their approval. Of the 203 ABA schools, one is under provisional status. All these schools offer a J.D. with the exception of the Army Judge Advocate’s General School, which is a specialized program that offers additional training beyond the J.D.

The easiest way to determine accreditation status is to contact your school of choice, or visit the website for any of the above accreditation agencies. Each provides a searchable database of accredited institutions and degree programs. You can also look at the Department of Education’s database of all recognized accreditors within its purview.

Or, to learn a little more about navigating the tricky accreditation landscape, check out Accreditation of Colleges and Universities: Who’s Accrediting the Accreditors?

What Kinds of Criminal Justice or Law Degrees Are There?

Associate Degree in Criminal Justice

If you’re looking to kick off your pursuit of a law degree as quickly and affordably as possible, you may have a lot to gain from an associate degree in criminal justice. Weighing in at just 60 credits, and typically completed in the space of two years, this degree takes relatively little time and money to complete. You’ll gain introductory–level insight into theories of legal jurisprudence, constitutional law, and social issues in law enforcement. Those interested in working as a police officer, campus security officer, victim advocacy counselor, probation officer, evidence technician, legal assistant, crime statistics analyst, evidence technician, or insurance investigator would all benefit from training in criminal justice.

What Criminal Justice Courses Will I Take in an Associate Program?

  • American Policing
  • Correctional Systems
  • Ethics in the Field
  • Introduction to Criminal Justice
  • Introduction to International Criminal Justice
  • Introduction to Security
  • Juvenile Justice System
  • Law and Procedure
  • Sociology

Interested in a criminal justice or law career? Then check out the following online associate programs:

Bachelor of Criminal Justice

The bachelor’s degree, like an associate degree, can serve as a foundation for a variety of careers in law and criminal justice. A bachelor’s degree in either of these fields is typically 120 credits, or roughly the equivalent of four years in a public, private, or online college. You’ll study both introductory and advanced subjects such as criminology, corrections issues, the sociology of crime, and constitutional law. This will also likely be your first opportunity to conduct independent research in your field of choice in criminal justice or law. Though many of the same career opportunities are available to associates and bachelors in this field, having a bachelor’s degree will generally give you a hiring advantage as well as a fuller and more well–rounded body of knowledge in the field. Job opportunities include those in law enforcement, social work, corrections, public services, and work as a paralegal. A bachelor’s degree is a critical and necessary step if you plan to ultimately pursue an advanced degree, which you’ll need to do if you plan to practice law.

What Criminal Justice Courses Will I Take in a Bachelor’ Program?

  • Constitutional Criminal Procedure
  • Correctional Administration
  • Criminal Investigation
  • Cultural Diversity in Criminal Justice
  • Drugs and Crime
  • Ethical Behavior in Criminal Justice
  • Introduction to Criminal Justice
  • Introduction to Security Management
  • Juvenile Delinquency
  • Law Enforcement Administration

What’s the Difference Between a BA and a BS in Criminal Justice?

The Bachelor of Arts (BA) in criminal justice is a more general degree, whereas the Bachelor of Science is more technical. Those with scientific training might learn how to use empirical methods to analyze a crime scene (think of detective work), whereas those with general training may work in more interpersonal aspects of the field (think of a probation officer).

From traditional criminal justice fields like corrections, law enforcement, and legal practice to emergent fields like cybercrimes, forensices, and homeland security, choose the bachelor’s degree that aligns with your interests:

Master of Criminal Justice

If you are ultimately seeking a career in a position of leadership within the criminal justice system, you should consider earning a master of criminal justice. This program will typically require the completion of roughly 30 credits, which is about the equivalent of one year of study. The focus of your master’s program will largely be on high–level training, policy analysis, program management and other outlets for leadership in the field. You will also be expected to complete a capstone course that includes a research thesis relating to policy and practice.

What Criminal Justice Courses Will I Take in a Master’ Program?

  • Applied Data Analysis in Criminal Justice
  • Criminal Justice Planning and Program Evaluation
  • Seminar in Criminal Justice
  • Seminar in Criminology
  • Theory and Practice in Criminal Justice

What’s the Difference Between an MA and an MS in Criminal Justice?

As with the bachelor’s degree, those interested in the technical side of criminal justice will prefer a degree in science, while those looking to enter the social side of criminal justice will prefer a master of arts.

If you are interested in a criminal justice master’s degree, then follow one of the links below:

Doctor of Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice Ph.D.

The standard Ph.D. in the United States takes five years and includes two years of course work. Those interested in completing this degree should perform well at the undergraduate and master’s levels and show substantial writing potential. This is an opportunity to engage in advanced research on subjects of systemic importance to the field, including subjects like prison reform, the ethics of law, political science, jurisprudence, and social justice.

What Kind of Criminal Justice Courses Will I Take in a Ph.D. Program?

  • Fundamentals of Law and Public Policy
  • History and Contemporary Issues in Criminal Justice
  • Policy and Analysis in Criminal Justice Systems
  • Public Policy Implications of Terrorism and Policies
  • The Nature of Crime and Criminology

Doctor of Jurisprudence

The doctor of jurisprudence (J.D.) is the standard path to entry for the legal profession. This degree consists of 90 credits and three years of work. The law degree is more regulated and standardized across the field by the American Bar Association. The entire first year of law school curriculum is consistent across the nation, but unique elective opportunities open up in your second and third year. Law school regrettably has a reputation for being extremely expensive, but for those who earn scholarships or can afford the cost, this degree can create an exciting and well–paying array of opportunities. The J.D. also opens doors to opportunities like service in public office, organizational leadership, and policy advocacy.

What Kind of Criminal Justice Courses Will I Take in a J.D. Program?

  • Civil Procedure
  • Constitutional Law
  • Contracts
  • Criminal Law
  • Foundations of Law
  • Property
  • Torts

If this is the path for you, you might want to get started by checking out The 10 Top Affordable Recognized Law Schools in the U.S.

Master of Law

The Master of Law (LL.M.) is a one year post–J.D. degree. The LL.M. degree is far less standardized than the J.D. and thus serves those with specialized interests and an aptitude for research. Students seeking mastery in a particular subset of tax law, international policy, or any number of other topics requiring additional coursework and guided research, should consider the LL.M. This degree is particularly useful for foreign lawyers who want to become acquainted with U.S. law.

What Kind of Criminal Justice Courses Will I Take in a Master of Law Program?

  • Bankruptcy Law
  • Criminal Law
  • Environment Law
  • Military Law
  • Telecommunications Law

Doctor of Judicial Science

The Doctor of Judicial Science (S.J.D.) is largely a research degree for those who have already finished the J.D. and LL.M. This degree is typically reserved for those pursuing a career as a law professor. Graduates can expect to spend the bulk of their time doing independent research involving law and its sister disciplines, such as history, economics, and international relations.

What Kind of Criminal Justice Courses Will I Take in an S.J.D. Program?

Coursework here will vary widely. However, criminal justice or law graduate students will spend most of their time on independent research.

What Is the Difference Between a S.J.D. and Ph.D.?

Both of these degrees are dedicated research programs. The biggest difference between them involves their length and entrance requirements. You can enter a Ph.D. program directly after finishing a bachelor’s degree, although many first acquire a one– to two-year master’s degree. This means that those pursuing a Ph.D. usually begin with 4 to 6 years of coursework behind them. Conversely, those pursuing a S.J.D. will have a bachelor’s degree, a law degree, and a master of law, meaning they will have completed roughly 8 years of coursework. The S.J.D. itself is a shorter degree that typically takes 3 years, whereas the Ph.D. usually takes 5 to 7 years and often includes two to three years of coursework.

What Kind of Licensing or Certification Do I Need?

Law and criminal justice are wide–ranging fields of study. Thus, the certifications connected to these fields vary widely. For instance, those interested in becoming a security guard or social worker will have to work within the regulatory framework laid out by their respective state. Police officers must also complete training at a police academy regulated by their respective state.

In order to become a practicing lawyer, you must:

  1. Pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination
  2. Pass your state’s Bar Examination
  3. Get approval from the ABA’s Committee of Bar Examiners’ Subcommittee on Moral Character.

When it comes to the practice of law, the American Bar Association is the singular most important outlet for all necessary licensing and certification. For any number of other positions in the field of criminal justice and law, the importance and necessity of certification will vary according to both state and career path. Regardless of your areas of specialization, before entering into a licensing or certification program, be sure that it is awarded by a reputable association or group. Most associations or groups will require you to complete an education program or workshop to earn your certification.

What Can You Do With a Criminal Justice or Law Degree?

Your criminal justice or law degree can open up a lot of professional opportunities. Look here for some of the top Law and Criminal Justice Careers or read below to see which of these professions might be right for you.

What Kind of Salary Can I Earn with a Criminal Justice or Law degree?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides data on the potential earnings for some of the leading jobs in the criminal justice and legal fields. The following data reflects median annual salaries as of May, 2018.

Career Median Salary
Lawyers $120,910
Judges&Hearing Officers $117,190
Political Scientists $117,570
Police Officers and Detectives $63,380
Security Guards $28,530
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists $53,020
Forensic Science Technicians $58,230
Private Detectives and Investigators $50,090
Paralegals and Legal Assistants $50,940
Social Workers $49,470
Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers $40,660

Are There Professional Associations or Societies I Should Join?

Professional associations are a fantastic way to make connections in your field, learn about valuable seminars or certifications, and improve your own credentials. The association or associations you choose to join will depend to an extent on the career path you take. Look for police or legal associations that correspond with your professional concentration.

Fraternal Order of Police
The Fraternal Order of Police is the largest organization of sworn police officers. Their ranks include over 330,000 police officers spread across 2,200 lodges. It provides education initiatives, is involved with charity organizations, and provides outlets for legal protection for law enforcement officers.
American Bar Association
With over 400,000 members, the American Bar Association represents not just the largest collection of lawyers in the country, but also one of the largest voluntary professional organizations on the planet. Its most important role is determining the standards for law school education and ethics in law.
Political Parties
Those interested in pursuing criminal justice or law for public policy advocacy will greatly benefit from uniting with a political party. Whether you prefer the Democrats, Republicans, Green Party, Libertarians, or any number of other independent parties, politics is a group sport.

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