Criminal Justice Careers

man in office hallway smiling into camera

There is a wide variety of criminal justice careers to explore, from paralegal and private investigator to police officer and border patrol agent. Certain positions in the criminal justice field, like those in law enforcement, require a high school diploma or GED as a prerequisite. In contrast, other positions, such as those in forensic psychology, are exclusively available to individuals with doctoral degrees. However, even if it is not strictly required for the career path that you intend to pursue, earning your bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degree will help distinguish you from other job candidates, making you more competitive in the labor market while increasing your overall earning potential.

The real question is not whether education would aid your job search but what type of criminal justice career is best for you. For instance, do you envision yourself solving homicides? Guarding and escorting inmates? Researching court cases and filing legal briefs? Or playing an entirely different role within the justice system? 

This guide will help you compare the education requirements, job duties, and typical salaries for 10 of the most popular criminal justice careers in 2023, empowering you to make informed decisions about your future. It will also provide a brief overview of the criminal justice field as a whole, along with some points to consider before embarking upon a career in criminal justice. 

If you’d like to dive even deeper into this topic, read about why the criminal justice system is so important, or chat with National University’s knowledgeable admissions counselors about the criminal justice programs we offer. Otherwise, let’s jump right in with 10 hot careers to consider exploring. 

What is Criminal Justice?

The U.S. criminal justice system is a vast and complex structure composed of law enforcement agencies, court systems, and corrections departments nationwide. As the Bureau of Justice Statistics states, “There is no single criminal justice system in this country. We have many similar systems that are individually unique. Criminal cases may be handled differently in different jurisdictions, but court decisions [are] based on the due process guarantees of the U.S.” 

The reason these systems exist — the fundamental purpose of criminal justice — is to reduce crime, protect public safety, penalize the perpetrators of crimes, and offer rehabilitation to former offenders. There are various circumstances and reasons why people might come into contact with the criminal justice system, such as being arrested, having a family member become incarcerated, becoming the victim of a crime, or being called upon to participate in a trial or court case. 

police officer standing outside

10 Criminal Justice Degree Careers 

You know you’re passionate about topics like law, crime, and the justice system — but you aren’t quite sure about the best way to translate those interests into a rewarding career. What sort of criminal justice job is most closely aligned with your talents and strengths? What type of degree should you earn to gain the necessary skills and qualifications? And how much can you expect to earn on average once you’re employed? 

Below, you’ll find an overview of 10 of the top careers with a criminal justice degree, including the typical earnings, job duties, and education requirements for each position. Our list covers police officers, victim advocates, paralegals, and other exciting entry-level criminal justice careers. 

1. Police Officer (Law Enforcement Officer) 

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) reports that the median salary for police officers employed by local agencies and sheriff’s patrol officers was approximately $64,600 per year as of 2021. However, law enforcement officers who worked for federal agencies earned significantly more on average — close to $94,000 per year — while those employed by state agencies earned median salaries of around $72,300. 

It’s possible to become a police officer with a GED or high school diploma, but advancing your education further can help qualify you for higher-paying positions. Explore the best degrees for law enforcement careers, or learn about other ways you can boost your career in law enforcement

2. Crime Victim Advocate

The role of a victim advocate sometimes referred to as a “human service assistant,” is to provide the victims of crimes with emotional support, assistance navigating the criminal justice system, and information about their rights. For instance, they might accompany crime victims during police interviews or help them file crime-related claims. 

While the BLS does not provide salary data specifically for victim advocates, it does provide data for human service assistants, who earn about $37,600 annually. Additionally, reports that, in the United States, “The average Victim Advocate salary is $34,029 as of May 01, 2023, but the salary range typically falls between $31,425 and $39,355.” The minimum education required for this role is typically a bachelor’s degree, ideally in a field like psychology, sociology, or criminal justice. 

3. Human Service Assistant 

Other than victim advocates, some human service assistants specialize in working with former prison inmates. According to the BLS, their role is to “find job training or placement programs to help clients reenter society… find housing and connect with programs that help them start a new life for themselves.” The BLS reports that human service assistants earn approximately $37,600 annually and need a high school diploma, at minimum, to enter the field. 

4. Corrections Officer

The BLS combines corrections officers, or correctional officers, together with bailiffs. Both guard prisoners and maintain order and safety, but corrections officers chiefly work in jails or prisons, while bailiffs work in courts. The median salary for these positions is approximately $48,000 per year, and a high school diploma is generally the minimum level of education required. 

5. Border Patrol Agent

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website, border patrol agents work to “reduc[e] the likelihood that dangerous people and capabilities enter the United States between the ports of entry,” a role in which you’ll “detect, prevent, and apprehend undocumented noncitizens and smugglers” along Mexican or Canadian borders. 

According to data from the financial service Intuit, “The average salary for a border patrol agent in the United States is $105,500 per year.” You can learn more about the pay and benefits for border patrol agents here

6. Criminal Defense Paralegal

A paralegal is not the same as an attorney. While a lawyer cross-examines witnesses and argues cases in court, the role of a paralegal is to conduct research, draft legal documents, contact clients, and perform additional support-related tasks for attorneys. 

BLS data indicates that the median salary for a paralegal or legal assistant was approximately $56,200 as of 2021. The top 10%, however, earned over $88,600, with federal agencies paying more on average than other types of employers or industries. Learn more about how to become a paralegal, or explore related programs like National University’s BS in Paralegal Studies

7. Fish and Game Warden

The BLS identifies three primary job duties for a fish and game warden: “prevent fish and game law violations,” “investigate reports of damage to crops or property,” and “compile biological data,” blending criminal justice with natural science. According to the BLS, the median salary for a fish and game warden is approximately $60,700, and the minimum education required for this role is typically a GED or diploma. 

8. Child Protective Services (CPS) Worker

CPS workers are a specific type of social worker whose role is to investigate and intervene appropriately when child abuse is reported. According to BLS data, the median salary for social workers was slightly under $50,400 as of 2021, with “child, family, and school social workers” earning median salaries of $49,150. 

If you plan to become a social worker, you will need a bachelor’s or master’s degree to meet minimum education requirements. The social work field is expected to grow by 9% in the coming decade, which is “faster than average” based on BLS data. To learn more about becoming a CPS worker, visit your state’s child welfare agency website, or explore the CSWE-accredited Master of Social Work (MSW) program at National University.

9. Parole Officer

Probation officers supervise offenders who are on probation (an alternative to incarceration), while parole officers supervise inmates who have been granted parole (conditional release from prison). The BLS reports that these types of officers earn a median salary of around $62,250 annually. The minimum education required for this role is typically a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field, such as majoring in psychology.

10. Private Investigator

A private investigator is an individual hired to gather evidence related to financial, legal, or personal issues, which means their workplace can be virtually anywhere — from a typical office building, to a vehicle filled with surveillance equipment. 

The BLS reports that, as of 2021, private investigators earn a median salary slightly below $59,400. (So do private detectives, whom the BLS puts in the same category as private investigators.) BLS data also shows that the top 10% earn more than $98,000. With a 6% growth projected through 2031, this field is expanding on pace with the national average for all occupations. 

criminal justice hero image

Education and Training for Criminal Justice Careers

Different careers within the criminal justice field require different levels of education. For instance, to become a police officer, you typically need at least a high school diploma, although some departments require a college degree. On the other hand, if you’re aiming for a career as a forensic psychologist or criminologist, you’ll need a master’s degree or even a Ph.D.

Training is an integral part of any criminal justice career. For example, police officers undergo rigorous physical training and learn about laws and procedures. Correctional officers receive training on inmate management. Private investigators need to learn surveillance techniques and often have a background in law enforcement.

Industry Certifications

Certifications can give you an edge in the competitive field of criminal justice. They demonstrate your commitment and expertise in a particular area. For instance, a Certified Criminal Justice Professional (CCJP) certification could be beneficial if you’re interested in counseling individuals who have been affected by substance abuse or criminal behavior.

In summary, the path to a criminal justice career involves a combination of the right education, training, and certifications.

The Future of Criminal Justice Careers

The field of criminal justice is evolving, and with it, the opportunities are expanding. One of the significant future trends is the increasing use of technology. From advanced forensic tools to AI and machine learning in crime analysis and prediction, technology is changing the way criminal justice professionals work. This means there will be a growing demand for professionals who can combine criminal justice knowledge with tech skills.

Another trend is the growing focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. This shift is creating opportunities in areas like counseling, social work, and community outreach. Let’s not forget about the increasing importance of cybersecurity. As cybercrimes continue to rise, there will be a need for professionals who can investigate and prevent these crimes.

The future of criminal justice careers looks promising, with numerous opportunities for those ready to adapt and grow with the trends. So, whether you’re just starting or looking to advance your career, the future is bright in the world of criminal justice.

Should you Pursue a Career in Criminal Justice? 

As we’ve just seen, criminal justice careers are highly diverse and wide-ranging, spanning fields like law, crime scene investigation, psychology, sociology, and biology. Criminal justice also overlaps with education (like becoming a professor of criminology), finance and economics (like becoming a fraud investigator), and computing and IT (like becoming an expert on cybercrime prevention). 

As you consider the many career paths that you could potentially pursue, here are a few questions to think carefully about. Once you know the answers, you’ll be able to make the best decision about which degree program — and career field — is ideal for you.

  • What are your salary requirements? Some criminal justice positions pay significantly more than others, as the examples in this article show. It’s important to determine your salary needs so that you can act accordingly. 
  • What are your talents, passions, and interests? For some people, a job in criminal justice means unraveling murders, analyzing evidence, or infiltrating street gangs. For others, it means teaching students about modern policing, providing counseling for at-risk youth, or impacting public policies around crime. Learn about soft and hard skills to gain more insight into your strengths — and where they might be the most advantageous.  
  • Are you prepared for the challenges of the role? Some criminal justice careers can be physically dangerous, and all of them can be mentally and emotionally grueling. Your role may require you to engage frequently with issues like domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, childhood poverty, and many other challenging subjects and situations. You may also be required to work unusual or irregular hours, especially if you intend to become a police officer or private investigator. 
police officer

Earn a Criminal Justice Degree at National University 

Are you searching for a degree program that will challenge you to develop industry-critical skills while simultaneously providing a flexible and convenient approach to education? National University offers online and on-campus programs that empower you to learn at your own pace, making it easy to balance higher education with the demands of your busy schedule. 

Our programs in criminal justice and law include the Certificate in Criminal Justice Administration, the Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration, the Master’s in Criminal Justice Leadership, the Doctor of Criminal Justice, and many additional options, including degree and certificate programs in fields like cybersecurity, homeland security, forensic science, and paralegal studies. In addition, all of our programs are regionally accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), and students are eligible to apply for a variety of scholarships and financial aid packages.  

Whether you’re an undergraduate, graduate student, transfer student, or adult learner, you’ll find a program that supports your career goals at National University. Request program information from our admissions office, or start your journey today by securely applying online.

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