How To Get a Criminal Justice Degree

Updated June 24, 2022

Criminal justice is an area of the legal system that involves seeking justice for those who have been accused of committing crimes. Working in criminal justice can be a rewarding career path that allows you to interact with a range of individuals. Understanding the educational requirements and opportunities available to those who pursue a degree in criminal justice can help you decide whether it is a path you want to consider. In this article, we will discuss how to get a criminal justice degree and the degree levels available.

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What is a criminal justice degree?

A criminal justice degree is an educational certification focused on the rules and systems related to holding criminals accountable for the crimes they have committed and restoring losses incurred by victims of those crimes. Studying criminal justice involves focusing on laws and public policies and developing plans that help to reduce crime rates. Other areas of focus include the manifestations and causes of criminal and deviant behavior and the methods used by government agencies and law enforcement agencies to manage criminal activity.

Many criminal justice programs involve the study of criminology, which is the psychological and social study of deviancy and the associated behaviors. In addition to criminology, a well-rounded criminal justice program will include courses on five key areas of the subject:

  1. Law enforcement: Covers the development and history of law enforcement in America, including federal forces and local police forces. This area also covers how officers monitor criminal activity, apply legal regulations and investigate crime scenes.

  2. The U.S. legal system: An overview of the constitutional, common and statutory laws in America, as well as the checks and balances that exist on the three branches of government and how national and state courts handle the litigation process.

  3. Criminal investigations: Covers preservation and collection methods for evidence, technologies and processes used in investigation and how to process and produce reports and statements.

  4. National security and terrorism: An overview of international and domestic terrorism groups and threats, with a focus on how these groups recruit members, select targets and fund their plans. Courses related to terrorism and national security threats may also include details on what agencies track and eliminate threats.

  5. Criminological theory: Similar to criminology, criminological theory develops theories on the economic, sociological, psychological and biological roots of delinquent behavior.

Related: 15 Jobs You Can Get With a Criminal Justice Degree

Types of criminal justice degrees

If you want to work in criminal justice, you will need to earn a degree, although several educational levels are available to students. The degree level you choose depends on the career you want to pursue, as higher-level positions will require a bachelor's or master's degree in the field. You may be able to find an entry-level position with an associate's degree, which typically takes about two years to earn. The three main types of associate's degrees are associate of arts, associate of science and associate of applied science. Each program requires approximately 65 hours of coursework.

Certification programs are also available in the criminal justice field, although earning a certification is not usually enough to allow you to work in the industry. Many students obtain their criminal justice certifications in conjunction with completing a formal education program. A lower-level certification may take between six and 12 months to earn, while a graduate certification usually takes one year to earn.

A bachelor's degree is a common requirement for criminal justice jobs, which requires about 120-128 credit hours to earn at most colleges and universities. A formal bachelor's degree program will include coursework in the key areas highlighted above. Some criminal justice professionals also choose to further their education by earning a master's or doctorate degree. A master's degree in the field may take two to three years to complete, while a doctorate program can take up to seven years.

Related: 10 Types of Criminal Justice Majors and Related Jobs

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How to get a criminal justice degree

If you want to pursue a career in the criminal justice system, you can follow a path to earn a criminal justice degree and gain the knowledge and experience that will make you a viable candidate for open positions.

1. Complete high school

Before you can attend college to study criminal justice, you must finish high school and earn a diploma. When applying to colleges and universities, you will need to include a copy of your transcript, so work hard to earn good grades to increase your chances of getting into the college you want to attend. You may also need to submit your SAT or ACT score with your application, along with letters of recommendation and an essay or statement of intent.

Related: How to Write a Criminal Justice Resume Objective

2. Look for opportunities to get experience

Experience in the criminal justice field is valuable, so as you attend college, look for opportunities to get hands-on experience. You could work in a law office or volunteer with the local police department to learn more about the legal system or law enforcement.

3. Maintain a clean background

Working in criminal justice often requires detailed background checks, so it is important to maintain a clean legal record throughout your life. Avoid getting into legal trouble that could hamper your ability to work in this field.

4. Decide on an area of specialization

A criminal justice education program will include courses on a range of related topics, but you will also have the opportunity to choose your specialization. The area of specialization you choose should be what you are most interested in, such as forensic science, homeland security, legal studies, family justice, juvenile justice or cybersecurity. You will take more courses focused on your area of specialization, which can help you qualify for positions that cater to your interests.

5. Consider earning a certification

You may also choose to earn a certification in your chosen specialty of criminal justice while completing your degree or after you finish the formal educational program. A certification can help you stand out among applicants to open positions and establish your credibility as a knowledgeable individual in the field. Earning a certification usually involves taking additional courses and passing an exam to demonstrate your knowledge and abilities.

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