Make the Right Choice
Careers in criminal justice offer challenge and reward. The field is also more versatile than you might realize.
From the street to the lab, help prevent crime, catch criminals, hold the guilty accountable or help individuals who have served their debt to society. Which career path should you take?
Police officers enforce the law at the city, county or state level. In these criminal justice jobs, you are the first line of defense against crime, helping to protect your fellow citizens in the most direct way.
Police officers are responsible for the following:
- Neighborhood patrols
- Criminal investigation
- Emergency response
- Highway safety and much more
As you progress in your career, your police experience (among other things) could make you eligible for detective or captain jobs. Federal agencies also look for a police background in certain careers.
Federal Law Enforcement Careers
Like police officers, federal law enforcement agents prevent and investigate crime. However, federal criminal justice jobs involve working directly for a particular government agency, such as the FBI, DEA, IRS, INS, Department of Homeland Security or Secret Service.
A federal law enforcement career is usually quite specialized meaning you could work in a number of settings. For example, you might fight drug trafficking as a DEA agent or evaluate security programs as an officer in the Federal Protective Service.
If you have a degree in accounting, business or technology, you might consider a career at the IRS or Treasury Enforcement Agency. Focusing on financial crimes may be different than chasing a suspect through the streets as a police officer, but your behind-the-scenes investigative work can be a great law enforcement path.
It's important to know that federal law enforcement jobs are highly selective and demand top-quality candidates. Extensive testing and evaluation is required. You will need a college degree in criminal justice or another relevant area of study, as well as some criminal investigation experience or graduate-level education.
Careers in Crime Scene Investigation
Crime scene investigators have an exciting criminal justice job. Their work starts when police officers or detectives identify a crime scene.
Here, they'll do the following:
- Document crime scenes in detail
- Collect any physical evidence they find
- Gather fingerprints, DNA samples and other evidence so that it can be properly analyzed and admitted in a court of law
A career in crime scene investigation allows you to work in several different environments depending on your educational background. For example, an associate’s degree or certificate program is enough for some evidence collection and documentation jobs. A bachelor’s or master’s degree may be required to work in a crime laboratory.
Paralegals work primarily for law firms and assist lawyers in almost every aspect of their work. While not strictly a criminal justice job, paralegals are deeply involved in the legal system (yet they don’t have to go to law school).
Paralegals perform the following tasks:
- Conduct research
- Draft legal documents
- Investigate cases
- Locate witnesses
- Manage litigation case files
While all paralegals perform these core tasks, there are ways you can broaden your career options within the field. Paralegals specialize in a number of areas including immigration, estate planning and labor laws. Having an understanding of a specific legal area can make you a valuable asset to an employer.
To become a paralegal, you will need either a 2-year associate’s degree in paralegal studies or a 4-year bachelor’s degree in another field with a certificate in paralegal studies.
Corrections Officer Careers
Corrections careers in criminal justice involve securing inmates in jails and prisons.
Corrections officers perform the following job duties:
- Conduct routine inspections
- Provide reports on inmate behavior
- Enforce the rules of the facility, which may be run by the government or by a private for-profit organization
Because you'll deal directly with inmates, you'll gain useful skills that could help in other career paths, such as probation officer, parole officer or correctional treatment specialist. In addition to experience, you'll have a much better chance of being hired or promoted if you earn a criminal justice degree. Having an advanced degree can also lead you toward a career as a substance abuse counselor or social worker.
Careers in Probation
Probation officers may work at the city, county, state or federal level. If you choose this career, you will spend your time performing these tasks:
- Supervising criminals who are serving their sentence in community corrections—probation—rather than in prison
- You may also work as a parole officer, supervising offenders after they are released from prison on parole
These criminal justice jobs require excellent communication skills, knowledge of the criminal justice system and the ability to earn the trust and respect of all types of people. If you decide to change paths, these skills are also essential for police officers, detectives and firefighters.
If you've been thinking about a law enforcement career, consider the many options you have. Whether you're interested in the legal system or would rather work in a forensics lab, there's likely a criminal justice career for you.