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Associate degree in criminal justice overview

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An associate degree in criminal justice is a two-year program that gives students a basic knowledge of the criminal justice system and the various parts each player within it plays.

This degree can set you on the path for an exciting career that allows you to solve crimes, keep people safe and secure, and serve your community.

Of late, more entry-level positions in law enforcement and other criminal justice areas require an associate degree. Even when pursuing jobs for which a college degree isn’t required, having an associate degree in a criminal justice field can make your application more competitive.

If you’re uncertain about what field of criminal justice you’re interested in, the courses in an associate degree program give you an overview of the career options available to you. Further, if you decide later in your career to continue your education, your associate degree credits may transfer for credit hours and give you a head start when completing bachelor’s degree program.

“You can always move over to the four-year path,” states Cody Telep, associate professor of criminal justice at Arizona State University. “When you start with an associate degree, it’s very easy to seamlessly transition to a bachelor’s degree.”

What will you study during an associate of criminal justice program?

All criminal justice programs offer similar courses, although their titles may vary a little. In a typical criminal justice curriculum, you’re likely to see:

Introduction to Criminal Justice:
In this class, you’ll study most facets of the criminal justice system and receive an overview of criminal law and policing, court procedures, sentencing, prisons, probation and parole, and juvenile justice.
Criminal Law:
You may study the history and evolution of laws, as well as legal theory and applications. You could review famous court cases and compare laws on the local, state, and federal levels.
Policing:
This course examines the roles of police officers in a society and how they work to prevent and solve crimes. Some courses will also go over the structure of a police department and police procedures.
Introduction to Corrections:
This course may cover the history and theory of criminal punishment and corrections. You could study various methods of incarceration, probation, parole, rehabilitation, and community-based corrections.
Criminal Investigations:
This course might examine investigative processes such as crime scene examination, evidence collection and processing, interviewing witnesses and suspects, and testifying in court.
Introduction to Forensic Science:
Some colleges may offer a forensic science course that emphasizes the scientific processes of evidence collection and examination, such as fingerprinting, DNA collection, blood evidence, and toxicology.
Juvenile Justice:
You may study the causes of juvenile delinquency, prevention of juvenile crime, and juvenile courts and detention centers.
Court Systems:
You can learn about all parts of the court system, including indictments and arraignments, prosecution, defense, trial procedures, juries, and sentencing.
Ethics:
This course examines the ethical behavior of all those involved with the criminal justice system, including police, court officers, and correctional officers.

Types of Associate Degrees in Criminal Justice

The general criminal justice degree is designed to give you an overview of how the justice system works. You’ll study criminal law, law enforcement, the court system, and corrections. But in some associate degree programs, you can also take several courses concentrated in a specific area of criminal justice. These programs can allow you to learn more about career path in criminal justice that you may be interested in.

Difference between AA and AS

As you explore different colleges and degrees, you’ll notice some degrees are labeled AA in Criminal Justice while others are called AS in Criminal Justice. Both are essentially the same, but there are some subtle distinctions.

For both degrees, you will take general education courses such as English composition, math, and social sciences, and you’ll also take courses in the criminal justice field. The only difference lies in the emphasis of the curriculum. 

The AA degree stands for Associate of Arts. In this type of associate degree, your courses will stress the traditional liberal arts, while the AS, or Associate of Science, will focus on math, science, and technology.

A less common associate degree designation is the AAS, or Associate of Applied Science. The AAS is similar to the AS but stresses vocational and career education.

Prerequisites for an associate degree

For all associate degrees, you will need a valid high school diploma or GED to be admitted to the program. However, some states allow high school students to take community college classes for dual credit.

Community colleges and online schools tend to have most lenient admissions policies. Frequently, they do not require standardized tests like the ACT or SAT, and they may accept you as long as your high school GPA is 2.0 or higher.

What should I look for when selecting a school?

You can find an associate degree program in criminal justice at community colleges, traditional colleges and universities, and online universities.

To choose the school that’s right for you, some factors to consider include:

Program choices: While most associate degree criminal justice programs have similar introductory courses, individual colleges and universities can vary widely in the electives they offer. If you have an idea of what area of criminal justice you want to pursue, you might want to choose a degree program that offers courses you’re interested in. Look for a course catalog or curriculum on the institution’s website.

Location: Some colleges and universities have residence halls available where you can stay while attending classes for your associate’s degree. You may also choose to commute to a school that is close to home. Studying online is also a possibility and may be a good option for people who are working.

Costs: Community colleges tend to be less expensive than traditional universities, but tuition and fees can vary widely. Online criminal justice programs can also save you money because they are usually accelerated, meaning you could finish the program faster. Program costs are generally available on the websites of colleges and universities. If you plan to live on campus, you’ll also need to consider the cost of housing, food, and other living expenses.

Transfer credits: If you’ve already completed some college courses, you may be able to transfer in the credits you earned. This can save you time and money. On the flip side, if you decide to continue on to a bachelor’s degree someday, you want to earn credits in your associate degree that a bachelor’s degree program will accept. Each college or university sets its own policy about how many transfer credits and which courses they will accept.

How long does it take to earn an associate degree?

Associate degrees require you to earn about 60 course credits. Traditionally, that takes about two years, but you can make choices that affect how quickly you can finish your degree. Consider:

Will you attend full time or part time?
A full time student typically takes a full load of courses, usually four courses per 16-week semester, and can finish the degree in two years. As a part-time student, you may have the option of taking only one or two courses per semester. You can work at your own pace, but it could take you longer than two years to graduate.

How many weeks long are the courses?
Accelerated or online degree problems may offer eight-week instead of 16-week courses. They also tend to run classes all year long, without the usual summer break. With this model, you may be able to finish within 12–18 months if you take a full course load.

Should you earn your degree online or in person?

Whether you take courses on campus or online, or a combination of both, is a matter of personal preference. The same degrees in criminal justice are available, no matter how or where you study. Colleges and universities take care to provide the same course content regardless of the delivery mode. Your learning experience may be different, however.

What You Can Do with a Criminal Justice AA

A general associate degree in a criminal justice is designed to introduce you to the basic knowledge of how the criminal justice system works. The associate degree is useful for a number of careers, including the following:

Law enforcement officer: Trained patrol officers are needed at all levels of government: city, county, state, and federal. Universities, hospitals, parks, and other public service areas also employ police and patrol officers. In a criminal justice degree program, you’ll learn about police procedures and policies.

Transportation security: Railroad and transit police patrol train yards or work on public transportation like commuter trains, subways, and buses. Some cities also employ police at seaports. On the federal level, an associate degree may help you get an entry-level position with the Transportation Security Authority, which keeps airports and travelers safe.

Security guard: Security guards are employed by corporations, companies, and private organizations in all industries. The specific duties can differ from place to place but usually involve patrolling the premises, securing entrances and exits, monitoring security cameras, and keeping employees and visitors safe. Security guards may act as first responders in case of an emergency.

Criminal Justice Associate Degree FAQ

Can I become a police officer with a criminal justice associate degree?


Many police departments require a high school diploma only, but some larger metropolitan forces and state police departments hire only people with associate degrees. With or without a degree, you will need to complete training at a police academy.

Is financial aid available for a criminal justice associate degree?


Yes. You may qualify for a student loan, grant, or work-study program. Colleges and universities may also have scholarships available that you can apply for.

If you’re already working as a police officer, correctional officer, or other criminal justice professor, you should ask your employer if they offer benefits like educational assistance or tuition reimbursement.

“It’s common, for the most part in bigger cities, that they may have resources to continue your education,” Telep states.

What can’t you do with an associate degree?


If you want to work for a federal agency or you want a career in management, an associate degree won’t be enough. You will need a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Some specialized fields, such as forensic psychologist or probation officer, usually require a bachelor’s degree to get started.

karen hanson

Written and reported by:

Karen S. Hanson

Contributing Writer

cody w telep

With professional insight from:

Cody W. Telep

Associate Professor and Associate Director, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University