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How to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice

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Earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice could give you the knowledge to advance your career or get a job in law enforcement, corrections, investigations or other public policy and protective services.

“A lot of federal law enforcement jobs require a bachelor’s degree, so if that’s the route you’re thinking of going, then thinking about getting a bachelor’s degree education will be especially important,” said Cody Telep, associate professor at Arizona State University.

In this Article

What is a criminal justice bachelor’s degree?

A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice covers the major fields of criminal justice, such as law enforcement, court processes and the penal system. Curricula vary between schools, but degree programs typically include the following requirements:

General education:

You will be required to take courses in English composition, communication math, science, social sciences and humanities. Sociology or psychology might be required for a criminal justice majors. These classes are typically completed during your first two years in school.

Criminal justice courses:

Most of your courses will be in your criminal justice major degree plan. Classes will cover topics like law enforcement, criminology, police procedures, court systems, corrections, investigations and ethics. You may also take more specialized courses on victimology, restorative justice, community policing and domestic violence.

Minor courses:

Generally, a bachelor’s degree program will also offer the ability to attain a specializing minor. You may be able to choose a minor that relates to your career goals.

How a bachelor’s degree compares to an associate degree

The bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to complete, and you must earn about 120 course credits, though the exact number can vary from school to school. A bachelor’s degree program is about twice as long as an associate degree. Both may have online options.

However, compared to an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree will give you a deeper and more comprehensive foundation in the principles and practices of criminal justice. You may also be able to specialize in a sub-field of criminal justice, such as criminal investigations or juvenile justice.

A bachelor’s degree can also help develop your “soft skills” in written and oral communication, critical thinking and decision-making. In addition, you may graduate with a greater understanding of criminal justice and its historical, social and cultural context. 

Who can benefit from a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice?

Many careers in criminal justice require a bachelor’s degree for entry-level positions. They include:

Mid-career professionals in criminal justice fields such as law enforcement often want to earn a bachelor’s degree with hopes of getting promoted or moving into a management position.

If you’ve already earned an associate degree, you may find it simpler to go back to school after a few years to earn a bachelor’s degree. When you enroll in a bachelor’s program, you may be able to get transfer credit for the courses you have already taken. 

Should you get a BA or a BS?

In browsing degree programs, you may have noticed that some are labeled BA in Criminal Justice while others are labeled BS in Criminal Justice. BA stands for Bachelor of Arts, and BS means Bachelor of Science.

In terms of quality, the two types of degrees are generally the same. The chief difference is that the BA reflects a liberal arts tradition, while a BS stresses math and science. In a BA program, you may study more sociology, criminal theory, and public policy, while the courses in your BS program may be more technical or practical in nature.

Some colleges and universities may offer only one type of criminal justice degree, either a BA or BS, but many large universities give students a choice. In those cases, the curriculum or graduation requirements will differ slightly. 

What you can do with a BA in criminal justice

The BA in Criminal Justice can give you a well-rounded education that benefits just about any career related to law, courts, or inmate rehabilitation. The emphasis on “soft skills” like communication makes it a good choice for people hoping to move into a management role in a police department or law enforcement organization.

Further, suppose you are thinking of going to law school or getting a master’s degree or PhD sometime in the future. In that case, a BA in criminal justice could provide you with a broader background in history, theory, political science, philosophy and research. 

What you can do with a BS in criminal justice

The BS degree in Criminal Justice is generally beneficial for people hoping to enter law enforcement, obtain a job with a federal agency or work in corrections. In addition, the scientific and technical slant of the courses could allow you to develop practical skills you can apply in the field.

Some people working in law enforcement who wish to achieve a higher rank may be interested in pursuing a BS in Criminal Justice. 

Courses you could take

The basic courses in a bachelor’s degree program in criminal justice may be similar or even the same as those offered in an associate’s degree program. These may include courses such as criminology, policing, criminal law, investigations, courts, corrections and ethics.

In addition, you’ll take more advanced courses in a wider range of specialized topics. These courses may be called by slightly different titles, depending on the university, but some examples are the following: 

Victimology:
This class looks at how crime impacts the victim and the criminal justice system’s role in protecting or advocating for the rights of crime victims.
Social Justice:
Courses like these may have slightly different focuses, but most examine how factors such as race, gender, ethnicity, class and other factors influence the creation and enforcement of laws and policies.
Cybercrime:
Advancements in technology have created new ways for people to commit crimes. This course discusses types of cybercrime and how to prevent, detect and fight them.
Community-Based Policing or Corrections:
Community-based policing is a growing trend used to prevent crimes by developing a visible presence and good relationships with community members. Community-based corrections focus on ways to impose penalties without incarceration.
Social Policy and Crime:
Courses like these look at the historical, social and political factors that may contribute to crime, the establishment of laws and the implementation of law enforcement and corrections.
Drug Policy and Enforcement:
This course may cover topics such as drug laws, trafficking, addiction and legalization. 

Criminal justice concentrations

If you know what area of criminal justice you’d like to pursue, you may be able to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program that allows you to choose a concentration in a specific field. Popular choices include:


Law enforcement

A general criminal justice bachelor’s degree can prepare you well for a career as a police officer, but some degree programs with concentrations in law enforcement or policing have courses that teach more practical and applied skills. For example, you may take courses in police procedures, police organization, patrol techniques, and crisis handling.


Forensic science or criminal investigation

Concentrations in forensic science or criminal investigation are designed for someone interested in working as a crime scene investigator or evidence analysis. You may study techniques for investigating a crime scene and take courses in biology and chemistry. Some courses may have you working in a laboratory setting.


Restorative justice

A concentration in restorative justice focuses on the corrections side of criminal justice from the victims’ point of view. You may study how laws and courts address crime’s impact on the community and victims.

“Restorative justice is a type of community-based corrections that’s a growing trend and often used in rehabilitation efforts for youth,” said Vesna Markovic, associate professor in criminal justice at Lewis University near Chicago.

Courses may cover theories of law enforcement, investigation, and corrections and their effects on marginalized groups in society. You may also examine alternative methods of crime prevention and rehabilitation.


Homeland security

In studying for a concentration in homeland security, you could learn about gathering information about threats and developing strategies for preventing and responding to threats. You might also learn about illegal trafficking and contraband. The degree can be useful for those interested in a job with a federal agency such as the Department of Homeland Security, but also for those interested in careers in border patrol, transportation security, and emergency management. 


Criminology

Criminology looks at criminal justice through the lens of social justice and public policy. You may learn about the social and economic forces that influence the legal system, and the impacts of crime and corrections on society. Courses look at specific topics such as gangs, the media, hate crimes and drugs, or you may take courses that address the historical and philosophical foundations of criminal justice.


Juvenile justice

A concentration in juvenile justice is designed for those interested in working with children or youth, whether it’s in law enforcement, crime prevention or corrections. You may study the causes of juvenile delinquency, legal and ethical aspects of working with youth, strategies for preventing young people from becoming offenders, and methods of rehabilitation.

Choosing a minor for your criminal justice degree

While studying for your bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, you will have the opportunity to select a minor course of study. As a criminal justice major, you should think about a minor that can expand your knowledge or help advance your career goals.

Social science

Language

Technology

Minors in psychology and sociology are common choices. These courses can give you insight into criminal behavior and societal influences on crime.

Markovic said that a minor in a foreign language can be helpful, especially if you want a career as a police officer, correctional officer, victim advocate or other job working directly with a diverse population. Knowing the basics of another language can help you establish rapport with the public you service and assist in an emergency situation. Translators are also needed in the justice system.

Technology is also a good choice as a minor. Criminal justice increasingly relies on computer-based record keeping and crime models. 

Criminal justice bachelor’s degree FAQ

When applying for a criminal justice bachelor’s degree, can you get course credit for work or military experience?

Yes, in many cases. Colleges and universities often count work or military experience as credit hours toward your degree, up to a specified number of hours. The admissions department of your school can give you specific details.

Will you make more money with a bachelor’s degree than with an associate’s degree in criminal justice?

It’s not guaranteed, but it’s a possibility. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that people with bachelor’s degrees typically have higher salaries than those without one. However, many different factors affect salaries in criminal justice fields.

In a criminal justice bachelor’s degree program, do you have to serve an internship?

An internship is not required, but it might be a good idea. Universities often have agreements with local police departments, detention centers or parole and probation officers to provide internships or other opportunities for hands-on experience.

Telep also advises that study-abroad experiences are valuable, especially for those wanting to work in homeland security or international crime.

Do police officers, federal agents, and other criminal justice workers need other training in addition to a bachelor’s degree?

Yes. Law enforcement officers on every level need to attend a police training academy. Federal agents attend the training facility in Quantico, VA.

karen hanson

Written and reported by:

Karen S. Hanson

Contributing Writer

vesna markovic

With professional insight from:

Vesna Markovic

Chair and Associate Professor of Justice, Law, and Public Safety at Lewis University

cody w telep

Cody W. Telep

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