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What does a correctional counselor do?

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Correctional counselor at a glance

Where you’ll work: Correctional counselors work in jails and prisons, or in parole or probation agencies.

What you’ll do: Those working in rehabilitation use their correctional counselor training to evaluate the progress of inmates in jails and prisons. You’ll work with inmates, probation officers, and other agencies to develop parole and release plans. You’ll also provide case reports to the parole board when their clients are eligible for release.

Degree you’ll need: Bachelor’s degree

Median annual salary: $60,250

In this article

Correctional counselor job description

Correctional counselors—also known as case managers, correctional treatment specialists or drug treatment specialists—create rehabilitation and treatment plans for prison inmates and parolees. They continually monitor the status and progress of offenders no matter if they are still in prison, jail or released into the community. Their primary goal is to ensure that an offender does not re-offend once they have integrated into the public domain.

Because of this, correctional counselors have a big job and they work hard to plan educational and training programs for offenders, communicate with corrections officers and counsel inmates either individually or in groups so they have the coping skills, job placement opportunities, anger management skills and drug, domestic or sexual abuse prevention treatments needed to manage their issues and circumstances and become productive citizens.

Where do they work?

Correctional facilities

Parole offices

Community service centers

Correctional counselors may work in correctional facilities, including prisons, and probation and parole offices or youth and detention centers. They might also work in a community service center and should be prepared to travel in order to visit parolees and their relatives in their homes or workplaces. When looking for jobs, there may be more opportunity in geographic areas that have a higher incarceration number.

As an example, California is a good state for correctional counselors as it is one of the top three states in the U.S. for the number of prisoners under federal or state jurisdiction, according to 2022 statistics. A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Correctional Counselor 1 has two paths to entry:

  • Hold a bachelor’s degree and have one year of experience either as a correctional program supervisor, as a youth counselor or two years as a correctional officer or medical treatment specialist.
  • The alternative path is one year of experience as a counselor working in the fields of probation, parole or correctional casework and a four-year bachelor’s degree.

The other two states with the largest number of incarcerations are Texas and Florida.

Types of correctional counselors

Because the prison and jail populations are diverse and have different needs, correctional counselors can also choose to focus on their skills on a specific demographic or area. Some of the most common specializations for correctional counselors include:

Youth correctional counselors

What you’ll do: Provide counseling to youths or minors who are in a juvenile detention facility or who have had a criminal conviction, assess their needs, make a treatment plan and monitor progress as the plan in implemented.

Degree needed: Bachelor’s degree in psychology, criminal justice, behavioral science or social work

Drug and alcohol (substance abuse) counselors

What you’ll do: Create and customize treatment plans for prisoners or parolees and meet regularly with them to monitor progress as they recover, or work with individuals who relapse or are in crisis.

Degree needed: Bachelor’s degree, state licensure

Corrections social workers

What you’ll do: These social workers have many of the same duties as correctional counselors, but the main difference is they focus on mental health and work primarily within the prison system to provide psychological assessments as to an inmate’s mental stability and health.

Degree needed: Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or a Master of Social Work (MSW)

Domestic violence counselors

What you’ll do: Work with offenders to deal with anger and control issues, help them identify the inherent beliefs that support their using violence against partners and people and teach strategies to change their behavior after release.

Degree needed: Master’s degree

Education requirements

To become a correctional counselor, you’ll need a 4-year bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, social work, psychology or a related area to work in the field. Many correctional treatment specialists have master’s degrees in criminal justice, social work or psychology.

Once you complete your education you may be required to pass an exam and earn certification. Correctional counselors working in federal or state government are usually required to work as trainees for a year before they obtain a permanent position. While there are different levels of correctional treatment specialists, advancement to supervisory positions is based on experience and education and a master’s degree in criminal justice, social work or psychology may be required to move up the ladder.

Licensing and certification

  • Check if your state requires licensing before, during, or after training for correctional counseling positions.

At minimum for this career, you’ll need to be a U.S. citizen over 21 years old, not be a convicted felon, have a bachelor’s degree, and pass several competitive written, oral, psychological and physical examinations in order to enter the field. You’ll also need to pass a drug test.

However, some states require that correctional counselors take licensing or certification tests during or after the completion of training.

The most common professional certifications for corrections healthcare workers are offered by the American Correctional Association (ACA) and they have several levels of certification for all levels of corrections professions from correctional officer to management. While certifications are not limited to correctional counselors, Zippia states that the Certified Corrections Manager (CCM) certification is most common among corrections counselors. Youth correctional counselors can apply for the Correctional Behavioral Health Certification–Adult/Juvenile Correctional Officer (CBHC-CO) credential after completing one year of experience in a prison, a detention facility or community/work release center supervising and working with behavioral and mental health staff to care for offenders. 

The National Association of Forensic Counselors (NAFC) also offers several levels of certification and all licensed mental health professionals, including psychologists, counselors, social workers and domestic violence and sexual abuse counselors are eligible to apply. The NAFC requires non-clinical level certification candidates to have at least two years or 4,000 hours of experience working with offenders or ex-offenders within the profession applicable to the certification they are applying for prior to sitting for the certification exam. 

Skills and traits

Because of the nature of the job and the work environment, you’ll need to have exceptional boundaries as a correctional counselor or correctional treatment specialist. According to the BLS, these are some desirable traits and skills for the job:

  • Communication: You will need to act with all types of people, from prisoners and probationers to other treatment providers and legal teams. You should have exceptional communication skills that can cross the spectrum, so you can relay information and administer advice professionally and succinctly.
  • Critical-thinking: You should be able to understand the issues and challenges facing offenders so that you can determine and administer the right treatment and path for them long-and-short term.
  • Decision-making: Not only will excellent decision-making abilities affect what treatments and solutions you provide your parolees and probationers, it will keep you alert and safe in the moment.
  • Emotional stability: You’ll be dealing with volatile, potentially hostile and sometimes violent or angry people. You’ll need to stay cool and rational no matter what the circumstances.
  • Organizational skills: You’ll handle more than one offender at a time, so being able to juggle several case files at once is a must.

Median salary by state

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) places correctional counselors under the umbrella of “Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists” as far as salary and job growth statistics. As of 2021, these specialists earned a median annual salary of $60,250, with the highest 10% in the field earning over $99,090.

Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists

National data

Median Salary: $60,250

Projected job growth: 0.1%

10th Percentile: $37,380

25th Percentile: $46,920

75th Percentile: $77,020

90th Percentile: $99,090

Projected job growth: 0.1%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $47,790 $35,610 $69,000
Alaska $73,760 $55,700 $96,940
Arizona $57,860 $37,700 $76,490
Arkansas $37,230 $36,740 $47,580
California $99,090 $61,280 $125,560
Colorado $60,710 $47,720 $92,780
Connecticut $97,760 $63,950 $107,190
Delaware $52,580 $43,380 $62,780
Florida $40,330 $31,990 $53,210
Georgia $43,220 $33,670 $55,520
Hawaii $60,250 $47,390 $76,410
Idaho $46,920 $37,350 $60,080
Illinois $61,510 $47,630 $96,940
Indiana $49,270 $36,470 $76,620
Iowa $76,730 $48,360 $97,360
Kansas $46,920 $37,200 $60,080
Kentucky $38,740 $34,790 $49,810
Louisiana $49,230 $37,340 $75,000
Maine $60,500 $38,710 $60,820
Maryland $60,250 $47,390 $76,410
Massachusetts $77,020 $60,250 $97,760
Michigan $71,090 $47,580 $76,410
Minnesota $76,490 $48,010 $97,980
Mississippi $37,200 $29,180 $46,920
Missouri $37,200 $36,590 $46,920
Montana $46,920 $37,200 $59,360
Nebraska $51,860 $38,700 $60,890
Nevada $60,500 $47,390 $76,730
New Hampshire $67,390 $49,880 $77,440
New Jersey $76,410 $47,390 $96,940
New Mexico $47,530 $41,770 $58,240
New York $76,410 $50,400 $101,180
North Carolina $46,920 $37,200 $59,360
North Dakota $62,030 $51,790 $83,400
Ohio $56,210 $37,730 $76,410
Oklahoma $42,100 $37,020 $49,880
Oregon $64,170 $47,390 $91,090
Pennsylvania $61,000 $39,380 $81,510
South Carolina $40,200 $36,690 $59,360
South Dakota $49,980 $38,200 $60,380
Tennessee $42,270 $30,220 $55,780
Texas $47,580 $37,700 $61,610
Utah $54,580 $42,160 $65,400
Vermont $68,990 $59,360 $77,110
Virginia $44,330 $37,210 $61,280
Washington $67,570 $56,230 $94,260
West Virginia $46,300 $30,980 $59,360
Wisconsin $49,710 $41,560 $59,180
Wyoming $49,330 $46,920 $61,780

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Here is a comparison of median annual salaries for careers that may overlap with correctional counselor duties and responsibilities:

Career Median Annual Salary
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists $60,250
Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors $60,510
Social Workers, All Other $61,190

The job growth for correctional treatment specialists shows little to no change through 2031, though the BLS says demand should be strong as local, state and federal governments acknowledge the advantage of community corrections over prison, and these workers will be needed to supervise offenders who are released and require counseling services as they transition (and beyond).

Frequently asked questions

What challenges do correctional counselors face on the job?

Correctional counselor roles can be extremely stressful as you’ll not only deal with incarcerated people but their families and friends, who may be difficult to work with. Since you may work in a jail, prison or high-crime area, the risk of violence may be present, and you may also be required to perform home and employment checks or searches, where you may be received with hostility. The BLS says you may be faced with parolees who violate their terms of release, which can also contribute to stress or danger.

What are the duties of a correctional counselor?

Common tasks and duties correctional counselors perform include:
– Overseeing prisoner education and training
– Developing parole release plans
– Reporting on prisoner progress and writing documentation for parole boards and case files
– Counseling offenders on behavior, mental issues and job placement
– Interviewing probationers and parolees, their families and friends
– Testing offenders for substances
– Testifying in court

How do I become a correctional counselor in California?

A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Correctional Counselor 1 has two paths to entry: 1) hold a four-year degree and have, as specified by CDCR, one (or two) years of experience as a correctional program supervisor, youth counselor, corrections officer or medical treatment specialist, or 2) have a four-year degree and one year of experience in probation, parole, or correctional case work.