Complete Guide to an Online Criminal Justice Degree
If you have an interest in the law, the court system, or civic order, then criminal justice school could be a good fit for you. An online criminal justice degree is available at the undergraduate and graduate level in a variety of disciplines. Graduates can go on to a diverse array of careers, such as probation officer, police officer, detective, or administrator in a justice setting. Those employed in the criminal justice field can expect above average salaries and average-to-high job growth, depending on the specialization.
Prospective criminal justice students are encouraged to choose an online degree program that is offered by a regionally or nationally accredited institution. Accreditation helps ensure that schools meet acceptable standards with regard to their educational programs and student outcomes. Legitimate regional and national accrediting agencies should be recognized by the US Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Read More
Comprehensive List of Colleges & Universities for an Online Degree
Overview of Available Online Criminal Justice Degrees
Undergraduate students in an online criminal justice degree are introduced to the three arms of criminal justice in the United States: the courts, the correctional system, and law enforcement. Students in criminal justice certificate, associate, and bachelor's degree programs also commonly learn about police procedures and the techniques for collecting evidence at a crime scene. Classes in criminology and human behavior provide a background in the psychology of crime. Students in the online bachelor's degree typically take a greater number of general education topics in areas like communication, humanities, English, and math.
Criminal justice graduate certificates and master's degrees can provide a brief overview of general justice topics or a survey of a specialized justice area. Some possible specializations include law enforcement, administration, and corrections. These programs can be useful for current criminal justice professionals who would like to enter administrative or supervisory roles. Some master's programs require a thesis or a capstone project in the student's criminal justice area.
Online doctoral degrees in criminal justice require an in-depth research project into a particular aspect of criminal justice and the completion of a dissertation. Students take a core of classes in quantitative and qualitative analysis, research skills, and criminal justice topics. These intense programs are suited to individuals that are interested in teaching criminal justice at the postsecondary level, doing advanced research, or holding high-level criminal justice positions in settings such as federal agencies.
If you have an investigative mind and enjoy helping people, an associate degree in criminal justice can set you on the right career path. The two-year degree program is offered at various online institutions, as well as community colleges, junior colleges, and vocational-technical schools. Most programs require students to fulfill about 60 credit hours. The standard educational requirement varies, but most schools deem it mandatory for applicants to have a high school diploma or equivalent.
The associate degree program in criminal justice helps students build problem-solving skills and address a variety of societal issues. Students are given basic information about police laws, investigative policies, and a number of research techniques that will benefit them in their potential careers. Common courses include juvenile delinquency, corrections, constitutional law, criminal investigations, criminology, and police systems and practices.
Career choices are abundant among associate degree holders in criminal justice. Graduates are often qualified to become correctional officers, criminal investigators, law clerks, police offices, security personnel, detectives, or probation officers. Those who eventually want to be promoted in their careers or want to join the FBI are encouraged to seek a bachelor's or graduate degree in the field.
Criminal justice degrees often lead people toward careers in law and order. Applicants to a bachelor's degree program in criminal justice must possess a high school diploma or its equivalent and meet other college entrance requirements. Students typically take four years to complete the 128-180 credits required to earn a bachelor's degree.
The bachelor's-level criminal justice curriculum will feature both broad and focused topics in the field. Students may take various specific course paths depending on the career they are pursuing. Specializations include white collar crime, family law, crime scene investigation, and more. Students typically take these general courses in ethics, research methods, legal studies, crime and diversity, administration of justice, sociology, and government and politics. More focused courses may also be available, such as psychology of policing, comparative criminal justice systems, terrorism, criminal profiling, philosophy of law, intercultural communications, gender and nation, and history of law and economics.
There are many types of jobs available in the field of criminal justice. Graduates often become probation officers or correctional treatment specialists for detention facilities. Some become police officers, but these jobs require special criminal justice schooling in addition to a college degree. Others continue their education and earn master's degrees in criminal justice to become qualified to work as detectives or seek employment with the FBI or CIA.
Online criminal justice master's degrees prepare students to act as effective agents of change in the criminal justice system. Students gain the expertise essential for middle- to top-level positions in the criminal justice system. Applicants should hold a bachelor’s degree in criminology or a related field in the social sciences. Master's programs require completion of 36-40 credits, which takes two years.
The master’s curriculum allows students to gain an in-depth understanding of criminal justice foundations and criminology theory. Students also learn about advanced techniques in applied criminal justice research. Areas covered by the curriculum include contemporary issues in policing, correctional administration, crime and punishment, criminal justice administration, ethical issues in criminal justice administration, forensic behavioral analysis, juvenile justice administration, law enforcement, leadership applications in criminal justice, legal issues in criminal justice administration, terrorism, victimology, and white collar crime.
Specialization areas for master's degree students include corrections, cyber crime, homeland security, and public administration. In most cases, students are required to complete a comprehensive project or write a thesis, which they must defend in front of a panel.
Master's programs prepare students for careers in corrections, judiciary, law enforcement, politics, public safety management, and social services. Others opt to pursue careers in administration, management, policy making, research, and teaching. Work settings for graduates include correction facilities, domestic violence agencies, government agencies, law enforcement agencies, legal institutions, and non-profit organizations.
The doctoral degree program in criminal justice is a research- and theory-based degree, designed to provide students with an advanced understanding of a specific justice area and the skills of independent inquiry. These intensive degree programs typically take three to five years to complete. Students are expected to take between 6 and 10 advanced courses and spend several years pursuing the dissertation project. Applicants need a bachelor’s degree or master's degree with a high GPA and demonstrated interest in criminal justice.
The coursework in the criminal justice doctorate explores the structure and function of the courts, law enforcement, and corrections systems. Students take advanced classes and graduate seminars during the first one to two years of the program, which look at criminology, drug abuse, justice administration, race and ethnicity in criminal justice, and more. Other pertinent courses discuss research methods and statistics used in criminal justice research. Students then embark on a research project with the intent to develop new knowledge on justice theory or practices; this project becomes the basis of the dissertation. Some programs require a comprehensive examination, either after the initial year of courses or prior to graduation.
The doctorate in criminal justice can be good preparation for an academic career at a college or university, or for a role in justice administration or policy. Most faculty positions require a doctoral degree, putting graduates in the best possible position to land a coveted assistant professor job. Students with previous professional experience in law enforcement or criminal justice could seek out administrative roles such as police chief, director of social services, or emergency response administrator. Others go on to work in state or federal government agencies as experts on criminal behavior or policy.
The certificate in criminal justice can provide an overview of the three branches of criminal justice in the United States or a specialized understanding of a particular aspect of the justice system. These certificates are more commonly offered at the graduate level and can be appropriate for those with a bachelor’s degree looking to enter the justice system, or for seasoned professionals. Criminal justice certificates are available through a variety of colleges and universities and require 3 to 10 courses. Most can be completed in a year or less.
The curriculum in the criminal justice certificate depends largely on the program’s focus. Broad programs aimed at those new to the field are more likely to provide a survey of various topics. Students take courses in the history of the criminal justice system, law enforcement procedures, corrections, criminology, and justice processes. Other certificates focus on a particular justice area such as homeland security, administration, intelligence, or information assurance. Some programs offer for-credit certificates, making the program a good introduction to graduate-level study for individuals considering the master’s degree.
The certificate in criminal justice can be used to seek out entry-level roles in criminal justice or to cement one’s specialization in a particular justice area. Those new to the field could use the certificate to enter careers in probation, corrections, non-licensed social work, or administration. Current administrators can use the certificate to support advancement to supervisory positions in various criminal justice branches, such as law enforcement or intelligence.
Accreditation is an important characteristic of any online criminal justice degree program. It is granted to schools and degree programs that meet high academic standards, and it can help ensure that students are provided a valuable education. Because schools must renew their accreditation every few years, the schools and programs are periodically re-evaluated, ensuring that schools stay on top of all curricular and service requirements.
Institutional accreditation is bestowed by national and regional accrediting bodies and applies to all the academic programs within a school. Programmatic accreditation is granted by trade-oriented accrediting agencies and applies to a specific degree program within a larger institution. Both types of accrediting agencies should be recognized by the US Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Legitimate institutional accreditation is important for students that want to apply federal financial aid funds to their tuition or transfer their earned credits to other accredited schools; it is also desirable by most employers.
While there is not currently a USDE- or CHEA-recognized programmatic accrediting agency for criminal justice programs, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences does provide what it considers "certification" for degree programs that it considers worthy. The ACJS bases their certification standards on several of the same standards as recognized accrediting agencies, such as curricula, faculty, student services, and program quality.
The courses required during your criminal justice degree program will depend on your educational path, career goals, and the school you choose to attend; however, there are some foundational topics that are typically part of every program. Here are some examples of the general criminal justice courses you may encounter:
Alternatives to Incarceration: Not every crime is punished through time in jail. Some crimes require probation, civil service, therapy or many other forms of punishment. Many people believe that incarcerating people isn't the most effective way to ensure they don't commit their crime again, but rather, they need to be educated or helped psychologically. This class will give an overview of these types of methods and give you an idea how the justice system works outside of correctional facilities.
Correctional Facilities: You can expect to take a class in correctional facilities that will explore the ways in which jails and prisons work and what to expect when you're in them. You'll learn how prisoners are brought in, what the rules are, what options are available to prisoners, the differences between security levels, and much more. These classes are also aimed at teaching you the inner workings of these facilities, including staff schedules and the risks involved in working here.
Criminal Justice Systems: Be prepared to take a number of courses in criminal justice systems. Depending on where you plan on working, you'll likely take a course that describes your state's justice system as well as one that describes the US federal system. You'll learn about mandatory steps, trials, rights, and much more.
Juvenile Corrections: Because all criminal justice systems treat juvenile-age children (under 18 years old) differently than they do adults in the way of crimes and punishment, you will learn about these differences as well as ways in which these criminals must be treated. You'll also learn about juvenile correction facilities and the rights, rules, and regulations involved.
Legal Rights: As a criminal justice professional, you'll need to understand the rights that each offender has when they are being accused of committing a crime. This will be one of the most important courses you are required to take, and it should be one you use on a daily basis once you are in the workforce.
Psychology: To be successful in a criminal justice profession, you need to be able to examine why people do the things they do. Of course, these psychology courses can't prepare you for all of the crimes you will run into, but it will give you some insight into why people break rules and to deal with them in the most effective way possible. Psychology courses will also help you to work better with colleagues and hopefully give you a sense of understanding of people in this field as well.
Safety: Almost every job in the criminal justice field involves an element of danger. These courses will teach you the best and most effective ways to protect yourself and your coworkers, as well as teach you how to respond to emergency situations. Depending on the job you take, you'll get training specific to your role in the way of safety.
Technology: Technology plays a large role in the criminal justice field, as people are often found through computer software and other technological means. There are also computer crimes which are emerging every day that must be treated and punished appropriately. In these courses, you'll learn about the ways in which technology is used in the criminal justice system as well as ways in which you'll use technology on the job.
Types of Crime: Although these will likely be divided into more specific categories such as white-collar crime, computer crime, terrorism, etc., you can be sure that you'll learn about the types of crime that are out there. This course can also help you decide which area of criminal justice you are most interested in pursuing as a career. These courses will help you to understand what constitutes each crime and how common or rare they are in different areas of the nation.
Careers within criminal justice range from police offers and FBI agents to detectives and investigators; these are all jobs that require a great deal of dedication but are also very rewarding. The most common careers in criminal justice typically fall into five key categories: local law enforcement, federal law enforcement, crime scene investigation, corrections, and court proceedings. We've outlined some examples of these professions here:
Local Law Enforcement
- Police Officer: A police officer is the first career that comes to most people’s minds when they think of criminal justice jobs. Police officers are on the front lines of criminal justice -- patrolling, detaining and arresting suspects, and interviewing witnesses and crime victims.
- Detective: A detective or investigator works with other members of law enforcement in solving criminal cases. Detectives typically work as regular police officers for a period of time prior to training to become a detective. Detectives work closely alongside the department’s crime scene investigation (CSI) unit, using the evidence gathered by CSIs at the crime scene as leads to formulate a theory of events and determine suspects.
- County Sheriff/Deputy Sheriff: A sheriff oversees the legal and political administration of police enforcement within a designated county or police force. The sheriff is often called upon as the spokesperson who speaks to the press or testifies in court about specific cases handled under his or her jurisdiction.
Federal Law Enforcement
- FBI Special Agent: An FBI special agent is tasked with solving specific crimes that may be of national importance. For example, an FBI special agent may be dispatched to another location across the country to investigate cases related to terrorism or organized crime spanning several states.
- CIA Agent: A CIA agent investigates cases specifically related to breaches in government data, such as foreign counterintelligence. CIA agents often work with military personnel stationed in other countries to ensure that top-secret information is kept secure.
- Deputy US Marshal: A deputy US marshal is employed within the US Department of Justice to oversee court officers and the overall operations of the judiciary. Deputy US marshals seek out fugitives, serve arrest warrants, and oversee court security.
Crime Scene Investigation
- Crime Scene Investigator: A crime scene investigator (CSI) collects, analyzes, and systematically documents evidence found at the scene of the crime. This evidence might include trace material (such as hairs, fibers, plant or mineral matter), fingerprints, bullets, casings, or gunshot residue.
- Bloodstain Analyst: A bloodstain analyst assists the CSI unit with formulating a series of events based on the nature of bloodstains or blood spatter found at the scene of the crime. For example, a bloodstain analyst can determine the position and location of the assailant based on the width, length, and trajectory of bloodstains, as well as whether death occurred by stabbing, shooting, or blunt-force trauma.
- DNA Analyst: A DNA analyst receives blood evidence procured at the crime scene by CSIs and performs DNA tests on the samples in a forensic lab. DNA analysts are often called upon in court to testify on the results of DNA blood tests and whether or not they match DNA samples provided by the defendant.
- Corrections Officer: A corrections officer or prison officer is responsible for supervising inmates in prison, jail, or other correctional facilities. Corrections officers routinely search, discipline, and restrain prisoners who are both temporarily incarcerated and awaiting a court date, as well as prisoners who have been convicted and are serving sentences.
- Parole Officer: A parole or probation officer supervises inmates upon their release from incarceration, as well as offenders who are serving community service instead of being incarcerated. Parole officers are in regular contact with specific offenders to confirm they are adhering to the terms of their release or community service sentence.
- Judge: A judge presides over a court of law, acting solely or with the help of a jury. A judge manages court proceedings by determining which evidence is permissible at trial and disciplining attorneys or witnesses to ensure the trial adheres to court proceeding protocol.
- Defense Attorney: A defense attorney is a lawyer representing the defendant in a criminal trial. Defense attorneys work to convince the judge and/or jury that the evidence presented against the defendant does not prove his or her guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
- Prosecutor: A prosecutor is a lawyer who represents the plaintiff or state in a criminal trial. Prosecution attorneys round up a combination of witnesses, experts and victims whose testimony points toward the defendant’s guilt.
As the world becomes more complex, the need for law enforcement professionals that can effectively respond to it increases. Advances in technology and the threat of terrorism have dramatically changed the ways in which many public services operate, along with the practices of law enforcement. Those who are interested in the law, bringing offenders to justice, and protecting others should consider a career in law enforcement.
People who are seeking a career in this field will find that higher education is required -- at least an associate degree -- in either law enforcement or criminal justice. Entry-level police officers can earn an associate or bachelor’s degree in law enforcement in order to gain employment, while people who desire more advanced administrative roles will likely require a master's or doctoral degree. Students should also look into the minimum state requirements for proper licensing within the law enforcement field. Most of these degree programs allow students the opportunity to receive necessary state licensing for careers in law enforcement, but it's important to determine what the exact licensing requirements are in your state prior to choosing a degree program.
Many online certificate programs in law enforcement are available for those who are already working toward their degree, have a degree, or have work experience and are looking to advance their skills. For example, core subjects in an online police and law enforcement certificate program may include American policing, criminal investigation, probation and parole, and homeland security. Online associate degree programs are often available as a degree in criminal justice with a law enforcement concentration. Courses emphasize the basics of law enforcement, supervision, criminal investigation, and corrections.
Bachelor's degree programs give students a broader education than a certificate or two-year associate degree, as they require a lot more coursework in liberal arts and other subjects. Some criminal justice bachelor’s degree programs offer a specialization in investigation and law enforcement and provide students with leadership and management skills, as well as knowledge of common law enforcement tactics.
Graduate degree programs are appropriate for those who wish to expand on their knowledge of criminal justice concepts and theories. An online master’s degree in an area such as law enforcement intelligence and analysis provides advanced training to professionals in federal, state, and local police, as well as tribal agencies.
- ACJS Certification Standards. Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. Accessed November 17, 2014. http://www.acjs.org/pubs/167_667_3517.cfm.
- Correctional Officers. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/correctional-officers.htm.
- Police and Detectives. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm.
- Private Detectives and Investigators. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/private-detectives-and-investigators.htm.
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