Criminal Justice Degree Programs & Careers Online

What is Criminal Justice?

Criminal justice is a system that was established to uphold the laws made by a society and are meant to avert criminal behavior. Criminal justice is also meant to provide disciplinary actions for those that break those established laws and are convicted of doing so. As the criminal justice system has evolved, it has also started to treat inmates in order to rehab them and prevent them from recidivism and going back into the system again.

What Can You Do With a Criminal Justice Degree

In order to understand the possibilities of a criminal justice degree first requires you to understand what criminal justice actually encompasses. Most people will immediately assume that a criminal justice degree means you become a police officer, but criminal justice includes law enforcement & investigation, the court or judicial system, and finally the correctional system. All of these comprise a variety of different jobs so we have listed them by each comprising part of criminal justice.

Get started with some of the top degree choices for criminal justice below.

Featured Interview with LAPD

Raymond FosterRaymond Foster
Author and LAPD Lieutenant (retired)

Featured Interview with Author

The Myth of MartyrdomAdam Lankford, a professor at the University of Alabama, recently sat for an interview with to discuss his new book: The Myth of Martyrdom.

A Brief US History of the Criminal Justice System

The United States underwent serious changes going back to President Lyndon B. Johnson that helped start creating a system that interconnected each part of the criminal justice system to work better with one another. As the years went on and the US faced different challenges with crime rates (and the types of crimes) there was a movement to make minimum sentences for various crimes. With those minimums sentences made, there has been a recent movement in the political system to help prevent long-term sentences for those that committed non-violent crimes (and various other exceptions). A lot of the proposed minimums are pushed back for those that have nonviolent drug offenses as many have started to believe the disciplinary action does not fit the crime.

Major Components of Criminal Justice

You should also understand that there are major components that make up criminal justice. You can essentially divide them into the following three parts:

Criminal Investigation & Law Enforcement

Often the criminal investigation and law enforcement discipline of criminal justice is what people most associate with criminal justice because it includes a very common profession: police officers. Not only does this aspect of criminal justice patrol and try to deter criminal behavior with their presence, they hare are detectives that are investigating the crimes as well.

Judicial System

The judicial part of criminal justice includes judges, attorneys and prosecutors, and the juries that often decide a person’s ha guilt. The attorneys are in charged with presenting evidence both in support and in defense of the accused person. After the jury has weighed in, the judge handles the sentencing (which are often based on set statutes).

Correctional System

Once the accused has been proven guilty, the correctional system is charged with carrying out the designated sentence, probation and/or parole, and even rehabilitation programs for inmates.

As mentioned above, when President Johnson moved to create a more cohesive system between the different parts of criminal justice, a lot of those ideas are still carried down to today. So when you wonder what criminal justice is, you can now better understand that it is not a simple answer. There are a lot of parts and aspects that surround that question and if you choose to pursue a degree in criminal justice, a large part of your studies will focus around these core concepts.

Types of Criminal Justice Degrees

What You Can Do With a Criminal Justice Degree Within Law Enforcement

There are a number of ways to work within law enforcement, but we have some common examples below.. See the criminal justice degrees page or the police studies degrees page for detailed information and listings of all of the criminal justice schools offering degrees in criminal justice at multiple levels.

Police Officer

By earning a criminal justice degree, you could end up working as a police patrol officer. Make sure you do your research though as this profession doe not always require a specific degree or will supplement a degree requirement with field experience. If your criminal justice degree included the study of different laws and codes, you will likely be carrying that knowledge over into this role. As you will also be interacting with various civilians, witnesses, and criminals, you should be good at active listening and critical thinking as you will have to disseminate multiple accounts and conversations. You can also expect to work in an enclosed vehicle as 91% of police officers said it is an everyday occurrence. Finally, a lot of being a police officer is documenting your daily activities and interactions while conducting investigations and handing out citations.

Special Agent

Once again, you should always research to see what the educational requirements around each profession require but becoming a special agent could come about from earning your criminal justice degree. As a special agent you could expect to review evidence in cases to determine issues or verify that those pieces of evidence were categorized correctly. You should feel comfortable working with handguns, handcuffs, and computers as a lot of the data and evidence is entered digitally. Currently, there is only a minimal amount of growth expected from 2012 – 2022 (less than 2%) but be sure to review how your state is expected to see growth (as you could see big swings from state to state).

What You Can Do With A Criminal Justice Degree In The Court/Judicial System

There are multiple paths to working in the judicial or court system. Start looking for criminal justice programs focused on the court and judicial system, such as the Criminal Justice Administration degree page, the Court Reporting degree or Paralegal studies pages for detailed information and listings of all of the criminal justice schools offering degrees in criminal justice at multiple levels.


You could potentially become a paralegal with a criminal justice degree and expect to see a dynamic role. As for daily activities you could expect to operate as the coordinator between attorney(s) and the various expert witnesses. You could be required to review documents for trials, schedule evaluations, and look into witnesses on the other side of the case. As of 2012, there are currently 277,000 paralegal jobs are expected to see a 17% growth from 2012 – 2022 according to BLS data.

Private Investigator

Becoming a private investigator may only require a license and not a criminal justice degree but many with that educational background can end up in this role. How could a PI work within the judicial system? Attorneys can utilize private investigators to locate witnesses or people, gather evidence or intelligence to help in negotiations during litigation, or work to make connections in a case. Paying attention to pieces of evidence and being able to do deep research are a daily activity.

What You Can Do With A Criminal Justice Degree Within The Corrections System?

There are multiple paths to working in the corrections system. See the Corrections degrees for detailed information and listings of all of the criminal justice schools offering corrections degrees in criminal justice at multiple levels.

Correctional Officer

Correctional officers can utilize knowledge gained from a degree in criminal justice to be effective in their day to day activities. While a bachelor has degree might not be required at the state level, a bachelor degree is often required to work in the federal prisons. You hare expected to make sure that inmates follow the procedures and rules established within the correctional facility. A correctional facility plays a role in making sure the convicted person serves their required sentence which is the goal correctional officers play in their daily activities.

Probation Officer

As a probation officer, you will be supervising released offenders and monitoring them to try and prevent recidivism. The requirements can vary based on the assignment from the court or their release terms but you will likely be investigating the offender’s background. You may also help in coordinating substance abuse treatment, helping with potential employment opportunities for those on probation, and checking in on their progress towards rehabilitation. That could include speaking with their friends, family, and coworkers to insure that progress is verified. Once again, a criminal justice degree might not be required to become a probation officer but many that have the degree could find themselves in this role.

These are only a few of the things you might be able to do with criminal justice degree. You could look at other potential career profiles to get a more complete list. Understanding that you have an option within each part of the criminal justice system is important and be sure to research that a four year degree is required for your desired career path.

What Level of Criminal Justice Degree Do I Need?

When trying to figure out what level of degree in criminal justice you need, it is important to think about which career you are most interested in. Generally you should review multiple criteria to figure out which criminal justice degree is best for you. This would include but is not limited to reviewing in-depth statistics, career outcomes, and even utilized example curriculum.

Not only do you need to know the levels of criminal justice degrees (Certificate, Associate, Bachelor, Master’s, and PhD) you have to choose from but the nuances between states. We’ve provided insights to both of those within our “Schools By State” section of the site. You will see state by state statistics around general education, criminal justice job growth or decline state by state, organizations and other lawful activity happening that could potentially effect criminal justice policy and education, and the numerical breakdown of local, state, and federal institutions.

Criminal Justice Careers

For information on what it takes to get into a criminal justice career, take a look at our “Career Profiles” section that reviews dozens of different types of criminal justice career paths.

Still Looking for a Criminal Justice Program?

Below are some of the top criminal justice degree writeups. You can review the program page, or schools by state to find detailed information about the degree or career.