Entering the criminal justice field offers a wide array of opportunities. While some of the options, such as becoming a police officer, are fairly well known, other options are also available. Within the state of Pennsylvania, criminal justice careers can also include correctional officers, probation officers, paralegals, and private investigators.
Criminal justice encompasses the studying or application of laws that relate to criminal behavior. The desire is to ensure the system in place is fair and that all parties involved in the arrest, incarceration, prosecution, defense and ultimate judgement of those potentially involved in criminal activity be treated based on standards of fairness.
Regardless of your career preference, most careers in criminal justice begin with a solid education. This is due to the complex nature of the criminal justice system and the need to be able to accurately assess and interpret applicable laws and regulations based on the circumstances surrounding the criminal activity in question.
Though many careers in the criminal justice field do not have specific educational requirements beyond a high school diploma or its equivalent, it is often recommended that an appropriate level of education be acquired in order to be considered competitive within the field. Depending on the precise career path that interests you, educational requirements or recommendations can vary from professional certificates to an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or various graduate degrees.
An undergraduate professional certificate provides a time efficient way to begin acquiring the knowledge needed to work in certain entry level positions. A certificate often does not require any general education courses. Instead, certificate programs focus only on course work that directly applies to the field being studied.
The duration of a certificate program can vary depending on the exact requirements in place, but many can be completed in under one year. Those who already have work experience in the criminal justice field may see more advancement opportunities once the certificate is acquired. Course taken from an accredited college or university may also be transferrable to larger degree programs.
It is important to note that not all certificate programs are designed for undergraduates. Certain certificates are meant for those who have already obtained the minimum of a bachelor’s degree and are designed to increase a person’s knowledge in particular aspects of the field beyond what was learned during the acquisition of their undergraduate degree. As with undergraduate professional degrees, course earned through the pursuit of a graduate level certification may be transferrable to other graduate degree programs if the courses are taken through an accredited educational institution.
An associate’s degree provides a degree holder with the opportunity to gain employment in a larger number of entry level criminal justice professions. Programs may be offered through local colleges as well as certain universities. The total time required to complete an associate’s degree is generally two years based on a standard full time course load, though can vary depending on the pace at which the student wishes to work.
As with all college degrees, the program involves the completion of specific general educational requirements, covering topics such as English composition and college algebra. In addition, a selection of specialized courses will be required to provide an introduction to your chosen major. This will include courses related to ethics in the criminal justice system, criminology, and an introduction to criminal courts.
The completion of the program is designed to ensure graduates have the knowledge base necessary to obtain an entry-level position within the field and also serves as a foundation for higher levels of academic accomplishment.
A bachelor’s degree expands on the knowledge learned during the pursuit of an associate’s degree. It is designed to provide a more in-depth understanding of the criminal justice field and serves to expand employment opportunities for program graduates. The total time to complete a bachelor’s degree is traditionally four years, through credits earned through an accredited institution while obtaining an associate’s degree may be transferrable.
Additional course work will focus on other relevant topics, such as victimology, criminal investigative procedures, and Homeland Security. Research projects may be required in some programs, while others may require the completion of an approved internship.
Those who pursue a master’s in criminal justice will have an opportunity to specialize in an area through the selection of a concentration. This allows those with a specific point of interest to focus their educational experience on the identified topic.
The completion of a master’s degree program often requires and additional two years of education beyond the completion of a bachelor’s degree. Concentrations may include Law, Corrections, Global Issues, Criminal Profiling, or Juvenile Justice.
The criminal justice field has a vast array of opportunities, predominately divided into five categories; state and local law enforcement, federal law enforcement, corrections, legal, and private services.
State and local law enforcement opportunities go beyond the standard police officer or state trooper positions that often come to mind. Along with those opportunities come options within county sheriff offices, as well as game wardens and conservation officers. Park rangers may benefit from a criminal justice degree, as well as those working to investigate animal cruelty cases.
Federal law enforcement positions often have greater reach than state or local positions. This includes employment opportunities with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Federal Air Marshalls and members of the Border Patrol are included as well as Immigration Officers and Secret Service Agents.
For those interested in corrections, careers as a correctional officer are available along with opportunities as a parole or probation officer. Positions may include the opportunity to work with adults in the correctional system as well as juveniles at specialized facilities. Legal careers can include positions as a legal assistant or researcher, as well as work within various court clerk positions. Juvenile court registers as well as bailiffs may also qualify.
Private security and contractor positions are also available. This can include work as a private investigator or bail enforcement agent (bounty hunter). Opportunities in loss prevention as well as security operations may also be available. Certain positions may require additional qualifications or education, such as state certifications or advanced degrees, in order to work within the specific job, but are still considered part of the criminal justice system. This can include positions in the field of forensics, as well as paralegals, lawyers, judges, and certain detectives.
Teaching and Research
For those who prefer to use their knowledge in a different way, positions as a criminal justice teacher may also be available. This could include work in a variety of educational institutions, such as community colleges and universities, or provide consultation services to certain industries.
Those interested in research may find opportunities in educational institutions as well. Additionally, the opportunity to perform research for various law enforcement or government agencies, or other private organizations may exist. Research may be historical in nature as well as the analysis of current events and trends within the area of concern for those involved in criminal justice.
Certain criminal justice positions require degrees or certifications outside of those designed to cover the overall topic of criminal justice. Requirements may be designated by the state of Pennsylvania, the federal government, or may be required by individual employers.
For example, paralegals are not required to be certified or licensed by the state of Pennsylvania, but certain employers may show preference to those who are certified. Additionally, certain professionals, such as lawyers and judges, must have the required education, often a juris doctor degree from an accredited law school, and pass the examination offered through the American Bar Association (ABA), commonly referred to as the Bar.
Careers that require the safe use and carrying of a firearm may require safety courses and those working in those professions may be required to qualify on a standard weapon by meeting certain accuracy standards.
A career in the criminal justice field can involve a wide variety of work environments. Many positions are office based, such as those working in professional law offices, courts of law, or government offices. Others will have may require significant time spent in vehicles, such as certain law enforcement positions, or outdoors, as with park rangers.
Work as a private investigator will likely require a vast combination of environments, as well as those working in private security or bail enforcement. Probation and parole officers may spend a significant amount of time traveling to locations where offenders live and work, as well as have significant office duties.
Certain law enforcement positions report to crime scenes, some of which may be active at the time of reporting, based on the requirement to respond to emergencies in progress. Additionally, law enforcement officers, animal cruelty investigators, park rangers, and other positions may be required to manage various animals, both domestic and wild in nature.
Other criminal justice positions may come with a high level of risk to one’s safety. Law enforcement officers may be required to respond to violent crimes in progress, or may become involved in situations that turn violent. Many park rangers work alone within their designated, created a level of risk should a serious injury occur while performing one’s duties. Private investigators and bail enforcement officers may be subject to violence through the course of their duties, as well as those working in correctional facilities.
Work Attire and Physical Demands
The work attire requirement is also varied depending on the work environment. Those working in professional offices may require professional attire, such as a business suit, in order to meet company standards. Others, such as police officers and correctional security officers, may be issued a uniform which must be worn during the performance of one’s duties in order to more easily identify the employees from others in the public or the correctional facility, respectively.
The physical demands of criminal justice professions can range from demanding to light. Those working in office environments may perform the majority of their work while seated while those working in correctional or outdoor environments may spend a significant amount of one’s time on one’s feet. Heavy lifting can be a requirement of any job, but will be less prevalent in office positions.
Pay and Benefits
Due to the diversity of occupations in the criminal justice field, annual salaries and benefits may vary. For example, the median annual wage for a lawyer in Pennsylvania was $115,820 in 2015 while judges received a median annual wage of $109,010.
Paralegals and legal assistants with an associate’s degree had a median salary of $48,810 while correctional officers and bailiffs came in at $40,580. Private investigators earned $45,610 while detectives working for a police department earned $60,270.
Those associated with government agencies often receive a predetermined annual wage along with a comprehensive benefits package including medical, dental, vision, prescription, retirement, paid vacation, and paid sick leave. Other private institutions may also offer benefits packages for their employees, though it may be restricted to full time employees only.
Those working in larger institutions, such as government offices, police departments, and larger law firms may see greater opportunities for advancement as their level of experience in the profession rises. Additionally, some may choose to begin in an entry level position with an associate’s degree and may later choose to acquire additional education in order to qualify for other opportunities.
Potential Disqualification from Criminal Justice Positions
Due to the nature of the work, certain individuals may be prevented from working in certain positions within the criminal justice field. This can include individuals with certain criminal records as well as those who cannot be medically cleared to perform the duties necessary. These requirements are most often related to law enforcement careers or those working in a correctional facility, though other institutions may have internal standards that must be met.
Certain criminal justice careers, such as private investigators or security personnel, may have the opportunity to be self-employed or start their own business. In those situations, it is important that any regulations regarding the operation of a business within the state of Pennsylvania must be met, such as acquiring a business license and applicable permits.
Pennsylvania Criminal Justice Resources: