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A Look at the US Criminal Justice System


For people interested in a career in the criminal justice system, many different avenues of focus are available, and each different path intersects with the others. From city police officers, to detectives, forensic investigators and even game wardens, there is something of interest for almost anyone. Discovering which career field you are passionate about is the first step to selecting one of the many career choices available in the field of criminal justice.


The first step in looking at a career in criminal justice is to understand how the system works. In the U.S. criminal justice system, three components work in tandem under the rule of law:


  1. Law Enforcement — Including the FBI, local and state police, and the Department of Homeland Security.
  2. Court System — Including judges, attorneys and mediators.
  3. Corrections — Including federal or state prisons, county jails, and parole boards.


Each agency has a distinct focus on the law, and each deals with criminals at different stages of the justice process.


Law Enforcement


The first component, law enforcement, is responsible for upholding the law, investigating crimes and apprehending suspects of crime. Law enforcement is the most visible component in the justice system, and often the first point of contact with criminals. Police officers with education and experience are often promoted to criminal investigators or detectives. They are responsible for collecting evidence and gathering facts about possible crimes. Many larger law enforcement agencies require police officers to graduate from their own training academy and pass a variety of mental and physical aptitude tests.


Career roles in law enforcement include not only police officer, but also sheriff, deputy, federal agent (CIA or FBI agent), detective, crime scene investigator, border patrol agent, game warden, and game and park ranger.


The court system is responsible for ensuring individual rights are not violated and that a fair trial takes place for every person accused of a crime. For individuals interested in the court system, numerous opportunities exist at varying levels.

Attorneys often have a minimum of seven years of education — an undergrad degree, followed by three years of law school. Career roles include criminal defense attorney or criminal prosecutor. Judges, who are either appointed or elected to a judgeship, almost without exception, were usually practicing lawyers before receiving a judicial appointment.  Paralegals, mediators and court reporters also work in the court component.


The final component, corrections, is responsible for ensuring that convicted criminals serve the sentence advised by the courts. Corrections officers oversee inmates housed in jails or prisons. While entry-level positions exist for non-degree candidates, they are often low-wage positions. Education and experience requirements differ by location and agency.

Parole officers provide supervision upon a convicted criminal’s release from prison, making sure they abide by their parole terms. They may also offer recommendations to the court when needed. Adult and juvenile offenders are sometimes given a sentence of probation instead of jail, and probation officers supervise the probation period with regular monitoring.

Why Get a Degree in Criminology?

While some entry-level jobs exist in corrections or law enforcement agencies for those with a high school or associate degree, most higher-paying jobs require a degree. For those considering a career in the criminal justice system, a degree in criminology provides the education and training necessary for a wide variety of positions in both private and public sectors. Jobs are abundant, and the pay is often higher for those with a college degree, as are the possibilities for advancement.

Many local agencies require at least some college education for law enforcement officers, and most agencies at the state and federal level require a bachelor’s degree as a minimum requirement. Graduates are expected to have a strong understanding of how law enforcement, the courts and the correctional systems work. They must also know the ethical responsibilities of officers and have skills in conflict resolution.

A bachelor’s degree in criminology is one of the preferred areas of study for most law enforcement and correctional agencies across the country. A BA in Criminology offers a broad study focus that prepares students with foundational knowledge of the justice system. With a strong grounding in psychology, sociology and operational procedures, students learn the essentials of the criminal justice field.

Online BA in Criminology at A-State

The BA in Criminology program offers a unique blend of coursework that prepares graduates to enter many public service career fields at the local, state or federal levels of the criminal justice system, as well as in the private sector. A BA in Criminology also prepares graduates who wish to pursue advanced studies in criminology, criminal justice, sociology, psychology or other related fields.

After receiving the broad foundational knowledge required, students take criminology coursework, which focuses on the sociological patterns of crime and criminals. In the capstone course in criminology — a senior research project — students formulate a proposal, collect and analyze data, and present findings. Major elective courses include Juvenile Delinquency, Community Corrections, and Serial Homicide, among many others.

For individuals passionate about public service and the criminal justice system, a wide variety of high-demand careers is available at any level. Criminology is relatively unaffected by the economy, and the job outlook is expected to remain strong into the next decade. Whatever path you choose, earning a BA in Criminology will put you on track to an exciting and dynamic career where you can feel proud you’re making a difference in your community.

Learn more about A-State’s online BA in Criminology program.

Sources: U.S. Criminal Justice System Three Components of the United States Criminal Justice System

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