Careers In Criminal Justice: 9 Ways To Lay Down The Law

careersincriminaljusticeCriminal justice, while something of an oxymoron, is an integral aspect of America’s great, if not controversial, justice system.  Those interested in pursuing a career in criminal justice will be happy to learn that employment opportunities abound.  Finding the right opportunity for you, and figuring out how to achieve it (for example, some professions are better pursued without a degree in criminal justice), is a matter of doing the proper research.  Luckily, you came to the right place.  Following is a guide to careers in criminal justice, with everything you need to know about your options and how to make your dreams a reality.  In the meantime, you can make yourself more marketable by earning a certificate in diversity training for legal professions.

An Overview

Careers in criminal justice can be broken down into two main categories: law enforcement (applied justice) and legal (theoretical justice).  In the former category, you have careers such as policing, criminology and forensics (test your CSI skills with this computer forensics fundamentals course).  If you want to literally lay down the law, something along the lines of detective will be right up your alley.  Legal careers, on the other hand, are more concerned with providing a service: attorneys, judges, legal representatives and other public officials.  Whatever you choose, it’s a commendable and respected field.


Sociologists provide the brain power behind criminal justice strategy.  You would be studying a variety of things: the effectiveness of criminal justice agencies, the affects of social influences on people’s lives and how they relate to crime, and your findings will directly affect law enforcement and legislation.  You will be well-compensated for your work, too ($50,000-$140,000), but of course this usually isn’t an incentive for most people entering the profession.

You can get involved at the local, state or federal level, so there’s plenty of room for mobility.  As far as education goes, a bachelor’s and/or master’s degree in sociology are obvious prerequisites.  Double majoring in criminal justice isn’t a bad idea either.  If you aren’t sure about sociology, try it on for size before you devote your life to it: here’s a comprehensive introduction to sociology to get you started.


If you like ceremony and the thrill of being the fly on the wall, a career as a bailiff might suit you.  General duties include opening court, calling witnesses and presenting the oath, handling documents, protecting the jury (and pretty much everyone else), and enforcing courtroom law.  This is a career in which a degree in criminal justice will serve you well.  At the local level, you might be able to land a position with a high school diploma or GED, but anyone taking the profession seriously will opt for the bachelor’s (and if you have dreams of working at the federal level, this is a prerequisite, even for entry-level jobs).  It’s a growing field, too, so you might want to add a line or two to your resume by becoming certified in CPR, self-defense, security procedures and firearm use (depending on the position, some of these may even be required).

Substance Abuse Counseling

Becoming a substance abuse counselor is not for the faint of heart.  Before we look at responsibilities, let’s see if you can make it past boot camp.  To begin with, a master’s degree is essential for working at or above the state level, and is required by law for anyone seeking to practice privately.  Then you have to get your state license, which necessitates anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 hours of supervised experience (to put this in perspective, it’s the equivalent of one to one and a half years, assuming forty hour weeks).  And when it’s all said and done, you’re compensation is admittedly meager: $25,000-$60,000 annually.  That said, a master’s degree would instantly bump your salary to the upper end of the spectrum.

As far as the actual work goes, you will be working with juvenile and/or adult offenders, and if you so desire, you can provide counseling to inmates and parolees and their families.  You will also coordinate with probation officers to develop the best course of action for recovery.  As a substance abuse counselor, it can be a long, hard road to success, but you’ll be high on the list for canonization.


Aside from the fact that being a detective just sounds awesome, you will be joining an elite group of the police task force.  In fact, most detectives get their foot in the door by starting out as police officers, so that’s definitely something to consider.  If you’re aren’t willing to spend a few years policing, then you might not have what it takes to become a detective.  Investing criminal activity, collecting evidence, and interviewing suspects and witnesses (in which case you should become a human lie detector) are some of the thrills you can expect to encounter, but it isn’t all flash and blitz.  You will spend considerable time in court, both testifying your own findings and collaborating with D.A.s.

Competition for detective positions is fierce, and naturally you will vie against your colleagues.  But this isn’t investment banking; you will gain nothing by clawing your way to the top, and your salary—averaging $69,000 annually—doesn’t warrant it, either.

Game Warden

Bring criminal justice to the outdoors by becoming a game warden.  You will patrol borders, wilderness and waterways to enforce safety and regulations concerning hunting, fishing and, if applicable, boating.  But there’s more to the job than just handing out citations to kids who are catching too many bluegills.  Because game wardens operate at the state level, you will be a member of your state’s homeland security, which will include conducting research, educating the public, helping with search-and-rescue missions and investigating crimes of the environmental flavor.

Prerequisites for the job vary state-to-state, with some state’s requiring nothing more than a high school diploma and others mandating a bachelor’s degree plus previous law enforcement experience.  Competition is fairly tight, and new positions aren’t exactly plentiful.

You won’t make a fortune regulating game (approximately $50,000 annually), but the position tends to offer more advancement opportunities than you might imagine, plus you’re bound to see some amazing things when you spend all day outside (you might even get good at collecting evidence by learning outdoor photography).


The granddaddy of them all.  Landing a gig as a judge is challenging and highly coveted, which is probably due to a combination of influence and affluence (judges and magistrates average $120,000 annually).  You’re probably well aware of a judge’s duties, but there’s no harm in review: judges preside over trials and hearings and are charged with interpreting the law in order to protect the rights of everyone involved.  You get to voice your opinion, as well, so having strong investigative interviewing skills definitely doesn’t hurt.

The road to becoming a judge is a long one.  For starters, you must have a law degree, i.e. three years of post-graduate education.  But don’t expect to hop right from final exercises to the pulpit.  Almost without exception, judges have years upon years of experience in a legal environment, often as attorneys.  And you don’t become a judge by emailing your resume to the state.  You have to be either elected or appointed, which means building a massive, reputable career that you can defend and prove.  Once appointed, you are required to participate in training and to continue your legal education throughout the duration of your career.

To make matters worse, there’s a catch if you want to preside at the state or federal level: new positions only become available as a result of retirement, term expiration, or death.  And if that isn’t bad enough, when a position is vacated, it must be approved at its respective state or federal level to subsist.  The last thing I want to do is dissuade you, but you should know what you’re getting into before pursuing this career.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigator

I hope this doesn’t come as a surprise, but most of what you see on television is completely inaccurate.  That doesn’t mean being a crime scene investigator isn’t interesting.  In fact, the real thing might even be better than the made-for-TV version.

As a forensic scientist, your job will consist of collecting and analyzing crime scene evidence (needless to say, cognitive training wouldn’t be a bad investment).  Just don’t expect every crime to be the re-opening of a thirty-year-old case involving an infamous serial killer who wants to play mind games with law enforcement.  As an investigator, you will be working to help identify and catch whoever is guilty, which means extensive collaboration with police and detectives.  Naturally, a healthy dose of paperwork comes with the job.

What does it take to join the CSI?  Quite a bit more than an analytical mind.  Degrees in forensic science and criminal justice are a given, but you might be surprised to learn that degrees in biology and chemistry will take you far, too.  You should be comfortable with criticism, because you have to earn the right to work independently by completing extensive (and I mean extensive) professional training.

Defense Attorney

Perhaps the epitome of criminal justice, defense attorneys represent the accused.  If you believe that absolutely everyone deserves a fair trial, then this is the way to practice your beliefs.  Naturally, a degree in law (get a head start on applying for law school by taking this LSAT prep course that offers 24/7 on-demand access to world-class instructors) and passing score on the bar exam are required.  You can practice at either the local, state or federal level, although usually the hierarchy must approached from the bottom up.

While the road to becoming a defense attorney is not as competitive as becoming a judge, it is still more or less ruthless.  The problem, which really isn’t a problem at all, is that there are so many excellent lawyers.  Squeaking by in law school would be unwise, not to mention a waste of, oh, $150,000.  But the payoff is considerable, with defense attorney’s averaging about $115,000 annually.

Please note that if you anticipate traveling a lot in your life, as in moving permanently from state to state, then anticipate having to pass the bar exam in every state in which you want to uphold justice.  That’s the law, and I wouldn’t count on it changing.

Customs Agent

Like to live on the edge?  You can make your passion a literal reality by pursuing a career as a customs agent.  As a federal law enforcement officer of the United States, you will become a member of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency as well as the Department of Homeland Security.  You will post up at the borders of our country—land borders, sea borders, international airports—and enforce our customs laws.  Every individual wishing to enter or leave the country must be verified by a customs agent.

This is not a position the government takes lightly.  Customs agents are responsible for catching smuggled goods and, most importantly, preventing people who are not authorized to enter or leave the country from, well, entering or leaving the country.  For these reasons, even to be applicable for the lowest level position, interested individuals must complete a minimum of three years of work experience during which time they must show proficiency in person-to-person interaction, as well as an ability to learn quickly and, of course, keep an eye peeled for information indicative of trouble.

If you are bilingual, you immediately have a leg up on the competition; being able to converse with even two of the hundreds of languages entering and leaving the country is a valuable asset.  There’s good news, however, for people lacking this knowledge, but who are eager to learn.  If you want to work in an area in which being bilingual is required, the government will sponsor your training.  You won’t find many other opportunities in which you can work and learn simultaneously.