What is a Criminal Justice Degree?

Degree programs in criminal justice teach students about the agencies and processes that governments have created to control crime and punish those who violate laws.

At the heart of this training are the five components that make up the criminal justice system:

Law Enforcement
Law enforcement officers – usually the police – arrest offenders, complete reports on the crimes that happen in their jurisdictions, investigate crimes, and gather and protect evidence. They may be required to give testimony in court or conduct follow-up investigations.

‘Prosecution’ refers to the legal proceedings in which a person accused of a criminal offense is tried in a court by the government appointed public prosecutor or district attorney. The prosecutor in a case is the legal representative of the government, whose job it is to review evidence received from law enforcement to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to file charges; and if there is, to present that evidence in court, question witnesses, and possibly negotiate plea bargains with defendants.

Defense Attorneys
These are the attorneys who defend the accused against the case brought by the government. They are either hired by the defendant or, for defendants who cannot afford an attorney, they are assigned by the court.

Court is presided over by a judge. The judge’s primary responsibilities are to ensure that the law is followed and to oversee everything that happens in the courtroom.

This component of the criminal justice system is concerned with supervising convicted offenders when they are in prison or in the community on parole or probation, and with overseeing release processes for inmates.

Program Options

Associate Degree in Criminal Justice - Two Year Duration
Historically, individuals wishing to work in the law enforcement aspect of criminal justice could enter the field with a high school diploma. In today’s world, though, due to the increasing complexity of law enforcement, police agencies typically look for job candidates with a minimum of an associate degree in criminal justice as well. Degree programs at this level teach students the fundamentals of law enforcement, court systems, corrections, theories of the causes of crime, and crime control policies.

Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice - Four Year Duration
The bachelor’s level degree is the minimum requirement for employment in many criminal justice roles: law enforcement, private detective, investigator, probation officer, FBI agent, and administrative positions in judicial courts. Criminal justice bachelor’s programs significantly expand on the topics covered at the associate level. Here are some of the courses that make up the typical bachelor’s degree curriculum:

  • Theory and Practice of Criminal Justice
  • Drugs and Society
  • Deviance and Social Control
  • Crime in America
  • Constitutional Law
  • Principles of Investigation
  • Criminal Law and Procedure
  • Criminal Evidence
  • Statistics in Criminal Justice
  • Research Methods in Criminal Justice
  • Crime Prevention
  • Critical Issues in Criminal Justice
  • Criminal Justice Internship

Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice - Two Year Duration
Students who pursue a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice commonly specialize in a particular area of the discipline, such as law enforcement, corrections, or administration. In most cases, holders of a master’s degree in the field qualify to teach criminal justice or work as social caseworkers.

Doctoral Degree in Criminal Justice - Three to Five Year Duration
Students who attain a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice usually go on to teach university-level criminal justice courses.

Degrees Similar to Criminal Justice

Police Science
Degree programs in police science prepare students for all aspects of police and security work: patrolling, investigating, crime prevention, community relations, report writing.

Corrections majors study prison life and examine ways to improve how prisons work. The typical corrections curriculum covers controlling the cost of operating prisons, maintaining acceptable living conditions for inmates, and helping parolees returning to life outside prison.

While criminal justice is concerned with society’s response to crime, criminology is the study of crime, the human factors and behaviors that make it happen, and its impact on society.

Law Enforcement
This degree field addresses management practices and criminal justice and prepares students for leadership roles in law enforcement.

Forensic Science
Forensic science is an interdisciplinary field which combines science and criminal justice. Majors in the field learn how to collect and analyze evidence – blood, DNA, and other kinds of evidence – and how to effectively use it in a court of law.

Essentially, because of its focus on legal proceedings, criminal justice has a natural connection to the field of law.

Legal Studies
Students who pursue a legal studies degree are interested in examining the law and legal issues from the perspectives of the social sciences and humanities. They are intrigued by questions like, ‘How do we maintain civil rights while increasing protection against terrorism?’

Paralegal Studies
A degree in paralegal studies prepares students to work under the supervision of a lawyer or court. Coursework in these programs includes legal research, record keeping, investigations, and documentation and writing.

Social Work
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. Social workers diagnose and treat the mental, emotional, and behavioral issues of individuals from every walk of life.

Whereas criminal justice explores every aspect of crime, the law, and the justice system, sociology is the wider study of society, social institutions like religion and law, and the ways in which people live and work together.

Skills You’ll Learn

Criminal justice is a diverse field. It is not surprising, therefore, that its graduates come away from their formal education with a diverse set of transferrable skills:

Communication and Interpersonal Skills
The capacity to work effectively within groups and with people from diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, gender, and professional backgrounds is essential in this field.

Understanding of Human / Social Behaviors
In studying society’s response to crime, criminal justice students naturally develop a certain competency in interpreting how and why humans conduct themselves as they do.

Throughout the process of earning a degree in criminal justice, students are frequently reminded of the concept of right versus wrong and the fundamental standards of society. It follows, therefore, that they cultivate a strong ethical sense and respect for the law.


  • Active Listening
  • Observation
  • Critical / Analytical Thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Judgement
  • Legal Awareness
  • Attention to Detail
  • Stress Tolerance
  • Persistence

What Can You Do with a Criminal Justice Degree?

Policing, Law Enforcement, and Investigation
Criminal justice majors often find full-time employment with police departments. While some may take the traditional path and work as police officers or detectives, others seek to apply their knowledge of criminal justice, evidence handling, and data management in crime scene investigation positions.

Corrections - Prison Systems / Probationary Systems
Working in probationary and prison systems is a natural fit for criminal justice graduates. Having studied crime and how it affects society, they are valuable resources in the corrections environment.

Government agencies at the federal, state, and municipal levels are significant employers of criminal justice majors. Government lawyers work as state attorneys general, district attorneys, prosecutors, public defenders, and the courts. They may find employment opportunities with the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the FBI, the CIA, and the Transportation Security Administration/Border Patrol (TSA).

The legal field presents opportunities to criminal justice graduates, as well. Many lawyers and paralegals begin their education with a degree in criminal justice.

Forensic Science
A career in forensics is another option for criminal justice graduates who are willing to undergo additional education specific to the forensic field they pursue. This is a diverse sector with positions in the following categories:

Arson Investigation
Analyzing arson and explosions

Computer Forensics
Searching computers for evidence of criminal activity

Crime Scene Photography
Taking crime scene photos to preserve evidence

Document Examination
Examining handwriting, printing, ink, and other documents for evidence

Forensic Accounting
Examining financial records to identify criminal behavior

Forensic Anthropology
Investigating crimes by examining human remains

Forensic Art
Producing artwork for crime investigation; example: police sketches of subjects

Forensic Biology
Examining DNA, blood, bodily fluids

Forensic Chemistry
Chemical analysis of evidence

Forensic Engineering
Examining physical evidence for signs of criminal activity

Forensic Nursing
Reducing the consequences of violence by treating victims of assault and other crimes

Forensic Social Work
Working with offenders with mental health problems in secure hospitals and in the community

Forensic Toxicology
Studying bodily fluids to uncover evidence that toxic substances may have been involved in a crime


See which schools are the most and least expensive.

Read about Tuition