An online associate degree in criminal justice provides fundamental understanding of the American justice system, including legislation, law enforcement, and crime prevention. Coursework examines the past, present, and future of the criminal justice process, emphasizing current procedures and policies, as well as emerging technology and trends in the field. Typically offered as an associate of science or associate of arts, the degree prepares graduates to pursue employment in policing, security, corrections, or administrative and support roles in legal offices.

What Does an Associate Degree Program in Criminal Justice Entail?

For full-time students, an online associate degree in criminal justice takes about two years to complete. Core curriculum typically provides an overview of policing practices, court systems, and corrections, combining theoretical knowledge with practical examples. Students may also look at the role of various criminal justice professions in their local community, as well as the differences between adult and juvenile justice. Examples of topics include:

  • Foundations of Criminal Justice: In this class, students learn the organizational structure and purpose of different criminal justice systems in a democratic society. Coursework typically explores constitutional law, crime causation, courts, and courtroom proceedings, looking at how different systems of law interact and complement one another through real world case studies. Along with legislative processes, most classes feature an overview of correctional systems, which explores the distinctions between jail and prison, as well as different methods of rehabilitation. Students may also get an introduction to terrorism and “white collar” offenses, such as fraud, embezzlement, and cyber-crime.
  • Law Enforcement: This course examines the role of police in American society, looking at the responsibilities of officers, their history, and the modern challenges they face. Coursework focuses on theoretical issues, such as policing in a democracy, ethnic tensions, and police misconduct, as well as technical matters, such as patrol techniques, interrogation, and department organization. Typically, courses analyze the different roles of police forces on three levels—federal, state, and local—helping students discern the jurisdiction and limitations of each agency, as well as the laws that govern them. For example, if a criminal crosses multiple state borders, the transgression may become a matter of federal concern, alleviating state policemen of their authority.
  • Security: This course provides an outline of security systems, including general protection policies, theft deterrence, and confidentiality. Coursework typically emphasizes methods used to monitor and prevent crime, along with physical elements of security, such as surveillance and alarm systems. Often, classes also touch on the emerging role of private security, exploring the extent of authority these guards possess, as well as legal and liability issues. Studies may also include how to properly identify suspicious activity, prevent vandalism and assaults, and control unruly crowds. For instance, students might analyze tactics employed at locations where large populations are present, such as college campuses and sports stadiums. Some courses may even offer an introduction to homeland security.

In addition to core courses, students are required to fulfill general education requirements such as English, math, and social sciences. Most online degrees also entail the completion of elective courses, which are meant to augment students’ overall understanding of crime and justice as well as allow them to study a specific area of interest. For example, those concerned with the inner workings of the criminal mind may opt for an introduction to psychology course. Other relevant topics could include sociology—the study of human society—or ethics—an examination of moral principles.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Associate Degree Programs in Criminal Justice

With an associate degree, graduates can pursue entry-level positions in a broad spectrum of criminal justice careers. Many find employment opportunities in the private sector as security patrol officers or private investigators. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (, 2012), demand for security guards and gaming surveillance officers is anticipated to grow by 18 percent between 2010 and 2020. Requirements for private detective positions vary greatly, but postsecondary coursework in criminal justice can be especially beneficial to those interested in the field. From 2010 to 2020, projects that employment of private detectives and investigators will increase 21 percent, faster than the average of all surveyed occupations.

Graduates may also find jobs in local, state, and federal law enforcement, although these positions typically have additional requirements, such as training academy, physical exams, and background checks. Those interested in criminal rehabilitation can pursue a career as a correctional officer. While a high school diploma is often sufficient, many state and local prisons prefer that guards have some college credit. Associate degree holders may also continue their education and pursue a bachelor’s in criminal justice, which can prepare them to become a probation officer or paralegal.