Online Degrees in Criminal Justice

There were more than 110,600 detectives and criminal investigators working in the U.S. in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Demand for workers in the field remains strong. Between 2008 and 2018, job opportunities are projected to grow 17 percent for detectives and criminal investigators, and 9 percent for police officers.

"There's always a need for people in the criminal justice system," Callie Rennison, a professor at University of Colorado Denver told the Mile High City's NBC Channel 9 News on Aug. 23, 2011.

Student Nora Scanlon echoed the professor. "You can go to federal, and federal agencies are hiring. You can go to the state level. State's hiring, local's hiring, nonprofits are hiring. The public and private sector, they are hiring."

It's easy to be optimistic about a degree that leads to a high-growth professional field and prepares students to make a difference in their communities.

Choosing the Right Online Criminal Justice Degree

A prospective college student's career goals should help determine their educational path. Take a look at the four most common options for online degrees in criminal justice:

  • Associate: A two-year degree in criminal justice can serve as basic training in preparation for the police academy, a prerequisite for entry-level jobs or as the first step toward a four-year bachelor's degree.
  • Bachelor's: Considered common training for many careers in criminal justice, the bachelor's degree prepares students for careers in criminology, forensics, private investigation and more.
  • Master's: For students who hold a bachelor's degree, a master's degree in criminal justice can usually be completed in one to two years of full-time study. Management or entrepreneurship positions -- such as opening a private detective firm -- might benefit from this mastery of subject knowledge.
  • Doctorate: For professionals who want to conduct and advance scientific research in criminology and criminal justice, or teach at the college or university level, a Ph.D. in criminology is generally required.

State and local laws differ greatly. Online education gives students insight into these differences, when interacting with students from across the country. Because criminal justice degrees don't typically come with a hands-on requirement, students can enjoy fulfilling all of their degree requirements online.

Courses common to many programs of study include the following:

  • Criminology
  • Judicial process
  • Ethics in the justice system
  • Victimology
  • Private security

Careers in Criminal Justice

From beat cop to vice squad to FBI, law enforcement is among the most popular career paths for criminal justice grads. Corrections, security and private investigation are also common. Education is an important factor on the job application for many positions in law enforcement, especially state and federal officers.

For 2010, the BLS reported that managers of police and detectives working in the federal government earned mean annual wages of $114,170. State officers earned mean annual wages of $58,200. And security guards, a common entry-level career, earned mean annual wages of $26,870.

  • Growth: Employment of police and detectives is expected to grow at an average pace from 2008 to 2018, or 10 percent. Prospects should be particularly favorable for qualified individuals in local police departments. (BLS)
  • Inside scoop: Bilingual applicants with college training in police science or with military police experience may have the best opportunities.
  • Key employers: Local, state and federal governments, colleges and universities

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 (bls.gov, 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, bls.gov 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.

Those with a passion for the law who want to participate in keeping their communities and country safe may find themselves a perfect fit for a degree program in criminal justice. An online bachelor's degree in criminal justice can help prepare students to face the complex challenges of the field from a number of different career paths. Core coursework typically covers criminology, social science, law enforcement and the court system. Criminal justice bachelor's degree programs often allow students to specialize in areas such as homeland security, corrections, cybercrime, legal studies or criminal justice administration.

What Does a Bachelor's Degree Program in Criminal Justice Entail?

Full-time students can typically earn an online bachelor's degree in criminal justice in about four years. Courses help students understand the laws and correctional system in America, along with the motivations that drive criminals to commit various types of crimes. Possible course topics include:

  • Introduction to Criminal Law: In this class, students learn about the legal foundations behind the criminal justice system, including the laws that govern sentencing and corrections, how crimes are categorized, and the judicial code. Courses may also cover the various laws involved in pursuing criminals and enforcing justice.
  • Criminology: This course introduces students to various types of crimes, from violent and sexual crime to white-collar or organized crime. Coursework focuses on understanding crimes more deeply from the perspectives of both victims and criminals, including the motivations that drive criminals.
  • Alternatives to Incarceration: This helps students examine methods for rehabilitating criminals outside of the incarceration system, covering topics such as probation, parole and other strategies for managing crime aside from prison sentences. Students may also explore the question of how best to acclimatize criminals to society and keep communities safe.
  • The Juvenile Justice System: Explores the American juvenile criminal justice system and how it compares to the adult system. Students typically learn about what causes juveniles to commit crimes, the psychological effects incarceration has on young individuals, special laws and procedures juvenile courts must adhere to, and effective rehabilitation techniques for youth offenders.

Other topics covered in criminal justice bachelor's degree programs may include policing in America and ethics in criminal justice. Most programs also require students to complete general education credits in subjects like communications, English composition, math, and computer technology. Degree programs that allow students to specialize in a certain area, such as cybersecurity or legal studies, often feature courses that let them hone in on that area of interest.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Bachelor's Degree Programs in Criminal Justice

Earning a bachelor's in criminal justice online can help prepare graduates for a number of different careers in the field, from police or probation officer to private investigator or information security analyst. Opportunities and requirements vary depending on students' area of specialization and whether they intend to work at the local, county, state or federal level. For example, working for the federal government requires candidates to have a clean criminal record with no felony or drug convictions.

While the rate of violent and property crimes have begun to decline in recent years, cybercrimes have increased in both frequency and sophistication according to the American Bar Association. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that cybercrime and other security concerns should increase demand for private detectives and investigators, for whom job opportunities are projected to rise 21 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020, faster than the overall growth rate of jobs in America.

Information security analysts should see jobs expand by 22 percent* nationwide from 2010 to 2020, according to the BLS. Positions are expected to be added by the federal government to help protect the nation's information technology systems and by healthcare companies to safeguard confidential electronic patient records. Depending on the type of information security analyst position, those who have earned an online bachelor's degree in criminal justice may need additional education or training in computer science, information security or a related field.

*Job growth projections for information security analysts includes computer network architects and web developers.

Experts in criminal justice help uphold and enforce laws at the local, state and national level. They work in a variety of vocations, ensuring citizens feel safe and due process is carried out. Online master's degrees in criminal justice offer advanced instruction in criminal justice policy and procedures. Core curriculum typically covers topics such as laws and ethics, research methods, criminology, and leadership. These programs are often designed for those seeking to advance to management roles in the criminal justice field.

What Does a Master's Degree Program in Criminal Justice Entail?

An online master's degree in criminal justice can take full-time students as little as two years to complete after earning a bachelor's. Curriculum includes courses that provide students with a deep understanding of criminal justice issues and a strong research foundation. The courses below are some of the more common classes students can expect from a criminal justice master's degree program:

  • Issues in Criminal Justice: Explores current events and how they fit into the overall view of criminal justice, including issues that pertain to justice procedures, law enforcement, civil rights, civil and criminal liabilities, corrections, substance abuse and treatment, employment law, and administration. Courses may also touch on homeland security, ethics and morality, and community-based law enforcement.
  • Criminological Theory: Understanding criminal behavior, including causation and attitudes toward crime and law enforcement. These include the biological, social, economic and psychological factors that contribute to or cause criminal behavior. Students typically explore theory construction, theory integration and hypothesis testing, as well as practical applications of theoretical constructs.
  • Research Methods: This course focuses on the practice, theory and philosophy of social science research with special attention paid to criminal justice. Students are introduced to research methods, such as surveys, field research and experimental designs. Critical thinking, ethics, accurate measurement of data, understanding connections between theory and research, and proper data collection are all integral parts of this course.
  • Statistics in Criminal Justice: Learning how to understand statistics and use the proper research tools are a key component of this course. Students conduct research, perform statistical analysis and learn how to convey the results. Courses may also cover confidence intervals, probability theory, hypothesis tests and regression analysis. Survey designs, sampling, the scientific method, and descriptive and inferential statistics are often explored as well.

Some online master's degree programs in criminal justice also offer electives or specialty tracks tailored to specific areas of criminal justice. Examples of these include homeland security, substance abuse, terrorism, corrections, cybercrime, and justice administration. Toward the end of their degree program, students typically must complete a thesis, practicum, comprehensive exam, or capstone course to demonstrate their mastery of the subject matter.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Master's Degree Programs in Criminal Justice

Individuals who earn their master's in criminal justice online may find work in a variety of different settings, including corrections, detective and investigative services, probation services, gaming surveillance, legal research or assistance, homeland security, or court administration.

Criminal justice careers with faster-than-average growth include private detectives and investigators, who should experience 21 percent national job growth from 2010 to 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Cybercrime and other security concerns are main contributors to this demand. Two other professions that should see fairly strong job growth (18 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020) are probation officers and correctional treatment specialists. Limited or non-prison sentences are becoming more popular punishments for low-risk criminals, helping strengthen demand for these professionals. As the BLS notes, earning a graduate degree can help lead to more advanced positions for probation officers and correctional treatment specialists, and may even be required in some cases.

The doctorate in criminal justice is the highest academic award in the field, and those that hold it are often considered the foremost experts. Earning a Ph.D. in criminal justice online could lead to college teaching appointments, breakthrough research on social issues and public policy, or leadership roles in law enforcement, criminal investigation, or criminology. In most cases, those wishing to enter a Ph.D. program must hold a master's degree in criminal justice, criminology or a related field, such as psychology or sociology.

What Does a Doctoral Degree Program in Criminal Justice Entail?

Earning a doctorate in criminal justice online may take upward of seven years to complete. However, program length can vary greatly at the doctoral level. Online doctoral degrees in criminal justice focus on research methods, statistical analysis, theories and polices, and high-level management strategies. Students can expect some common courses in most criminal justice doctoral programs, which may cover one or more of the topics listed below:

  • Criminological Theory: This course explores what leads to criminal activity for individuals and communities, including discussion on theories of psychological, sociological, economic, biological, geographical and political perspectives. The relationship between various theories and emerging policy is also examined.
  • Qualitative and Quantitative Research Methods: Students learn techniques for designing and conducting qualitative and quantitative research in the criminal justice field. Topics of discussion may include ethnography (cultural studies), data collection and analysis, grounded theory, and ethical considerations.
  • Criminal Justice Ethics and Administration: Explores the role of courts, institutions of law, legislatures, agencies and administration in law, including conflict resolution, mediation, sentencing and rehabilitation. Natural and constitutional law is covered, as well as ethical considerations in all areas and levels of law enforcement and criminal justice administration.
  • Crime in Society: In this course, students learn about criminal activity, where it happens, who perpetuates it and the reasons behind the activity. Includes study of economics, social situations, political views and crime in various neighborhood demographics.
  • Criminal Justice Organization and Management: Focuses on the administrative duties, ethical concerns, and best management practices for those in leadership positions. Police strategies and tactics designed to reduce or prevent crime are also addressed.

Beyond these topics, the online criminal justice doctorate program typically lets students choose electives or specialty courses that allow them to build strengths in various areas of the field. These classes cover subjects such as organized crime, police tactics, juvenile justice, white collar crime, cybercrime, terrorism and homeland security. Upon completion of the coursework for the doctoral program, a comprehensive exam might be required. The online criminal justice doctorate program also requires students to research, write and successfully defend a dissertation before the degree is awarded. Some programs may also have students complete a practicum course or internship in order to gain practical experience in a criminal justice work setting.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Doctoral Degree Programs in Criminal Justice

Earning a Ph.D. in criminal justice could help graduates move into upper-level management roles in federal law enforcement, private security, correctional treatment and similar fields. It could also lead to teaching opportunities at the college level. Those who choose to teach may find work in junior colleges, universities, business schools, technical or trade schools, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Teachers of law enforcement and criminal justice courses often engage in research while maintaining their teaching duties. The BLS expects national job growth of 17 percent for postsecondary teachers from 2010 to 2020. Employment is expected to be competitive in colleges and universities, and grow fastest at for-profit institutions.

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"Information Security Analysts, Web Developers and Computer Network Architects," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/information-security-analysts-web-developers-and-computer-network-architects.htm
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