Online Degrees in Law and Criminal Justice

Nationwide, law enforcement budgets are on the rise. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that after annual increases since 1982, government spending on criminal justice reached approximately $228 billion in 2007. With growing law enforcement budgets, agencies see increasing demand for qualified, well-trained job candidates.

The criminal justice system offers a diverse range of career paths in its three major sectors: police protection, corrections and justice, and legal services. Within these sectors, individuals can pursue career paths that include state trooper, lawyer, paralegal, court clerk, correctional officer, FBI agents, game warden and forensic investigator.

Online degree programs offer a way for individuals who are working in law enforcement to gain added credentials and qualify for more advanced roles. Because so many advanced positions in criminal justice require work experience, online degrees in law enforcement allow candidates to continue their educations while building their industry credentials.

Agency-specific training, offered by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, covers many of the day-to-day skills law enforcement officers need, so online degrees in criminal justice generally focus on helping students understand the criminal justice system in the U.S. Upper-level courses may focus on particular issues within criminal justice such as cybercrime, substance abuse or cultural sensitivity for law enforcement personnel.

Individuals with law & criminal justice degrees can also find work in the private sector as computer security and digital forensics specialists, security guards and private investigators.

Nearly all criminal justice careers require some level of formal training, from certificate courses for court reporters to the graduate degrees held by federal officers, judges and criminologists.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows a growing trend toward degrees in criminal justice. According to the NCES, 40,235 bachelor's degrees were awarded in security and protective services in 2007-2008--a 60.5 percent increase over the 1997-1998 schools year.

As a field, criminal justice allows excellent opportunities for advancement. Entry-level positions with state and local police forces don't generally require college training--although the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that some college classes are encouraged and many police officers are college graduates.

However, advancing into supervisory roles or moving up to a position with a federal agency--including the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, or Drug Enforcement Administration--requires a bachelor's degree in addition to work experience and agency-specific training. Some federal positions, including those within the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Homeland Security, require candidates to hold undergraduate degrees in a foreign language as well as a specialty in business, accounting or information technology.

Once law enforcement personnel have done their job, a new group of criminal justice professionals step in. Lawyers, paralegals, legal assistants and other courtroom employees are the second major group in the criminal justice system.

Online associate and bachelor's degree programs in such as paralegal studies offer training in legal procedure, ethics, research, computer software and various branches of the law. Employers may require applicants for entry level paralegal careers to hold a credential such as the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA), Certified Paralegal (CP) or American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) credential.

Lawyers must complete a four-year undergraduate degree, a three-year law degree, and pass a state examination to practice. Beginning students typically complete a two- or four-year undergraduate degree in criminal justice, political science, government or a related field prior to entering law school. Most law schools also require applicants take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).

According to the BLS, the job outlook for criminal justice and law enforcement careers during the 2008 to 2018 period should be favorable, with job openings arising from budget increases, retirement or advancement of current officers, and the growth of law enforcement to keep up with an expanding population.

Jobs for police officers and detectives are anticipated to grow by 10 percent from 2008 to 2018, the BLS reports, adding 84,700 positions across the country, while correctional officer positions are slated to increase by 9 percent nationwide.

Positions for paralegals and legal assistants are expected to see the most growth among criminal justice careers, with new jobs expected to rise by 28 percent from 2008 to 2018, the BLS reports. Jobs can be found with private law firms, governmental agencies, insurance companies and corporate legal departments, although the BLS reports that 71 percent of paralegals worked for private law firms in 2008, with the majority of the rest working for in-house legal departments or federal agencies.

Occupations In-Demand for Law Criminal Justice
Job Openings (2016-26)
Average Salary (2016)
Total Employment
Projected Job Growth (2016-26)
Security Guards157,500$30,7301,105,4406%
Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers49,500$64,490662,3907%
Lifeguards, Ski Patrol, and Other Recreational Protective Service Workers39,700$23,570145,6608%
Protective Service Workers, All Other35,200$33,930135,3908%
Paralegals and Legal Assistants34,700$53,910290,41015%
Loan Officers30,500$77,920307,24012%
Compliance Officers25,900$71,540287,1308%
Crossing Guards14,500$30,17076,4409%
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

The career options in the law enforcement fields allow professionals to advance in rank or by agency throughout their working lives. Jobs are available across the nation in a wide range of disciplines, with the applicants who hold the strongest educational background and experience able to compete for the best positions.

  • Nationwide, expenditures for police, correction and judicial programs have increased steadily each year since 1982.
  • The 2012 federal budget provides funding to train 64,000 individual federal, state and local law enforcement personnel.
  • More than $50 billion is slated to fund programs under the homeland security umbrella during the 2011 budget year.
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