Criminal Justice Career Guide

Law and order stem from procedures and agencies that are designed to not only discover or prevent crimes but to detain criminals, try them in a court of law, and administer punishment. This process is known as criminal justice. Both the popularity of television programs that depict the solving of serious crimes and the prevalence of crime in real life inspire many to turn to the field of criminal justice in search of careers that make a difference. Whether one obtains a criminal justice degree or simply has an interest in the field, they will find an extensive range of career options. For this reason, it is important that people research and understand the various ways to pursue a career in this area.

Defense Attorney/Criminal Prosecutor

Both defense attorneys and criminal prosecutors are officers of the court responsible for seeking the truth. These are the careers that help argue an accused individual’s innocence or guilt before a judge. An attorney acts as a representative and advocate for their client. It is the job of the attorney to competently counsel clients regarding their legal rights and to research, prepare, and lead a course of action. A defense attorney represents the accused and must work to defend their innocence, while it is the job of a criminal prosecutor to prove that the accused is guilty of the crime in question. Attorneys may work in private law practices or for the state or federal government. Travel is sometimes necessary to prisons, courts, crime scenes, or clients’ homes.

A career as an attorney requires seven years of higher education. This includes four years to obtain a bachelor’s degree and another three years to attend and graduate from an accredited law school. Prior to acceptance into law school, a person will need to first pass the LSAT, or Law School Admissions Test. Upon successful completion of law school, one will have earned a juris doctor, or J.D., degree. This will enable them to sit for their licensing exam, which is known as the bar exam.

State and Local Law Enforcement: Police and State Troopers

People who are interested in upholding the law may choose to pursue careers in state or local law enforcement. A career as a uniformed police officer involves deterring criminal activity and maintaining the peace through acts such as going on patrols, answering dispatched calls from the community, or investigating suspicious activities or crimes such as burglaries that have occurred or that are in progress.

On a state level, people may choose to become highway patrol officers or state troopers. These officers patrol the state’s roads for motorists who are breaking traffic laws. They also assist people with car troubles and motorists involved in accidents. State troopers may also respond to other types of incidents as necessary. Requirements to become a state trooper vary from state to state. Candidates must have a high school diploma, and in some states, some college is also required. They must also complete police academy training, be in good physical condition, and meet minimum age requirements.

Crime Scene Investigator/Detective

Proper investigation is crucial when it comes to criminal justice. A person interested in this aspect of criminal justice may consider a career as an investigator or detective. The job description of a detective is to use evidence to determine that a crime, not an accident, has occurred. It is a criminal investigator’s responsibility to use the facts and evidence to help solve a crime and apprehend suspects. Typically, a detective first starts out as a police officer.

A crime scene investigator is an individual who documents, collects, preserves, and examines evidence found at the scene of a crime. Investigators must follow specific protocols to ensure that the evidence remains uncorrupted. Various careers fall under the umbrella of crime scene investigation, including forensic investigators. A forensic investigator uses science and technology to assess the crime scene and the evidence. Their work may help prove that a specific object was used to commit the crime and could even help determine who may or may not be a suspect. Forensic investigators may use computers, examine DNA, make impressions, or even study insects. Entry-level forensic investigators typically have a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a field such as biology; however, some are also police officers and attend the police training academy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, in some cases, a high school diploma and related experience may fulfill the requirements for individuals seeking non-uniformed crime scene investigator positions.


Paralegals work closely with attorneys, providing them with critical assistance such as the drafting of motions. Paralegals may work in a specific legal area such as litigation, personal injury, corporate, bankruptcy, or family law. They may also perform a range of duties specific to the type of law in which they work. Paralegals can be found working in small and large law firms, organizations, and government agencies. People interested in a paralegal career may obtain an associate degree through a paralegal program at a community college or pursue a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. If an individual obtains a bachelor’s in a different area of study, they will also require a certificate in paralegal studies. Upon graduation, it is helpful to have some experience working at a law firm; however, people with a history in criminal justice, nursing, a field that is useful to legal practices may be hired with no prior legal experience.

Other Specializations

There is a wide range of specializations where an individual interested in criminal justice can find meaningful employment and a fulfilling career. In addition to becoming a police officer or state trooper, a person with an interest in corrections could also find employment as a parole or corrections officer. People interested in court-related careers could consider becoming a court liaison counselor or a judge. Federal law enforcement careers include deputy U.S. marshals, Customs special agents, or even Secret Service agents. Other forensic science choices include careers in criminalistics as a ballistics or arson specialist or joining the crime lab personnel at the Federal Bureau of Investigations or the Drug Enforcement Administration.

How to Prepare

It is never too early to prepare for a criminal justice career. Whether in high school, in college, or making a career change, one should research careers of interest for a better understanding of what is required in terms of education, experience, and physicality. For example, certain careers require candidates to be in good physical condition. Prior to entering these fields, one can start by getting a physical examination, following a healthy diet, and getting regular exercise. Look for internships or youth programs in the field of interest. People should also avoid any activities that could reflect badly on them during background checks. While in high school, one should take classes that are related to the field of interest. For example, people interested in law will want to do well in social studies, while people interested in forensics should excel in biology or computers, depending on the specific area of forensics they are interested in.

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