What Can You Do With a Criminal Justice Degree? Careers & Salaries Revealed

Criminal justice majors study numerous dimensions of the justice system, including the local, state, and federal court systems, law enforcement and policing, and corrections. 

The field of criminal justice is interdisciplinary, drawing on not only criminology and criminological theory, but also psychology (to understand the mental and emotional components of criminal behavior), sociology (to understand the sociocultural and community-level drivers of crime), political science (to understand the structure of government and interests of various stakeholders and groups), and history (to understand the development of the current justice system and chart its course into the future), among others. 

The ultimate goal in studying criminal justice is to better understand and help contribute to society’s safe, effective functioning. 

Graduates with a degree in criminal justice can choose to pursue diverse career paths that utilize their expertise in the court system, law enforcement, and corrections process. This expertise can be put to good, and sometimes lucrative, use in domains such as crime prevention, advocacy (for instance, for victims), private investigation work, forensics, and jails/prisons and other correctional/rehabilitation facilities. The common theme among criminal justice-oriented careers is a desire to protect people, enforce the law, give a voice to the voiceless, and stem criminal behavior. 

After obtaining an undergraduate degree in criminal justice, many students immediately begin careers in domains like law enforcement, corrections, or community programs. Others choose to go onto additional schooling; criminal justice majors are a popular foundation for those who intend to go to law school, for instance. The opportunities are wide-ranging and rewarding. 

In this article, we’ll explore some of the most popular and interesting careers available to those with a degree in criminal justice, and what salaries new employees can expect. 

Police Officer

Median salary: $67,290

Police officers are not just the protagonists in shows like Chicago P.D. and Brooklyn Nine Nine, they are also key features of everyday communities small and large. 

And contrary to popular stereotypes, police officers don’t spend their afternoons drinking coffee and eating doughnuts at diners. Rather, they work hard to enforce local, state, and federal laws to protect property and people in the community. In the course of a shift, police officers might patrol a certain area to ensure it is safe and abiding by the law, respond to 911 calls, report incidents that arise, issue traffic and parking violation citations, and when necessary, make arrests. 

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), the median salary of a police officer is $67,290, and as of 2020, demand for law enforcement officers was increasing at a rate higher than the national average. In the future, It is likely that degree programs in criminal justice and police department training programs for officers will incorporate more coursework and training around social justice and de-escalation.

Private Investigator

John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Ajay Suresh, John Jay College of Criminal Justice – New Building, CC BY 2.0

Average salary: $53,320

Private investigators might work in private detective firms, police departments, private companies, or be self-employed. Anyone can hire a private investigator, from an individual citizen, to an attorney, to an entire government agency. 

The bulk of a PI’s job entails fact-finding and gathering information. Sometimes information can be gathered by sleuthing the web, but other times PIs must conduct surveillance, solicit information via interviews, and even go undercover to obtain insights into a case. Importantly, PIs must understand the legal limits as their role, because they are acting as private citizens. Any evidence they collect illegally cannot be used in court.  

PIs conduct background checks, locate and verify information, search for people who have gone missing, investigate potential crimes, look for new evidence or leads in cold cases, and gain access to information that the average person probably could not locate on their own. 

A degree in criminal justice is an excellent foundation for a career as a PI, but equally important is first-hand expertise through apprenticeship. Future/novice PIs typically shadow and learn from a veteran PI. Furthermore, most states require that PIs obtain proper licensing.

Crime Scene Investigator

Average salary: $59,150

Crime Scene Investigators, also called CSIs, forensic science technicians, crime lab analysts, or crime scene specialists, focus on using a variety of specific technologies and techniques to inspect crime scenes. CSIs often collect physical evidence such as hair, fingerprints, footprints, and other tangible traces that might offer clues about the crime.

The average CSI salary is approximately $59,000, but CSIs who work for a government agency can expect to earn much more than that, with top professionals earning close to $100,000 annually. Their qualifications and analyses are well-respected and play a key role in prosecuting the guilty and liberating the wrongly accused.  

Correctional Officer

Average salary: $47,410

Correctional officers work at local, state, and federal jails and prisons, overseeing the day-to-day lives of those who have been arrested, are awaiting trial, or have been sentenced to serve time in prison. 

Working conditions can vary greatly depending on the facility. Newer facilities tend to have high-functioning temperature control, smart design, and adequate space, whereas older facilities are notorious for being cramped, hot, noisy, and sweaty. Facilities also differ according to whether they are owned by the local, state, or federal government, or by a private company. Federal prisons tend to have the best funding. Further, facilities differ based on their level of security; jobs in maximum security prisons tend to involve more conflicts with inmates than do jobs in minimum security prisons. 

Working in a jail or prison is not for the faint of heart, but it can come with some good perks, especially if the correctional officer is a government employee. Professionals in this role who are employed by the government tend to receive excellent healthcare and retirement benefits. 

State Trooper

Average salary: $61,000

State troopers enforce traffic-related safety laws on local and state roads and highways. They patrol roads and highways, issue traffic tickets where appropriate, and arrive at the scene of motor vehicle accidents. In addition, they often complete accident reports and conduct investigations to learn more about the circumstances of an accident, and they may be called upon to testify in court. In some areas, particularly those with a limited police force, state troopers act as back-ups for local law enforcement. 

Different states have different requirements for their troopers, but almost all involve some form of intensive training. State troopers are often the first to arrive on the scene of an accident or other emergency situation, so they need to be skilled at thinking on their toes and remaining calm under pressure. Job prospects are stable, and the career path offers multiple opportunities for promotions and salary increases. In New York State, for instance, the average base salary is about $53,000 during training, $70,000 a year after training, and $85,000 after five years as a state trooper. 

FBI Agent

Average salary: $72,375

A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent’s duty is to guard the United States against wrongdoing. Some FBI agents conduct fieldwork, while others are stationed in offices conducting research. The work FBI agents carry out is high-stakes, secretive, and often requires irregular hours and last-minute travel. 

To conduct investigations, FBI agents do everything from interviewing witnesses to working with local police officers to arrest suspects and collecting evidence to be used in significant cases. Because FBI agents deal with such classified, risk-laden work, any prospective agents must undergo a rigorous screening and training process. Agents are typically on call 24/7 and need to be able to enter a potentially dangerous situation at a moment’s notice. Entry-level FBI agents can expect to make around $52,000 as a base salary, while mid-career to senior-level agents earn around $80,000 as a base salary. 

Parole/Probation Officer

Average salary: $55,690

Probation officers monitor convicted criminals who have received probation sentences rather than prison sentences, while parole officers monitor criminals who have been released from prison. Their roles and duties are similar, but the criminals they work with differ in their sentences. 

Probation officers help to equip law offenders on probation with resources and key social services to aid in their rehabilitation and prevent them from committing additional crimes. Probation officers keep in frequent contact with the people they are supervising and establish strong lines of communication not only with the convicted criminal, but also with members of the offender’s family in order to ensure that they are adhering to the terms of their probation and taking steps to rehabilitate. 

Parole officers work with convicted criminals who are released from prison, and help to prevent these offenders from ending up in prison again. Recidivism is a huge issue; a 2019 report indicates that 83% of state prisons were re-arrested within a nine-year period after being released from their sentence. Thus, the need for effective parole officers is very great, especially as cries for prison reform and a greater focus on rehabilitation grow louder. 

Border Control Agent/Customs Inspector

Average salary: $85,850

Border control agents and customs inspectors, who are employees of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), work with the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that none of the people or property entering the United States is of danger to the country. 

Border control agents and customs inspectors are stationed at the country’s land and water borders, forming a protective net around the United States meant to keep contraband items and people who post a potential threat from entering the country. At the same time, they ensure that the borders remain open to legitimate travelers and goods. 

Entry-level border control agents typically make around $66,700 per year. Agents can regularly receive promotions to higher grade levels, which also come with higher salaries. The top border control agents make upwards of $125,000 or more per year and have great benefits and job stability.  

Crime Prevention Specialist

Average salary: $46,900

Unlike police officers, who enforce the law and arrest criminals, crime prevention specialists aim to stop crime before it starts. They serve a dual role in communities, helping to build crime-prevention programs to share with the public and helping to educate people on self-defense and how to protect themselves in the face of crime. 

In order to carry out these duties, crime prevention specialists first assess the community in question and then devise novel ways of delivering programming and knowledge. They might run initiatives such as youth crime prevention programs, crime prevention marketing that speaks to the community in their language, laying out emergency action plans, and workshops on personal safety and self-defense. Their overall goal is to make communities safer and stronger. 

The scope of a crime prevention specialist’s job differs depending on the location and circumstances, so the salary can vary widely.

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