Nowadays law enforcement is, to put it mildly, a lot more complex than it once was. More sophisticated criminals, ever-changing technologies and new concerns about how foreign terrorists can injure Americans have re-shaped the jobs of professional “good guys” in all areas of criminal justice. The Homeland Security Department, which was only formed in 2002, now has a $50 billion dollar budget and 216,000 employees. Most of them worked relatively independently as border guards, customs agents or transportation security specialist until the attacks of 9/11/2001 prompted the government to change their mission and work with each other in different ways.
At the same time, the methods that police departments use to assemble crime evidence for court cases and to deal with the issues of criminals in the penal system and in the community have evolved quickly, creating a need for new kinds of specialists both in enforcement and prevention-type functions. That has created a need for everything from computer security experts to human services specialists and even new kinds of business administrators who can manage the complex budgets of large law enforcement organizations.
If you’d like to get your career started with an associate’s degree, you’ll probably be looking at a fairly generalized 2-year criminal justice curriculum. But when you’re ready to move to the bachelor’s degree level, you’ll find that, in addition to the basic BA or BS degree in criminal justice, there are all sorts of other more specialized degrees to consider. If you shop around, you’re likely to find colleges offering over a dozen different specialty degrees within this career track.
The good news is that, at the bachelor’s degree level, you can get specialized training in a particular area of criminal justice that interests you without losing the generalized learning that can qualify you for a broad range jobs. Regardless of the school you attend, your bachelor’s degree program will almost certainly include a core of liberal arts courses in humanities, math, social sciences and the like as well as a series of “major” or “core” courses that cover subjects like corrections, juvenile Justice, legal and procedures, drugs and crime, ethics and criminal behavior. The study for your specialized degree will, in many cases, involve less than 8 courses, with a possible independent study project added on.
Here’s a rundown on some of the most popular “specialized” criminal justice degrees being offered online right now at the bachelor’s degree level.
Criminal Justice Management
A degree in this specialty prepares you for either a “front line” type job as a police officer, parole or correction officer or a more administrative/supervisory position. The latter can be anything from a position as a local police chief to a senior manager of a department in a state police organization or even a national agency. The degree can give you some career flexibility if you are not sure at the outset whether you want to be in a true enforcement position, or if you would prefer to be more of an administrator working on disaster response policies, technology strategy or personnel issues. Of course, it’s also true that many supervisory positions require a mix of theoretical and practical knowledge, which a management degree like this can help provide.
A degree in homeland security is designed to prep the graduate for work in the very rapidly growing Department of Homeland Security (DHS), or possibly in a regional or local police organization that co-operates on disaster planning with national agencies. The Homeland Security Department now incorporates many agencies like Border Protection, FEMA, the Secret Service, Customs and even The Coast Guard which used to be independent organizations. As such, it’s now a very large organization (over 170,000 employees) that is continuing to hire people with a very wide range of skills. Homeland security degrees usually include a mix of training in computer security or “cyber-warfare,” airport security, counter-terrorism and inter-departmental emergency planning. The career path can be either in front-line enforcement positions (border guard, customs inspector) or in more office-based work in administration or technology. Pay scales for jobs in DHS can run anywhere from $35,000 up to $60,000, with senior administrators making more.
Social and Criminal Justice
This specialization is, as the name implies, a mix of sociology and criminal justice disciplines. In addition to the standard criminal justice subjects like corrections, law enforcement and investigations, students in this major study theories of sociology – how institutions and society function – in a law enforcement perspective. Learning how to research issues that affect governments and individuals and draw policy conclusions is generally an important part of the curriculum. Job opportunities with this degree include Court Worker Specialized in Juveniles, Prison Counselor, Parole Officer, Community Mediator or any number of administrative jobs like Urban Planner, Corporate or Government Research Analyst, Demographer or Consultant in Industrial Relations.
Criminology is one of the bedrock specialties that have been a key part of the criminal justice system for many years. Stated simply, it is the analysis of criminal behaviors, coupled with an effort to provide useful explanations for why people commit crimes and what methods they use in breaking the law. At its more analytic level, criminology involves the study of how and why crimes are committed throughout entire societies. A degree in this field will usually include in-depth study of psychology and sociology, to train specialists who can develop a profile that might help the police capture a criminal, testify as an expert in court, develop programs to prevent crime or to rehabilitate criminals coming out of prison. Courses in a specialty like this might include white collar crime, policing in society, counseling and guidance, theories of deviance or abnormal psychology. Jobs for criminologists exist in the court system, prevention departments in law enforcement agencies and corrections.
Sometimes combined with corrections, juvenile justice is a specialty for those who want to help the police, the courts and the penal system deal with young offenders. Courses can cover topics like the community context of juvenile offenders, international issues with juvenile offenders, laws and ethics or key societal trends affecting juvenile criminals. Intervention techniques and dealing with behavioral disorders are generally a key part of the curriculum. Job opportunities in this specialty are very wide ranging in the criminal justice system, and include functions from counselor or probation officer to a juvenile court attorney for students to carry on to a graduate law degree.
Corrections officers tend to be in fairly steady demand, given the large U.S prison population. A degree in this specialty prepares a graduate to maintain security in supervising either convicted criminals or people awaiting trial. It is a sometimes challenging career category where professional must work to prevent assaults inside the prisons, various types of disturbances or even escapes.
Forensics and Investigations
Forensics can be a science or health care specialty, but in criminal justice it generally involves collection and analysis of evidence from crime scenes, and the use of that evidence in court prosecutions. A forensic technician can be a kind of puzzle solver for the police. Degrees under the forensics heading will often include technical training in DNA, toxicology and other lab specialties. Degree programs that combine forensics and investigations, on the other hand, will often focus on the broader methods involved in in-depth criminal investigations. A related specialty that’s grown popular in recent years is computer forensics, which involves investigating crime-related data stored on laptops, phones and other devices.
Earning an HS degree under the criminal justice heading can prepare you to enter a career providing social services to varied criminal populations, from low-income persons to juveniles at risk of criminal behavior. Key employers in this area include government and private family support services, mental health clinics and rehabilitation programs. The degree can also prepare you to work in a detention center. These degrees sometimes go under the heading of “client services” or “special populations.”
International Criminal Justice
A specialty that has grown in importance in recent years not just because of terrorism issues but due to the increasingly “cross-border” nature of many crimes, international criminal justice can have a unique attraction if you are interested in world crime issues. The curriculum usually focuses on understanding the differences between various national law systems, and the issues it presents police who a pursuing international criminals. This type of degree can also provide entree to work in certain areas of the Homeland Security Department that are focused on foreign terrorists. Other potential employers in this field include the FBI and even multi- national police organizations like Interpol.