Should you pursue a career in the criminal justice system?

criminal justice

The criminal justice system is responsible for keeping citizens safe and protected from criminal activity. It enforces the laws to ensure those who partake in criminal behavior are punished using a set of ethics, rights, and laws.

The idea is that there is true equality by having one set of laws for everyone within a society or municipality. The same laws apply to anyone regardless of age, gender, race, disability, etc.

There are many career opportunities in the criminal justice system, but it is not the right place for everyone. Therefore, it is important to carefully consider the characteristics that make criminal justice the right choice for you and your family.

You understand the importance of sticking to a strong set of ethics

In the criminal justice system, you will work with people from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. Therefore, abiding by a robust set of ethics with people from all walks of life is essential in any job within the criminal justice system.

Criminal justice jobs are great for those with a strong sense of curiosity

If you like to figure things out in a challenging environment, then criminal justice may be the perfect career. However, cases may be very complex and take time to work through.

You can handle a heavy emotional load

While you will be helping people, at the same time, a lot of unpleasant things will weigh on your mind at times. However, if you are good at compartmentalizing your emotions and maintaining a good work-life balance, then criminal justice is a field you may thrive in.

There is a lot of petty crime out there, but serious, violent crimes can be hard to handle emotionally. As a criminal justice professional, there is only so much you can do to help in any situation. Justice can take a lot longer than anyone would like. It is easy to start questioning if you are doing enough or if there was something that you could have done differently to prevent something awful from occurring. It is natural to question oneself but doing it too much can affect your entire life. Learning to handle these thoughts is part of the job.

Determination, patience, and follow-through come naturally to you

It can take a while to resolve a situation. There may be a lot of pushbacks from many different parties as you pursue justice. The law may seem clearly defined, but it can get complicated fast with multiple parties involved. Lawyers, plaintiffs, defendants, victims, and more all have to be considered and treated with some level of respect. Even if a suspect’s guilt seems beyond a doubt, they still have the right to a trial and due process. This can be very frustrating, especially since many jurisdictions often have a backlog of cases.

Teamwork is practically your middle name

Working well with others is a necessity in criminal justice. You need to be able to set aside differences at times and focus on the major task at hand. Regardless of whether you like someone on a personal level, a certain degree of professional respect is something you will have to deal with regularly. Taking things too personally is not helpful.

In some positions, it will be on you to ensure a team stays organized and focused and resolves conflicts quickly. Professionals that show they can be real leaders will find they are much more likely to be considered for promotions and career advancement opportunities.

Great communication skills are essential in criminal justice

You need to be able to read, write, and speak clearly and in great detail. Even if you find that you are natural at public speaking, it is a good idea to brush up on your writing skills if pursuing a criminal justice career. Unclear communications can lead to a lot of hassle in a criminal justice case. This is especially true in complex cases where small details can make a huge difference to the outcome.

Writing reports and dealing with a lot of paperwork is a large part of many criminal justice jobs. Law enforcement officers, in particular, spend a lot of time writing reports and filling out forms to document even the most basic call they respond to.

You can empathize and relate to others well

Empathy is important. People need to know you are listening and can relate to them on some level. It is easier to get to the bottom of things and get the information you need if people are comfortable speaking to you and feel like you are on their side or, at the very least, considering their side of a conflict or other situation.

Experience of communicating with a variety of people will serve you well in the world of social justice. Over time these skills will get even better.

The prospect of dealing with dangerous situations is an acceptable daily risk for you

Some criminal justice jobs, such as law enforcement officer, mean you will be on the frontline when potentially dangerous situations arise. There is also the simple fact that even basic routine traffic stops and interactions can turn into dangerous situations. Officers on patrol are often alone, and backup can take some time to reach them, depending on their area.

Law enforcement officers must be prepared and willing to use force when necessary. While many officers have worked for years and never had to actually use their firearm, plenty have had to at least draw it to do their job. If you are uncomfortable with this prospect, a field position may not be the best fit for you.

You are open to working nontraditional hours

Some criminal justice jobs may require hours that are not the traditional 9-5 schedule with weekends off. This is especially true if you are just starting at a job. Over time you may be allowed to pick and choose your hours so that you are working a more traditional work schedule, but it is definitely not something you should count on in the beginning.

There may be times that you are required to be on call in case extra people are needed during an emergency. This means you have to be ready to go ASAP if you get a phone call from a colleague.

What are the most common jobs I can get with a criminal justice degree?

  • Law enforcement officer

Law enforcement officers start as rookie cops, but throughout their careers, they may be promoted or advance to other positions. Most detectives start as standard duty officers, for example. Typical duties include traffic stops, responding to various calls, providing backup to other responding officers, offering security services at public events, booking offenders, and completing a lot of paperwork related to cases. In addition, officers take a lot of phone calls from citizens that have questions about specific laws or want to discuss an ongoing case.

  • Parole officer

Parole officers may work with juvenile or adult offenders to offer support and help them stay on a path that keeps them from offending again. Parole officers are responsible for making an individual stick to the terms of their parole. If an offender breaks their parole agreement, the officer is bound by law to report it, so a warrant for arrest can be issued.

  • Forensic science technician

If the science behind solving a case is what really fascinates you, then a criminal justice degree can help you pursue your interest. Forensic science technician positions may be harder to find than positions in some areas of criminal justice, but there is still good demand. This is not a branch of justice for the squeamish or easily frightened. Processing crime scenes can be brutal. There is a big difference between what you see on tv and the real thing in front of you regularly.

  • Criminal investigator

Investigators gather and analyze evidence to build cases and see if they can be prosecuted in court. As an investigator, you may conduct interviews, collect statements, and work with forensic technicians and law enforcement officers to ensure a valid case against a suspect.

  • Homicide detective

In larger towns and cities, there is a need for detectives that specialize in investigating homicides. Detectives use many of the same techniques and resources as criminal investigators. As a homicide detective, you will be on the scene of murders and exposed to potentially gruesome scenes This job requires someone capable of handling the strong emotional load and being called out at odd hours.

Criminal justice degrees can be a starting point for pursuing a law degree

If your ultimate goal is to be a criminal lawyer, then an undergraduate degree in criminal justice can fulfill entrance requirements for law school in many cases. In addition, a law degree qualifies you to take the bar exam in the states you want to qualify to practice law in.

A degree can open the door to working in a choice of locations

There is great demand for criminal justice workers. It is common for municipalities to actively recruit for jobs far outside their region. This is partly due to some struggling to fill positions due to a lack of qualified candidates actively seeking positions.

Criminal justice can help get you where you want to be while providing a good salary, benefits, and long-term job security.

Criminology vs. criminal justice

While criminology and criminal justice have a lot in common, they are different. Criminology is the study of the criminal mind. Criminologists work to determine why a person commits a crime and develop ways to prevent others from committing crimes. For example, criminologists might be consulted when detectives are trying to put together a criminal profile of a suspect. Criminologists rely heavily on data and crime statistics on a macro and micro level to develop methods to prevent crime.

A criminologist offers suggestions on effective punishments for criminal activity and rehabilitation strategies. They can help other branches of the criminal justice system determine if a perpetrator is a good candidate for rehabilitation or if they are highly likely to re-offend regardless of rehabilitative efforts. Criminologists don’t work in the field in most cases.

At the same time, those with a criminology degree sometimes choose to pursue law enforcement and forensic careers that often take them out of the office.

Criminal justice typically refers to the various branches that make up the entire criminal justice system. This can include law enforcement, detectives, forensic technicians, court system employees, and more. A degree in criminal justice can be used as a start to a wide variety of careers or to satisfy the requirements to pursue an advanced degree in law or forensic psychology.

While students pursuing a criminal justice degree concentrate on how the law works and operates within it, criminology dives into the science behind the criminal mind and how to analyze and interpret data. For more information on the difference between criminology and criminal justice, click here.

The challenges of a job in criminal justice

While jobs within the criminal justice system are gratifying and fulfilling to many people, that does not mean there are no major challenges and disadvantages to choosing this career path. But, of course, that can be said about practically any occupation.

Working odd hours can be hard for those with families

Those with children at home may find childcare challenging if they work as law enforcement or security officers. Some jobs simply require being on call at odd hours or working shifts that make it difficult for those raising young children. Shifts can also pose difficulties for spouses, who often have to take on more childcare duties while working a job.

It can be hard not to carry a lot of emotional baggage home with you

Dealing with difficult and sometimes violent situations is hard to let go of just because your shift is over. Some jobs mean exposure to scenes of shocking violence. Decompressing can take time, and before you know it, you are back at work again, likely trying to resolve the situation you were trying to stop thinking about when you went home to your family.

People will treat you differently

With perceived and real power comes fear. People treat law enforcement and those that hold positions throughout the criminal justice system differently than others. You may find that friends and even some family are more cautious and aloof around you. They may have an unfounded fear that they will “let something slip”, and you will get them in trouble. When people do not feel they can be open and casual with you, they may drift away from your social circle.

You cannot talk about a lot of what you do at work

While others may chat a lot among friends and family about their workday, as a member of the criminal justice system, there are more things you cannot talk about than you can. At most, you might be able to talk in generalities. However, even talking to your partner or spouse may be something you can get in trouble for if it ever comes up.

There is also the fact that even if you can talk about some things, the unpleasantness of the topic may be enough that no one wants to hear about it. Violence, gore, and sad circumstances are not what people want to talk about all the time, even if you are helping others by finding and locking up violent offenders.

Personal safety issues are sometimes a problem

Some law enforcement officers make it a point to live in a different town or community than where they work. This avoids some of the potentials for conflict. It may be awkward to live close to someone who is a suspect in a criminal case you are working on.

Families of law enforcement officers, lawyers, etc., have been targeted for abuse or threats in the past, so putting some distance between work and home life can help prevent this.

Good home security is essential. While it is practically impossible in today’s age of cheap online people searches and background checks to hide home addresses, it is wise to take any steps you can to make your information as private as possible.


A career in the criminal justice system is a great choice for those that want to work in a challenging and exciting environment while helping the world be a better place. There are many different occupations within the criminal justice system, so there is a lot of potential for career advancement and growth.

A degree in criminal justice or criminology is a good way to get the education and credentials you need to get the best start in the criminal justice system.