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Best Online Degree Programs in Criminal Justice

Oct 20, 2021

Online Criminal Justice Degree Overview

An online degree in criminal justice prepares students for a variety of careers within the justice system. Criminal justice specifically refers to the system of law enforcement, courts, and corrections. Students will study the systems and procedures that are used within the criminal justice system while also exploring the judicial process. They will also study laws, rules, and regulations relating to the United States criminal justice system. Those who study criminal justice have gone on to become victim advocates, corrections officers, law enforcement officers, security officials, and lawyers.

Online Associate Degrees in Criminal Justice

Online Associate of Arts Degrees in Criminal Justice are often designed to lead to entry-level jobs or to transfer to full bachelor's degree programs. Some community colleges offer associate degree programs in criminal justice, though they are not always online. However, many institutions, not just community colleges, offer online associate degrees in criminal justice. In an associate degree program, students study the criminal justice system and specific topics within the field including criminology, psychological profiling, and forensics. These programs teach the foundational skills needed to succeed in the criminal justice system. Most associate degree programs can be completed within two years and many are available fully online.

Online Bachelor's Degrees in Criminal Justice

There are two degrees offered for criminal justice bachelor programs. They are a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Criminal Justice and a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Criminal Justice. Different institutions offer different degrees. The key difference between the two types of criminal justice programs is that a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice focuses more on forensics and the science in the criminal justice field. Online bachelor's degrees in criminal justice are fairly common and can be completed within four years or after completing 120 credits. Students will learn about the technologies and trends of criminal justice agencies, how to communicate effectively, the criminal justice system, laws and how to apply them, and will examine human motivation and human behavior. Some bachelor programs offer credit for those who have already completed law enforcement training, including basic police, corrections, probation, or parole academy training. Students who have completed their bachelor's in criminal justice may choose to go into the workforce or go on to pursue their master's in criminology or criminal justice.

Online Master's Degrees in Criminal Justice

Like online bachelor's degrees, online master's degrees in criminal justice are relatively common. They can be either a Master of Arts (MA) in Criminal Justice or a Master of Science (MS) in Criminal Justice. These programs provide roughly the same education; however, an MS degree may focus more on the mathematical and forensic side of criminal justice. A master's degree typically takes 1-2 years to complete. Students who pursue a master's degree in criminal justice will develop critical thinking and analysis skills that can be applied to real-world criminal justice-related issues.

Online Doctoral Degrees in Criminal Justice

While online doctoral degrees in criminal justice are less common, there are still a few available. These programs often are designed to help criminal justice professionals take their careers to the next level or to prepare them for a new career in academia. A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Criminal Justice prepares students with the skills needed to solve complex issues in both the public and private sectors. Some online programs require on-campus residencies in order to complete the degree.

Online Certificates in Criminal Justice

While not as common as master's and bachelor's programs, there are a few universities that offer a Graduate Certificate in Criminal Justice online. These programs are designed for those who are involved in policy-making positions within the criminal justice sector and professionals whose work bisects the criminal justice field, including social workers, public health professionals, journalists, and mental health practitioners. Graduate certificate programs teach their students how to understand, analyze, and resolve issues within the criminal justice system. Graduate certificate programs traditionally take less than a year to complete.

Criminal Justice Specializations/Concentrations

There are many concentrations within the criminal justice field. Different universities offer a variety of different concentrations that include, but are not limited to, crime scene investigations, homeland security, forensic psychology, juvenile justice, corrections, criminology, police administration and operations, and human services and advocacy. Concentrations help to specify a degree more thoroughly and work to help students develop the skills needed for their career.

Curriculum/Coursework for a Criminal Justice Degree

The curriculum and coursework for a criminal justice degree is entirely dependent on the university and the concentrations that they offer. However, many core courses for a criminal justice degree are universal. Here are some common courses offered by a number of different institutions.

  • Introduction to Criminal Justice
  • Cultural Awareness in Criminal Justice
  • Criminal Procedure
  • Criminology
  • Criminal Investigation

For those who are interested in criminal justice but may not be willing to fully commit to a degree, there are free criminal justice courses and training programs available.

How Long Does it Take to Get an Online Bachelor's in Criminal Justice?

Typically, it takes four years to complete an online bachelor's in criminal justice when enrolled as a student full-time. It will take longer to complete a bachelor's program as a part-time student, but many schools do offer it as an option. Some schools even have an accelerated track which allows students to work at their own pace. These programs do not have traditional meeting times, but rather allow the students to do the coursework when they can, before a specific due date.

Accreditation for Online Bachelor's in Criminal Justice Degrees

Accreditation is extremely important. Accreditation means that schools are being held to specific academic standards. Accreditation can be regional, national, and by program. Accreditation at the regional and national levels is extremely important because, without it, schools and students would be unable to apply for financial aid. Going to a non-regionally or non-nationally accredited school can have an impact on future employment opportunities as well.

Programs can also be accredited by a licensed accrediting agency. For criminal justice, the Academy of Criminal Justice Science is an accrediting agency that holds each of the programs to academic standards. While it is not required for a program to be specifically accredited, it does appeal to future employers.

Criminal Justice Licensure & Certification

There are a number of certifications that graduates of criminal justice degree programs can apply for. These are a few certifications that can help to improve job prospects or allow for more opportunities within a person's current job:

  • Certified Protection Professional (CPP) - The CPP is one of the top certifications a person can earn in security management on a global level. The exam for the CPP takes four hours to complete and has between 200 and 225 questions.
  • Criminal Justice Addictions Professionals (CCJP) - The CCJP is a growing credential in addiction-related behavioral health care. There are 27 US states/territories that offer a joint CCJP credential. This credential requires professionals to showcase their knowledge through experience, supervision, education, and passing score on an exam.

Criminal Justice Career Information

A criminal justice degree has a large number of careers and possibilities for students. Those who are interested in the psychology of criminal justice can go on to become a forensic psychologist, a criminal investigator, or a police officer. Other degree options for those with criminal justice degrees can be detectives (which is one of the highest paying jobs for those degree holders), financial examiners, lawyers, and fish and game wardens.

How to Become a Criminal Justice Lawyer

Many with an interest in criminal justice go on to become criminal justice lawyers. This career choice involves schooling beyond the undergraduate level. Those who wish to become criminal justice lawyers have to go to law school and pass the bar exam. Criminal justice lawyers work to represent defendants who have been accused of criminal misconduct. They are most commonly referred to as defense attorneys. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not have specific data on criminal justice or defense lawyers, but does have career data on lawyers. In 2019, according to BLS, lawyers made, on average, $122,960. The job outlook for lawyers from 2019-2029 is projected to grow by 4%.

How to Become a Detective

While education requirements for police officers depend on their roles, most departments want their detectives to be college-educated. In order to become a detective, a person must first become a police officer. Many states require completion of some form of police academy training and must meet physical standards of fitness. They may also consider additional education or certification. Eventually, after gaining the experience and proving that they are right for the job, a person can be promoted to detective. On average, detectives and criminal investigators made $83,170 in 2019 according to the BLS. The police and detective fields are projected to grow by 5% by 2029.

Financial Aid and Scholarship Information for Criminal Justice Degrees

Before each school year begins, prospective students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Federal aid eligibility is determined through this application. States and colleges also use the FAFSA data to award their own aid. After the prospective student accepts the aid offer, the financial aid office at their school will apply the aid to the amount owed to the school. The remaining balance will be sent back to the student to use on other college costs.

There are a few different types of aid available. Grants and scholarships are both forms of aid that do not need to be paid back. Grants are offered on a need basis, while scholarships are available with the application. Work-study programs allow students to work part-time in order to pay for school. There are different types of loans available: direct subsidized loans, direct unsubsidized loans, direct PLUS loans, and direct consolidation loans. All of these loans must be paid back with any interest that accrues.

How to Choose a Criminal Justice School & Bachelor's Program

There are many different things to consider when applying to schools. Some of those considerations are cost, program, job placement rate, and accreditation. Something key to criminal justice degrees to consider is: does the school offer the specific concentration the student wishes to pursue? This is important as the criminal justice field is vast and specialization can appeal to future employers.

Professional Organizations in Criminal Justice

There are many professional organizations in criminal justice to join. These organizations are primarily career-focused. These organizations offer networking opportunities, opportunities for further education, and appeals to employers as it shows activity in the field.

These are a few different professional organizations for those in criminal justice-related fields:

  • The American Correctional Association (ACA) - The ACA has been around for more than 149 years and throughout that time has been an advocate for corrections and correctional effectiveness.
  • Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) - The ACJS is an international association that was founded to endorse criminal justice education, policy analysis, and research. ACJS is for both educators and practitioners.
  • The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) - The AAFS attempts to promote education and research within the forensic sciences and works to improve the practice. Its members include pathologists, attorneys, digital evidence experts, toxicologists, anthropologists, document examiners, criminalists, and others.
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