An online associate degree in criminal justice prepares graduates for careers in law enforcement, corrections, and the legal system. Many of these fields offer lucrative pay, benefits, and growing employment demand.
For example, police officers earn an annual median salary of $63,380. Further, while more than 800,000 officers and detectives currently work in the field, another 53,000 officers are expected to join the ranks through 2026. Likewise, paralegals and legal assistants can expect 15% employment growth through 2026, with an annual median wage of $50,940.
Earning an accredited associate degree prepares you to tackle the challenges of these careers, take on leadership positions, or prepare you for continued study.
Your online associate degree in criminal justice includes courses in the American judicial system, theories and principles of crime prevention, and entry-level courses in criminal investigation and procedures. General education courses ensure a well-rounded education that promotes communication skills and critical thinking. If available, capstone courses also allow students to apply what they have learned through an internship or practicum.
Most associate degrees require 60 credits and about two years to complete. Many schools offer transfer credit for professional or military experience, which can shorten the time necessary to complete your degree.
Students learn how the U.S. legal system organizes its court system. Among other topics, they consider local courtrooms; the U.S. Supreme Court; and the role of judges, lawyers, and juries. Reading assignments include the basis for U.S. law from common law and the Constitution. The course covers civil and criminal courts and the theory of judicial precedent for decision making. Assignments include case research.
The course covers the role of police in society and basic policing terminology. Students discuss the history of law enforcement and various reform efforts and innovations through American history. Course assignments may explore current challenges of policing, such as the use of force and discretion.
This course delves into issues of law enforcement and minority groups from a historical and contemporary perspective. Students evaluate data to determine if disparities exist in policing or judicial action and discuss the reasons for those disparities. Through class discussions, writing assignments, and research projects, students evaluate identified issues and possible solutions.
This course offers an introduction to the legal and ethical responsibilities of law enforcement professionals. Case studies and current events provide opportunities to discuss ethical dilemmas with which law enforcement officials grapple. Assignments include class discussion participation, essays, and exams.
This course covers procedures and techniques to secure a crime scene and document evidence. Students learn to collect and handle physical evidence properly and ensure the chain of evidence. They gain an understanding of forensic science and identify sources of information. Students also discuss their legal and ethical responsibilities and limits on crime scene investigation.
In addition to exploring the U.S. legal system and fundamental investigative procedures, an online associate degree in criminal justice equips students with communication, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skills. Students demonstrate their ability through class discussions and critical analysis of research, statistics, and case studies.
Criminal justice professionals must communicate in writing or verbally with many individuals. Paralegals must write clear briefs of legal issues. Police officers must document their work thoroughly, and they often interview victims and suspects as part of their investigations.
Criminal justice professionals seek out information from sources to develop theories of a crime, determine legal ramifications, and/or evaluate applicable statutes. Independent research projects build a student's ability to synthesize information from multiple sources.
Individuals working in the criminal justice system must adhere to a strict code of professional conduct, which not only ensures that evidence or testimony holds up in court, but also helps build strong community and interpersonal relationships.
Law enforcement officials need to be aware of their surroundings and able to spot people or items that might pose a threat and anticipate possible actions. Individuals working in law firms or conducting legal research must identify relevant cases, legal precedents, and/or trial strategies.
Your online associate criminal justice degree not only prepares you for exciting careers in law enforcement and the legal field, but it also serves as the first step on your educational journey. Below, learn more about potential jobs and earnings. Many law enforcement careers anticipate employment growth over the next several years, such as forensic science technicians and paralegals, with projections of 17% and 15% growth through 2026.
Online criminal justice associate degree programs equip graduates with in-demand knowledge and skills of the judicial system. Graduates work throughout the legal system, with jobs available in a variety of industries. Law enforcement officers and correctional officers may work with local or state governments. Security guards or paralegals may work with private companies. Individuals may also work in courtrooms, assist judges, or help nonprofit organizations advocate for individuals within the legal system.
A degree can yield career advancement, allowing individuals to take on greater responsibility in their current job or move into management and leadership positions.
Average Annual Salary: $63,380
Police officers protect and serve the public by patrolling areas, enforcing laws, and arresting suspects. They respond to emergencies, gather evidence, and interview witnesses to possible crimes. While many officers serve as patrol officers, others specialize in specific law enforcement units, such as drugs or special weapons and tactics.
Average Annual Salary: $44,400
Correctional officers ensure the safety of inmates held in jails or prisons. They supervise inmates, search and seize contraband, and transport inmates for court hearings. Correctional officers need a high school diploma and specialized training often offered by a state academy. An associate degree combined with experience may qualify individuals for jobs with federal or state facilities.
Average Annual Salary: $58,230
These technicians gather and document evidence at crime scenes that aids in investigations. They must ensure they follow procedures for collecting and storing evidence. They perform scientific analysis of samples that can help solve crimes. Many times, they must testify at trial regarding their work.
Average Annual Salary: $28,530
Security guards work in a variety of locations like stores, office buildings, casinos, and communities. They help protect people and property by controlling access, providing regular surveillance, and monitoring alarms. They often act as the liaison to police and emergency services during an emergency and must keep a record of their activities.
Average Annual Salary: $50,940
Paralegals work under the supervision of an attorney to investigate cases, research laws and court opinions, and file exhibits or other legal documents. They use computer software to organize their work and conduct their research. Paralegals may work in law offices, corporate legal departments, or court systems.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Continued education leads to increased job opportunities, professional advancement, and career specializations. Individuals looking to work with federal law enforcement agencies often need specialized training beyond an associate degree. For instance, the education for correctional officers continues to evolve as efforts to reform criminal justice focus on rehabilitation.
Students should explore their long-term career plans and evaluate how a four-year degree or additional training can translate to promotions, higher earning potential, or the ability to transition to a new career.
The best online colleges for an associate degree in criminal justice anticipate students continuing their education with a bachelor's degree. They may maintain articulation agreements with four-year colleges or provide transfer assistance. Students should ensure their school holds regional accreditation and keep up their grades to ease the transfer process. Some schools only award transfer credit for courses where you earn a grade of "C" or higher.
Working closely with your academic advisor also ensures you complete the prerequisite courses and general education requirements before transferring to a bachelor's program.
You have multiple options for continuing your education after earning an online associate degree in criminal justice. Consider concentrations or specializations in areas of juvenile justice, family violence, homeland security, criminology, or law. Many schools also offer certificate programs that build on the knowledge gained in an associate program. These require less time to complete than a four-year degree.
A bachelor's degree in criminal justice explores functions of law enforcement, theories of prevention, and research in law enforcement statistics. The credentials also lead to careers in counseling, forensics, and mediation. Most degrees require 120 credits.
Tasked with maintaining order and ensuring the safety of inmates, correctional officers also need an understanding of the criminal justice system, applicable laws, and theories of rehabilitation. A four-year degree or certificate program offers specialized training in areas of addiction treatment, non-lethal force, or operations.
While many law enforcement careers only require a high school degree and on-the-job training, promotion opportunities often mandate additional education. Many departments also look favorably on military experience. Several organizations offer schools that specialize in law enforcement with a focus on leadership, principles of crime prevention, advanced special weapons and tactics, or school resource officer training.
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