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Top 10 careers in criminal justice

Criminal justice is a complex, integrated system of institutions tasked with maintaining public safety, deterring crime, punishing offenders and upholding the legal system. Diverse professional options exist within the field of criminal justice, spanning three major sectors: law, courts and corrections. Because of that diversity, identifying the best career opportunities among the hundreds of potential selections can be challenging at best for prospective criminal justice students.

In an effort to shine a spotlight on the best career prospects in criminal justice, we examined more than 20 occupations in the Law, Public Safety, Corrections and Security field — as defined by the Occupational Information Network, known as ONET — and ranked them on five factors. These data points, based on information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and ONET, include:

  • Median annual salary, 2014
  • Projected job growth, 2012-22
  • Number of new jobs due to growth and replacement, 2012-22
  • National employment level, 2014
  • Stressful Work Environment, which measures how frequently employees in each job need to deal with conflict and with unpleasant or angry people

Once the data was collected and analyzed, we used a weighted average that emphasized salary and career growth to determine the final scores and create our list of the 10 best criminal justice careers.

> Read our ranking methodology here

best criminal justice career lawyer

Lawyers — also called attorneys — provide legal representation and counsel to clients, including businesses, organizations, individuals, and government agencies. In their role, lawyers conduct legal research, represent clients in courtroom settings, prepare various legal documents, and more. In a diverse occupational field, lawyers may work as defense attorneys, prosecutors or in-house legal counsel, and they can also specialize in a specific area of law, such as environmental, criminal or intellectual property.

Proof it's hot

Earnings meets career diversity. It's long been known the legal industry is one with high-paying career opportunities. The 2013 median salary for lawyers was more than $114,000 in 2014, making it the top-paying job on our list. The earning potential continues to climb with experience, as lawyers in the top 25 percent of earners took home at least $169,880 in 2013.

In addition to annual pay, the diversity of the career is paramount, offering attorneys the chance to practice law across a spectrum of industries and specializations. This diversity also contributes to career growth opportunities, as there are expected to be more than 196,000 jobs for lawyers hiring between 2012 and 2022.

Career path

The educational route to becoming a lawyer is layered, requiring multiple years of study. The basic educational path is a bachelor's degree, followed by completing a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from an American Bar Association-accredited law school. Students should be prepared to commit at least seven years of study to complete both the undergraduate and law degree.

best criminal justice careers paralegal

Paralegals, also called legal assistants, are legal professionals who provide a variety of support services under the supervision of an attorney. Broadly speaking, they can perform a number of similar functions to attorneys — except those barred by legal statutes, such as providing legal advice or representing clients in a court of law. Typical responsibilities might include conducting legal research, performing client interviews, writing legal correspondence or attending trials.

Proof it's hot

Documented career demand. The paralegal profession is steadily growing, projected by the BLS to increase 16.7 percent nationally between 2012 and 2022. In addition to the solid career opportunities, paralegals also enjoy a stable income. The national median salary was more than $48,000 in 2013, and top earners took home more than $61,000.

Career path

There are multiple specialized training paths to becoming a paralegal. The three most common avenues include:

  • Professional certificate programs, which can last anywhere between three and 18 months (or more)
  • Associate degrees in paralegal studies
  • Post-graduate certificate for individuals who have completed a bachelor's degree in another field.

Once they're in the profession, paralegals can also pursue advanced certifications from the National Association for Legal Assistants or the National Federation for Paralegal Associations.

best criminal justice careers fire marshal

These supervisors — who might also be known as fire captains, fire chiefs and lieutenant firefighters, among other titles — manage how firefighters respond to emergencies. They might be responsible for instructing fire department employees in crucial daily duties, providing emergency medical services, or assessing the extent of a fire in order to figure out the best way for firefighters to approach it. It's a great combination of leadership and the high-energy, community service aspects of being a firefighter.

Proof it's hot

Basic education + high pay = a big draw. As with many supervisory roles, the pay here is a perk — fire marshals in the U.S. had a median salary of more than $70,000 in 2014, according to the BLS. The projected job growth (6 percent) is below the national average but still solid, with more than 30,000 jobs expected to be filled between 2012 and 2022.

Career path

There isn't a high level of education required to progress to this role; these managers may have a high school diploma or post-secondary certification — though ONET reports that nearly 20 percent of them have an associate degree. What's important here is on-the-job training and work experience to develop the skills and experience necessary to make decisions in a crisis.

best criminal justice careers detective

Investigators provide an array of services, such as conducting background checks, conducting surveillance, validating income of employment information and performing research of public records, among other duties. They can work in the public sector as police detectives, or as private detectives or investigators, such as arson investigators, who either assist law enforcement or take on their own clients.

Proof it's hot

Job opportunities and solid growth. Investigators earned a national median salary of nearly $46,000 in 2013, with starting salaries in the $37,000 range. Coupled with 11.2 percent job growth across the country between 2012 and 2022, it's a career worth checking out — particularly for aspiring criminal justice professionals who want to work in the private sector.

Career path

There's not just one avenue to the investigator profession. A high school diploma or GED is considered the basic educational requirement, but depending on the field of practice (for instance, computer forensics or financial services), an associate or bachelor's degree in criminal justice or a related field may be required. In addition, prior experience in law enforcement can prove useful for those who are trying to establish their own business.

best criminal justice careers firefighter

Firefighters serve as first responders to emergencies, helping extinguish fires, attending to individuals at accident scenes, and rescuing those in dangerous or emergency situations. They typically serve in on-call positions at fire stations, tasked with maintaining equipment, providing public education to the community, performing practice drills and more.

Proof it's hot

Income growth is key. The starting salary for a firefighter may be between $22,000 and $31,000, depending on where you live. But this is an occupation that rewards experience: The median annual wage in 2014 was more than $45,000, and the highest-paid 10 percent of firefighters nationally made more than $81,000 that year. That's an increase of more than 260 percent (!) over a potential starting salary of $22,000.

Career path

Although a high school diploma or GED is generally considered the basic educational requirement, firefighters usually receive industry- and profession-based training at a fire academy. The rules and regulations for acceptance to those academics vary by local jurisdiction. Some firefighting companies have candidates serve in apprenticeships, while others may require prospective firefighters to have an undergraduate degree.

best criminal justice careers patrol officer

Patrol officers are the backbone of local protective services in communities throughout the U.S. They can be considered generalists — enforcing laws, responding to emergencies and pursuing those who break the law. Broadly, patrol officers (sometimes known as police or sheriff's patrol officers) may work in different areas such as traffic or investigations, depending on their interest and experience, as well as on the needs of their department.

Proof it's hot

Strong starting salaries and career openings, with the satisfaction of serving a local community. The median annual wage for police and sheriff's patrol officers was $56,810 in 2014, according to the BLS, but that jumps more than 62 percent to $92,450 for the highest-paid 10 percent of employees. In addition to salaries above the national average, at least 245,000 new patrol officer positions are expected to be needed nationally between 2012 and 2022.

Career path

The process for becoming a patrol officer varies, depending on local regulations. Typically speaking, the minimum educational requirement is a high school diploma or GED. Practical, hands-on preparatory training takes place at training academies for local police departments. Candidates must be U.S. citizens, meet specific qualifications and generally must be at least 21 years old to qualify for candidacy at a training academy. Some academies may also require prospective cadets to have completed some college or hold a college degree.

best criminal justice careers police lieutenant

Like fire marshals and firefighters, these personnel managers are responsible for the police officers who help protect society. Police lieutenants — who might also be known as detective sergeants, captains or even chiefs of police, depending on the structure of their department — are responsible for supervising investigations, working with officials from other law enforcement agencies and court personnel, and directing the handling of department records.

Proof it's hot

Good pay and good employment prospects. The median annual salary for police and detective supervisors was $80,930 in 2014, and the highest-paid 25 percent nationally took home more than $100,000. And although this job doesn't have the highest-projected growth rate, employment opportunities are likely to be steady, with more than 104,000 jobs expected to be filled between 2012 and 2022.

Career path

This is a job that relies on experience in addition to education, so the first step to this supervisory role is to become a police officer and start gaining on-the-job experience. This means meeting the minimum requirements for entering a police academy and passing any necessary exams before beginning your work. But higher education can be helpful as well: ONET reports that 23 percent of these police supervisors have a bachelor's degree, and 27 percent have an associate degree.

best criminal justice careers case worker

These public servants — also known as child, family or school social workers, depending on their focus — help people solve problems in their day-to-day lives. Some work with children or families in the foster care system, while others might focus on the justice system, helping juvenile or adult offenders find resources and reintegrate into society. Others advise teachers, provide counseling and support to students, or help schools manage social problems such as bullying.

Proof it's hot

Job growth, job growth, job growth. These social workers are expected to see national growth of 15.1 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to the BLS. That's above the national average and ranks in the top 10 percent of jobs in our study, and it translates to more than 103,000 jobs needed to be filled during that decade.

Career path

A college degree is the first step to a career in social work. Some professionals specifically have a bachelor's in social work (BSW), while others major in a related subject, like sociology or psychology. Clinical social workers often need a master's degree in social work (MSW), as well as supervised work experience. All states require their social workers to be licensed, but those rules vary by state, so it's wise to check with your state licensing board while pursuing your education in order to make sure you meet any necessary requirements.

best criminal justice careers court reporter

Court reporters are on the front lines of the justice system without having to spend several years pursuing a law degree. These professionals attend trials, depositions and other legal proceedings and create word-for-word transcripts of the events. They may also be responsible for capturing nonverbal communications, such as gestures, or provide real-time translations in public forums for individuals who are hard of hearing.

Proof it's hot

Solid earning potential and a happy environment. Court reporters made a median national salary of $59,860 in 2014, per the BLS, and the highest-paid 10 percent made more than $94,000. Those are great salary numbers — especially when you consider that this job requires less formal education than other criminal justice careers. This job also scored in the top 10 percent of the Stressful Work Environment category, showing it's possible to work in the legal system without having to deal with constant conflict.

Career path

Formal training is a must for this job, if only to learn how to use specialized equipment like stenography machines. Most court reporters go through community colleges or technical institutes for their training, the BLS reports, and the programs can lead to either a certification or an associate degree. Some states also require court reporters to be certified or licensed in order to work in specific legal settings. State boards and professional organizations like the National Court Reporters Association can help aspiring professionals figure it out.

best criminal justice careers security guard

Security guards monitor and protect property from vandalism, theft and other illegal activities. They might be employed in banks, office buildings, art galleries, hospitals and government buildings, among other possibilities. Some security guards are armed, others are not, but all help keep people and places safe. In emergencies, these guards are most likely to call the police or fire department to step in, but they play an important role in security nonetheless.

Proof it's hot

Flexibility, and strong employment possibilities. The projected job growth between 2012 and 2022 is expected to be 12.1 percent nationally, the BLS reports, which is above average. In addition, more than 294,000 jobs are expected to open up for security guards during that period, which gives professionals a lot of flexibility when it comes to geography and their type of employment.

Career path

While just a high school diploma may be enough for some security guards, the BLS reports that sometimes employers prefer to hire guards who have completed some higher education, like an associate or bachelor's degree in criminal justice. Certain states recommend specific training and require that security guards be registered in-state; firearms training will also most likely be required for armed security guards.

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Methodology

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For this analysis, we defined ‘Criminal Justice Careers’ as belonging to the “Law, Public Safety, Corrections and Security” career cluster, as defined by the Occupational Information Network (ONET), with some exceptions (explained below under “Sample Size”). This resulted in 31 careers to rank.

For each career, we ranked the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and ONET data listed below on a 10-point scale, and then obtained a total ranking score across all data based on the weights specified:

1. Median annual salary, May 2014 (weight=30%)
2. Projected job growth percentage, 2012-22 (weight =15%)
3. Number of new jobs due to growth and replacement needs, 2012-22 (weight = 15%)
4. Number of people employed in each occupation, May 2014 (weight = 20%)
5. Stressful work environment (weight = 20%)

For items 1 through 4, each career was scored based on which 10th percentile increment its salary, job growth, new jobs or employment fell into. The scores were given as follows:

  • 10th percentile or below = 1 point
  • 11th to 20th percentile  = 2 points
  • 21st to 30th percentile = 3 points
  • 31st to 40th percentile = 4 points
  • 41st to 50th percentile = 5 points
  • 51st to 60th percentile = 6 points
  • 61st to 70th percentile  = 7 points
  • 71st to 80th percentile =  8 points
  • 81st to 90th percentile = 9 points
  • 91st to 100th percentile = 10 points

The Stressful Work Environment factor is based on the following two Work Context data from the ONET survey of people employed in each profession:

Deal with Unpleasant or Angry People:  How frequently does the worker have to deal with unpleasant, angry, or discourteous individuals as part of the job requirement?

Frequency of Conflict Situations: How often are there conflict situations the employee has to face in this job?

Each of these Work Context questions has five possible answers, and 5-point scale ranking was assigned to each question as follows:

  • Every day = 1 point
  • Once a week or more but not every day = 2 points
  • Once a month or more but not every week = 3 points
  • Once a year or more but not every month = 4 points
  • Never = 5 points

To calculate the score for each of these two work context question, the percentage of survey respondents who gave each answer was multiplied by the point value listed above, and the two resulting scores were averaged together. To get the final 10-point scale Stressful Work Environment score, the previously mentioned average score is then divided into ten 10th percentile increments with each interval getting a ranking score of 1-10.

Sample Size

Our sample contains 31 criminal justice careers, all belonging to the Law, Public Safety, Corrections and Security career cluster in ONET. The following exclusions were made in our ranking analysis:

Education career exclusion: 4 careers were excluded from the sample size because they were jobs in education, not criminal justice.

BLS data exclusion: 5 careers were excluded from the sample size because the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect separate salary, job growth or employment level data for them.

ONET survey data combination: Because ONET breaks up career classifications in more detail, 11 granular careers were combined into the appropriate higher level job-classification groupings. (For example, work context data for Municipal Firefighters and Forest Firefighters were combined into Firefighters.)

ONET survey data exclusion: Four careers were excluded from the sample size because they didn’t have detailed Work Context data in ONET.

Sources:
1. ONET OnLine, Occupational Information Network, http://www.onetonline.org/
2. Occupational Employment Statistics: May 2014 Occupation Profiles, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed March 25, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_stru.htm
3. "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/