By pursuing a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, you can prepare for occupations in law enforcement, legal studies, and social work and advocacy. Most bachelor's programs require at least 120 credits of coursework, which full-time students complete in four years. You can graduate up to two years faster by enrolling in an accelerated, online track. Earning an associate degree in criminal justice can help you gain entry to the field if you plan to work and pursue your bachelor's simultaneously.

A typical criminal justice curriculum includes classes in criminology, the U.S. judicial system, and alternative rehabilitation strategies, as well as an internship and capstone project. By going on to earn a master's degree or even a doctoral credential, you can access higher-paying career opportunities in leadership and academia.

This guide provides information on online criminal justice degrees, including accreditation, concentration options, and general admission requirements. It also includes an overview of career options in the field and a list of resources for criminal justice students.

What are the best Criminal Justice programs of 2020? Here are our top 10:

Rank School Location
1 Colorado State University Global Campus Greenwood Village, CO
2 University of South Florida Tampa, FL
3 Arizona State University-Skysong Scottsdale, AZ
4 Trine University Fort Wayne, IN
5 University of Central Florida Orlando, FL
6 Florida International University Miami, FL
7 Indiana University-East Richmond, IN
8 William Jessup University Rocklin, CA
9 Mississippi College Clinton, MS
10 California Baptist University Riverside, CA

What Is Criminal Justice?

Criminal justice is the system that identifies, apprehends, determines the guilt or innocence of, incarcerates, and rehabilitates alleged and convicted criminals. The system consists of three major parts: law enforcement, the courts, and corrections. Professionals in this field shape public policy and oversee the application of justice. Criminology, by contrast, is the scientific study of criminal behavior at individual and societal levels.

You can learn more about criminal justice by consulting the guide linked below, which provides information on the 25 best online criminal justice degree programs. The page also includes an interview with a professional in the field.

What are the best online criminal justice degree programs?

What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Criminal Justice?

All criminal justice careers are based on a single principle: protecting people and property by upholding the law. Law enforcement careers include police officer, private investigator, and probation officer. On the legal side, criminal justice graduates can work as legal assistants or paralegals.

Police and Detectives

Police officers protect property and people. Detectives collect evidence. Both jobs can be rewarding but also physically demanding and stressful. Police officers may experience injury or job-related illnesses. Some municipalities require that candidates for police and detective positions hold a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

Median Annual Salary: $63,380

Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 5%

Private Detectives and Investigators

Private detectives and investigators offer many background research services regarding personal, financial, and legal matters. They verify statements and personal information, investigate computer crimes, and search for missing people. In most states, the educational requirement for a private detective or investigator license is just a high school diploma. Holding a bachelor's degree, however, demonstrates a higher level of expertise to clients.

Median Annual Salary: $50,090

Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 8%

Paralegals and Legal Assistants

Legal assistants and paralegals assist lawyers by performing legal research, organizing files, and creating documents. Most work for law firms. They may work long hours to meet court and legal deadlines. Some firms only hire paralegals and legal assistants with at least a bachelor's degree.

Median Annual Salary: $50,940

Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 12%

Emergency Management Director

Emergency management directors develop plans and implement procedures for dealing with natural and human-made disasters. They evaluate potential hazards and prepare strategies to minimize risks to people and property. These directors also organize emergency response training programs and work with public officials to allocate resources during a crisis. In the aftermath of a disaster, they evaluate operational plans to improve emergency response the next time.

Median Annual Salary: $74,420

Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 5%

Probation Officer and Correctional Treatment Specialist

These criminal justice professionals support the rehabilitation of law offenders on probation, parole, and in custody. Probation officers oversee drug screenings and utilize electronic monitoring to ensure that offenders do not pose a risk to communities. Correctional treatment specialists create rehabilitation plans for probationers, parolees, and inmates. They also negotiate the release of inmates.

Median Annual Salary: $53,020

Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 6%

You can access the complete career page linked below for more information on opportunities available to those who earn an online bachelor's in criminal justice. The career guide also details employment prospects by location, salary potential for different careers, and professional development resources.

Criminal Justice Career Guide

What to Expect in a Criminal Justice Program

Criminal justice programs include courses that provide core knowledge of the criminal justice system, the legal system, and criminology. Many also allow you to select a concentration to delve deeper into an area of interest.

Criminal Justice Concentrations

Crime Scene Investigation
A crime scene investigation concentration focuses on the principles of analyzing and collecting crime scene evidence. Students learn appropriate techniques for establishing the boundaries of a crime scene, searching for different types of evidence, and identifying forensic materials.
Homeland Security
Specializing in homeland security prepares students for career opportunities related to preventing terrorism and securing the country's borders. Topics include the history and origin of terrorism, conflict resolution, crisis negotiation, and disaster preparedness and management.
Forensic Psychology
A concentration in forensic psychology allows learners to explore psychology in the context of the criminal justice system, including factors that influence criminal behavior. Students learn strategies for interacting with criminals and crime victims who may have mental health challenges.
Law Enforcement
A law enforcement concentration focuses on criminal law and introduces students to important Supreme Court cases involving various laws, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Classes explore issues like community policing, public expectations, and civil liability. Students also learn how law enforcement organizations operate.
Juvenile Justice
This concentration explore topics like case management for juvenile offenders, crime prevention programs, sentencing, and relationship building with juveniles and their families.

Criminal Justice Courses

Most criminal justice programs offer similar core classes, including criminal investigation, crime prevention, forensic psychology, and ethics in criminal justice. The courses below represent a sample curriculum.

Criminal Investigation
This class provides an introduction to the theory and practice of investigating crimes, including crime scene preservation, the legal importance of evidence, preparation for criminal cases, and courtroom presentations. Students also learn about crime scene photography, scene reconstruction, and interviewing techniques.
Criminal Law for Criminal Justice
Here, students learn about the different categories of crime: personal, property, inchoate (incomplete crimes such as solicitation), and statutory. They also explore various criminal defense strategies.
Crime Prevention
This course focuses on primary crime prevention and covers subjects like community policing, deterrence, the role of the community, environmental design, and rehabilitation.
Research Methods in Criminal Justice
Students in this class explore the fundamentals of conducting research in the criminal justice field. Topics covered include research design, qualitative and quantitative methodologies, data collection techniques, and research ethics. At the end of the course, learners submit a criminal justice research project.
Applied Criminal Justice Ethics
This class covers ethics and morality in the context of the criminal justice system. Drawing on historical and contemporary perspectives, students explore issues like the law enforcement code of ethics, evaluating noble cause corruption, and other ethical issues.

Interview with Larissa Nonni

Larissa Nonni

Larissa Nonni

Law Clerk, Castro Legal Group

Larissa Nonni graduated with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice in 2009 from Monroe College in New Rochelle, NY. She is currently in her third year of law school and works at an immigration law firm.

How did your criminal justice bachelor's degree help prepare you for your career and for law school?

Well, since high school I wanted to be an attorney but I didn't want to do criminal law because I just felt like it was too cliché. So I pursued criminal justice because I wanted to understand the law enforcement side before I looked into the law side. In that regard, it helped me be more aware of the law enforcement side of things, and now in law school I realize how they both intertwine and how they need one another and play off of each other. This includes how in a criminal case, a problematic arrest can destroy a case, how someone's environment plays a real role in their upbringing, especially when looking at criminal cases, and how as prosecutors, understanding that can give you a greater power in how to help defendants and what plea deals would be more beneficial to society.

What types of skills did you develop in your criminal justice bachelor's program?

I would say psychological skills. I had criminology and victimology and those two classes were really helpful in understanding people in general, which goes back to the effects of environment in upbringing and how that affects people's choices later on in life when it relates to crime. Also, my criminal justice program helped me develop my critical thinking skills. When you study these subjects, your way of thinking changes because you see people differently, which really helps me in my job now; I am able to look at different components and see how they played a bigger role in what we are dealing with today.

What advice would you give to bachelor's graduates seeking a career in the field of criminal justice?

I would say that now-a-days, a bachelor's is not enough if you want higher-up jobs. Make sure you research what you are really interested in in the field so that you know whether you will need to get a master's after and if it's really worth it to you. The job market is available for those that research and go after it.

Meet More of our Experts

How to Choose a Criminal Justice Program

When choosing a bachelor's in criminal justice program, you should consider program length, curriculum, cost, location, and available specializations.

Several factors determine how quickly you can complete your degree, including whether you want to attend full time or part time or take summers off. Some online criminal justice programs offer fast-track options that allow you to either take more classes concurrently or advance from one course to the next as soon as you've mastered the concepts.

You should research the curriculum at each school, including thesis and final project requirements and practicum or other direct experience opportunities. If you plan to specialize your career, make sure your school offers your desired concentration or related classes. You should also consider programmatic accreditation.

Accreditation for Bachelor's in Criminal Justice Programs

In general, students are best served by attending a regionally accredited college or university. Regional accreditation indicates that a school is regularly assessed and evaluated according to minimum quality standards. Attending a school with regional accreditation makes it easier to qualify for financial aid and to transfer your academic credit to another institution. Finally, some employers hire only candidates who graduated from a regionally accredited school.

Discover your school's regional accreditation status through the U.S. Department of Education's accreditation database.

Bachelor's in Criminal Justice Admission Requirements

The admissions process varies by school and program. Most colleges require students to have earned a minimum GPA. Typically, the more competitive the school, the higher the GPA requirement. Some less competitive schools require only a high school diploma or GED. Other common admission requirements include official academic transcripts, letters of recommendation, test scores, and essays. Online programs often provide a more simplified approach to admissions than on-campus programs.


  • Minimum GPA: Many schools require applicants to hold a minimum 3.0 GPA. In some cases, you can offset this requirement by demonstrating excellence in another area.

Admission Materials

  • Application: The amount of time it takes to complete an application varies. One way to save time includes using The Common Application, which allows you to apply to multiple schools at once.
  • Transcripts: Every college application asks prospective students to submit school transcripts. You must request transcripts from all former schools by contacting the records office. You can often accomplish this online for a nominal fee.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Ask for letters of recommendation from people who know you well and can speak to your strengths, such as teachers, coaches, and managers. Most applications ask for three letters. Give your letter writers at least two months to write the letters.
  • Test Scores: Most colleges ask applicants to submit ACT or SAT test scores, although many schools now waive this request. An admissible score varies. In many cases, you do not need a specific score; instead, the admissions office looks at your score in relation to the rest of your application for consideration.
  • Application Fee: College application fees vary but usually fall around $40. Some colleges waive application fees for students with demonstrable financial need.

Resources for Criminal Justice Students

Bureau of Justice Statistics

The BJS website contains extensive criminal justice information from the U.S. government, including collections, reports, data analysis tools, funding opportunities, and job openings.

National Institute of Justice

An agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, NIJ conducts research and evaluation projects related to crime and justice issues. Students can access publications, training courses, event listings, and funding opportunities through NIJ.

FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting

The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program provides information on crime in the U.S. The program has four major, annual publications: Crime in the United States, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, National Incident-Based Reporting System, and Hate Crime Statistics.

National Archive of Criminal Justice Data

Located at the University of Michigan, NACJD archives crime and justice data for researchers. The archive contains some well-known datasets, including the National Crime Victimization Survey and the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods. NACJD also offers learning guides, data workshops, and technical support.

NIJ runs, a website that catalogs and rates criminal justice activities and practices. Criminal justice professionals can access, replicate, and adapt top-rated programs such as adult-reentry programs and cognitive behavioral therapy.

In addition to applying for government and university awards, you should access the in-depth guide linked below to explore private scholarships and grants. The page contains 45 award opportunities for candidates pursuing online criminal justice degrees.