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Criminal Justice Careers: Making a Difference

criminal justice

The criminal justice system has one overall mission: to reduce or eliminate crime. Each and every person working in the area of criminal justice participates in that mission. Some people work to maintain law and order, some try to deter or prevent crime, some investigate crimes, some work in the courts and the penal system, some work with perpetrators and some with victims. If you want to do something important with your life, if you want to devote yourself to eliminating crime, you have many career options before you.

Law Enforcement

People who work in law enforcement protect the public, enforce the law and investigate crimes. Most work in the public sector-City Police, Sherriff's Departments, State Police, the FBI or Interpol. Some work in the private sector providing security or performing investigative services, and some are self-employed as Private Investigators or consultants. All are highly trained, and have worked hard to obtain advanced education in Law Enforcement.


The courts administer justice. This can be a matter of settling disputes, providing legal documentation, trying criminals and/or determining sentencing. There are many career opportunities within the court system-everything from court clerks to bailiffs, court reporters, lawyers and judges. Some careers require post-high school technical training; some require college degrees and some require professional training (i.e., law school). Some court positions-especially judicial positions-are political positions and you are either elected or appointed to them.

Penal System

The penal system carries out the sentence handed down by the court. Although "penal" means "punishment," the penal system seeks to rehabilitate criminals and return them to society. This is accomplished through prisons, probation, half-way houses, education, counseling, treatment and social services. Some people within the penal system provide services to victims instead of perpetrators. Law enforcement officers, social workers, counselors, psychiatrists and many other professionals are employed within the penal system.

With all those choices, how do you decide where you would fit best into the criminal justice system? How do you decide which career path to choose? It helps to know yourself, to know the available options and to know your limitations.

Know Thyself

You have to know who you are to find a good career fit in any field. That takes some introspection. Sit down and think about yourself. What kinds of situations do you enjoy the most? When do you feel the most uncomfortable? What frightens you? What do you believe in? When do you feel the most fulfilled and alive? Write out the answers to these questions and any other ones that occur to you, and you will begin to see patterns emerge.

Take some of those self-assessment tests that you see everywhere, and they may help you see things about yourself that you did not know. One assessment that many employers use to determine career fit is the Five Factor Personality Test, which is widely available on the internet.

Talk to a career counselor at your local employment service office or community college. He or she can give you good direction about the types of career that might fit with your personality, interests and experiences.

Know the Options

Once you have an idea of what kinds of careers within the justice system might be a good fit for you, you can begin to explore specific career options. You might begin with the Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook, which lists hundreds of jobs and gives you information about:

  • What the work is like
  • What education and training you need
  • What the job prospects, wages and working conditions are like

Talk to people who do the jobs you are interested in. A career counselor may be able to refer you to people who are willing to discuss their jobs with you. Ask friends if they know someone who is employed in the area you are interested in. Do an internet or phone book search. Read blogs and articles and books. Learn everything you can about the careers that interest you so that you can make an informed decision about which one to pursue.

Know Your Limitations

Be realistic about your personal, time and financial limitations. Do you struggle to maintain a C average? You'll have a difficult time getting through four years of college and law school. Are you a single mom with preschoolers? Extensive education may take you a very long time. Do you have financial limitations? You may have to borrow a lot of money to get through college, but fortunately, many avenues of financial aid are available.

In any of these situations, you may choose a career path that doesn't require as much education. Or you may begin your career at one place and complete your education later. Or you may decide to go for it. If you understand your limitations you can make choices with your eyes open, and that will greatly improve your chances of success.

A Final Word

As you explore career options in criminal justice, remember these three things:

  1. Limitations can be overcome. It may take you longer and you may have to work harder, but you can achieve your goal if you want it badly enough.
  2. Choices are not irrevocable. As you learn more and as life changes, it is perfectly okay to change your mind. You can change your major, choose a different career path or make an entirely different career choice. You are not stuck forever with the choices you make today.
  3. You will make a difference. Whether you wind sweeping floors at the courthouse or pleading cases before the Supreme Court, or even sitting on the Supreme Court, you will make a difference. You will be doing your part to fulfill the mission of the justice system: to reduce or eliminate crime. You'll be doing important work that serves society and makes the world a better place.