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Guide to Criminal Justice Careers: Outlook and Salary

From prison officer to police detective and from lawyer to legislator, the multifaceted field of criminal justice includes a wide variety of potential career paths for qualified candidates.

These professions can offer solid employment prospects, career advancement opportunities, exciting and challenging experiences, and personal fulfillment. Criminal justice jobs can be found in the private and public sectors, and at the local, state, regional and national level.

These four careers represent just a small sampling of the diversity of options that characterize the field:

Lawyer

In the criminal justice setting, some lawyers represent the interests of the state (prosecutors and district attorneys) and others represent the interests of those accused of a crime (public defenders and defense attorneys). They may specialize in specific areas of law, such as financial or white-collar crime, drug offenses, violent crime and crimes against children. By presenting evidence, questioning witnesses, and interpreting laws and judicial rulings, they seek to convince juries or judges of a defendant’s guilt or innocence.

Nationally, employment of lawyers is projected to grow by 6% from 2014 to 2024, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Job growth may be more robust at the federal level. The median annual salary of the nation’s more than 619,000 lawyers was $118,160 in May 2016, the BLS reported.

Educational requirements for attorneys are stringent. They typically earn a bachelor’s degree before attaining a law degree from a school accredited by the American Bar Association. Lawyers must also pass a bar exam in order to practice and most states have requirements relating to continuing legal education.

Law Enforcement Officer

Police officers, detectives, criminal investigators and special agents work in jurisdictions from the municipal to the federal level. Depending on their work environment, and their education and training, a law enforcement officer’s duties can include patrolling communities, interviewing witnesses and suspects, conducting surveillance and undercover operations, and executing arrest warrants. They may also collect and analyze evidence, prepare reports and testify in criminal court proceedings.

The BLS forecasts jobs for law enforcement officers will increase by 4% through 2024, with state and federal agencies typically offering higher pay and more opportunities for promotion. At the federal level, bilingual college graduates should have stronger job prospects, particularly those with law enforcement or military experience.

Salary ranges vary based on the law enforcement officer’s level of responsibility and place of employment. For example, police and sheriff’s patrol officers earned a median annual salary of more than $59,680 in May 2016, the BLS reported.

For some law enforcement jobs, a high school diploma may be the minimum educational requirement. Other positions may call for a college degree. Completion of police training academy, criminal background checks and physical exams may be among the other requirements for employment.

Correctional Officers

Working in prisons, jails and juvenile detention facilities, correctional officers search inmates and cells, settle disputes, enforce rules and monitor inmates’ interactions with visitors. They may also inspect facilities and equipment, and assist in providing counseling and educational opportunities to detainees.

The BLS anticipates a 4% increase in jobs for correctional officers, also known as detention deputies and jailers, through 2024. As government agencies increasingly contract with outside companies to run prisons and jails, additional employment opportunities will likely be found in the private sector.

As of May 2016, the median annual wage for the almost 432,000 correctional officers and jailers nationwide was about $42,820, according to the BLS.

Typically, correctional officers must have at least a high school diploma or GED, although the Federal Bureau of Prisons requires candidates to have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Some agencies may accept prior law enforcement or military experience to be substituted for educational requirements.

Legislator

Legislators work at all levels of government from city hall to Congress, drafting and approving laws, policies, regulations, budgets and programs. There were about 53,000 lawmakers in the United States as of May 2016, including part- and full-time elected officials. The median annual salary was approximately $23,470, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

The creation of legislative positions is often tied to population increases. As a result, the total number of legislators is not expected to change significantly in the coming years. However, because lawmakers must seek re-election, employment opportunities arise on a regular basis.

Many legislators begin their career in public service at the municipal or county level before seeking statewide or national office. Typically, there are age, residency and citizenship requirements for public office, and the BLS reports that most legislators have at least a bachelor’s degree, while many have management or political experience.

As in most industries, potential salaries and employment opportunities in criminal justice vary based on local market conditions, and a candidate’s work history and educational qualifications.

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