Usually, when people think about the criminal justice career field, they’re thinking about the work of a patrol officer. You wouldn’t be alone if you thought that, but the field of criminal justice is much more diverse than many of us think it is. It can be an incredibly rewarding and challenging career for someone who wants to make a difference in the community or for the country.
If you’re a veteran or soon-to-be discharged service member, you may think that experience and training in the military police would be the only specialty that could prepare you for a career in criminal justice. However, many of the qualities that made you a great soldier, sailor, airman or marine — no matter your specialty — could be a great foundation for a career in criminal justice.
You might find that your military specialty and your experience are an ideal fit for one of the many criminal justice careers, and your next step might be to pursue a formal education to make yourself the best candidate you can be.
What Are Some Criminal Justice Careers?
Patrol Officer. This is probably what you’ve been thinking about all along, as it’s one of the best-known criminal justice careers. Patrol officers will monitor traffic and pull over violators to issue citations. They will respond to lower-level crimes, such as shoplifting or simple assaults. They investigate motor vehicle accidents. They’re the first line of defense against crime in our communities.
The job isn’t always that simple, though. Depending on the size of the police force, there may be additional investigative and community responsibilities.
- You may have to meet with various community groups to address their concerns and explain how the police force will be responding.
- You may have to maintain a presence in local schools, both for additional safety and to help educate your community’s children on a variety of safety issues.
- Patrol officers don’t just serve individual communities — they can also serve as deputies on a county sheriff’s department or as a state trooper, patrolling the highways.
- County deputies and state troopers can sometimes serve smaller communities that don’t have police forces of their own, performing all the duties that a local patrol officer would do, and more.
Perhaps most importantly for a career in criminal justice, serving time as a uniformed patrol officer may be required for some of the other, more advanced careers the field.
Corrections Officer. As a corrections officer, you would work to maintain security at one of the various levels of penal institutions — from county jails to state and federal penitentiaries. Corrections officers are responsible for both preventing escape and maintaining order inside the walls. They’re often responsible for prisoner transportation for court appearances or transfers.
Detectives. A criminal justice career that would most likely require some prior service as a patrol officer, detectives investigate more serious crimes. In larger departments, they may specialize in a particular area, such as homicide, burglaries, armed robberies or domestic violence.
A small town police department may not have a detective on staff, so patrol officers might be more involved in investigations. County sheriff’s departments and state police troops will also have detectives on staff.
Federal Agents. Organizations like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Secret Service, the US Marshall Service, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) investigate and prosecute crimes at the national and interstate level.
- The FBI investigates organized crime and other interstate offenses.
- The DEA investigates organizations that produce and traffic illegal drugs.
- The Secret Service — along with protecting the president, senior members of the executive branch and foreign dignitaries — investigates crimes related to the treasury, including counterfeiting and money laundering.
- Federal Marshalls protect federal courts and judges. They’re also involved in serving court papers and witness protection. They’re most noted for tracking fugitives and bringing them to justice.
- The CBP monitors the border and ports to prevent criminals and terrorists or their weapons from coming into the United States.
There is sometimes overlap in the missions of these agencies, and they do coordinate with each other to prevent duplication of efforts. They may also work together. Many federal agent positions may require some prior experience in law enforcement, along with some formal education.
Game Wardens. As a game warden, you may patrol wilderness areas to ensure hunters and fishermen are licensed and keeping to their legal limits. You may have to investigate such crimes as illegally set traps or animals killed out-of-season. Game Wardens may also work to monitor wildlife to manage the number of hunting licenses each state issues. Experience in the outdoors may be another requirement for this career.
Probation Officers. When people are sentenced to probation rather than time in a penitentiary, a probation officer will monitor them to ensure they meet the conditions of probation. Probation officers will also monitor individuals who have been paroled from prison. Individuals will check in with their probation/parole officer on a routine basis.
The probation officer will conduct random drug tests and verify that the person is working. They may also refer parolees to programs to help them find gainful employment as they reenter society. Probation officers sometimes also monitor people who have yet to face trial, in order to ensure they are meeting the conditions set forth in their bail agreement.
Paralegal. A paralegal works in a legal office to assist with research and preparing various documents for court cases. They may also help prepare witnesses to testify in court. They perform many of the tasks that lawyers do, but they cannot represent anyone on trial or in any other court case. Paralegals also work for lawyers who specialize in real estate, family law, contracts and other areas of the law.
Victim Advocate. A victim advocate works for the court and assists crime victims as the investigation and trial progress. The advocate will let the victims know what to expect from the process and what rights they have. They may also help connect victims with available services they may require in connection with the case.
How You Can Prepare for a Criminal Justice Career
If you’re interested in a career in any of these criminal justice fields, our two legal Associate of Applied Science Degree programs can help you on your way.
- Our Paralegal Associate’s Degree focuses on the skills needed to support the work of an attorney — writing and filing legal documents, researching court cases, etc.
- Our Criminal Justice Associate’s Degree focuses on the many areas required for law enforcement work, such as corrections, the court systems, investigations and police practices, among others.
In addition to an opportunity to obtain one of these degrees, you may have another head start on your criminal justice career. Most organizations value the contributions that veterans and their experience in the military can bring to the table. You may be able to forego some of the departmental training, or you may be fast-tracked through it. For positions with the federal government, veterans are prioritized for hire.
Potential Additional Benefits
If you have any of your GI Bill®¹ entitlement left, you may be able to use it to help financially support yourself during your time in a police academy or during any initial on-the-job training periods.
If you haven’t served long enough to retire from the military, you may be able to use your active duty military time toward your retirement from many municipal, state and federal organizations. Doing this won’t affect your retirement from the guard or reserves, if you choose to continue your military service part-time.
Why Your Military Service Is a Great Preparation for Criminal Justice
Most employers will favor a veteran’s resume over another candidate if the two are similarly qualified. A veteran’s dedication and discipline are a valuable addition to any business or organization. But because of some similarities between military service and criminal justice careers, veterans are a great fit — even if they didn’t serve in the military police.
Some of these common values, which have served you in the military, will help you get ahead in the best criminal justice careers.
Commitment to physical fitness. Your physical strength and endurance, which were so beneficial during your years in the military, will also be a valuable skill needed for many criminal justice careers. In emergency situations, patrol officers and others may have to carry heavy loads or run relatively long distances.
Many of these same criminal justice careers will require you to meet physical fitness requirements prior to being hired or going to the police academy. Physical fitness has become a part of your life during the military, and it can continue to serve you in life and in some of the best criminal justice careers.
Dealing with stressful situations. As a member of the US armed forces, you’ve had to deal with some intense situations. These can range from your first time dealing with artificial stressors during training to dealing with life or death situations when you’ve been forward deployed.
Many of the circumstances you could deal with in law enforcement may not rise to the same level of intensity that you’ve dealt with in the military, but your decisions may very well have an impact on your safety or the safety of your peers. The lives and safety of civilians may also hang in the balance. That’s why the ability to make decisions in stressful situations is such a valuable criminal justice skill.
The decisions of criminal justice professionals sometimes receive a great deal of public scrutiny and second-guessing, but many of those decisions need to be made without the convenience of time to process the situation. Your experience making those kinds of decisions in the heat of the moment will help you in this career field.
Commitment to serving. You may have joined the military for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you just wanted to take advantage of the education benefits, or you may have just wanted a steady paycheck. You might have just wanted to get away from your hometown. Maybe you wanted some adventure.
But you did much more than just fulfill those wishes. You served our country. You may very well have put your life on the line for the greater good of our national interests and the safety of your unit.
Perhaps that’s even why you served in the military — you’re committed to doing something that benefits the greater good. In some of the best criminal justice careers, you’ll continue to serve the greater good.
- You can make a difference in your community as a patrol officer, keeping the streets safe.
- You can work as a probation officer, making sure offenders are meeting their requirements.
- You could also continue to serve our national interests as an FBI agent, investigating the mafia.
- Perhaps you could become a US Marshall, protecting a federal judge who may have been threatened by a drug cartel.
Whichever direction you choose, your desire to serve will be fulfilled, whether you join a police force in your community or you start serving in a federal agency. When you choose a criminal justice career following your military service, you can continue to make a difference in the world.
Leadership. If you’ve spent more than a few years in the military, you’ve probably had some sort of formal leadership training. That training has shown you how to deal with people and how to set an example. In a criminal justice career, you’ll have to be a leader. You may have to set an example for inmates while working in corrections, or you may have to be an example to parolees as a parole officer.
Patrol officers are often leaders in the community. People may look to them to do more than just “protect and serve.” You may have been a role model and guide for younger service members while in the military, but as a patrol officer, you can also make a difference for people in the community who may not have had healthy role models in their home lives.
Experience With Technology. Just like you’ve been serving in the most technologically advanced military in the world, the ability to use computers and learn new applications is an important criminal justice skill.
Patrol cars don’t just have radar and laser systems to monitor for speed. They have systems in them to check drivers’ records and search for outstanding warrants, and there are law enforcement units that solely investigate computer-based crimes.
Your Career Decision
These are just some of the qualities that served you well during your military career, and will carry over into a career in criminal justice. You’ve dedicated part of your life to serving our nation, and that experience has been a great preparation for a transition to working for any law enforcement agency.
Vista College is here to help you on your way. We can assist you in making the most of your education benefits, whether you’re still on active duty or after your discharge. Our convenient schedules make it easy for you to make the time for classes.
You already have many of the skills needed for a criminal justice career. A formal civilian education may be the last item your resume needs to help you get hired.
¹GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.