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Criminal Justice Degree Online Programs

Online Criminal Justice Degree Programs teach students the ins and outs of criminal investigation, law enforcement, and crime prevention, in a format flexible enough to accommodate a growing career. Courses may cover a wide range of skills and knowledge, such as

  • The scientific principles of criminal investigations
  • Ethical considerations
  • The psychological and social underpinnings of criminal behavior

Online criminal justice programs are available in levels ranging from associate through doctorate, accommodating those new to the field and experienced professionals alike—meaning you could find a program at your level, whatever that is.

Criminal Justice vs. Criminology vs Criminalistics

Want to get involved in law enforcement, but aren’t sure exactly what kind of online crimial justice degree program is right for you? Criminal Justice, Criminology, and Criminalistics all sound very similar. In fact, the programs may cross over in many ways. But how do you tell the difference when narrowing down your options to choose an online criminal justice degree program? Here’s a brief guide.

  • Criminal Justice technically refers to the system of law enforcement and its component parts, though in academic programs, it’s often used as an umbrella term to cover this whole category. As an area of study, it extends from discussing law enforcement entities like police and detectives, to the court system, and punitive and rehabilitation services. An online criminal justice degree program may also enable students to focus on one part of this broader system—e.g. police work or the court system—or survey the entire process from start to finish.
  • Criminology, which means the study of crime, generally refers to the behavioral, psychological, cultural, and sociological aspects of criminal behavior. It also deals with the effects of crime and its prevention. In other words, criminology programs may tend to focus on what drives different people to commit crimes, how it impacts people, families, and the community, and how that knowledge might be applied in preventing future criminal behavior.
  • Criminalistics is a type of forensic science that deals with recognizing physical evidence in a crime scene, documenting it, collecting and preserving it, and interpreting the resulting information. Criminalistics programs may offer students the option to further specialize in certain types of evidence or analysis. This could include things like ballistics, DNA, toxicology, etc.

While some programs may cover all three of these areas, others may focus only on one. As such, it’s important to understand which area you’re most interested in. That way, you can ensure the curriculum you select aligns with your goals.

What to Expect in an Online Criminal Justice Degree Program

Online criminal justice degree programs may come in a few different flavors. Other than the topic of focus (if any) and the degree level, one major consideration in choosing a program is the type of student a program is designed for. Is the program designed to orient those new to criminal justice from the ground up, or build on experience gained working in the field? Depending on the degree level, this could have a significant impact on the content of the curriculum and how it is approached.

Studying online may also have unique concerns rooted in the program format. If your criminal justice degree program is fully online, the experience could be a little more independent. You could take your criminology courses with you wherever you go, and complete them on your own schedule. On the other hand, your access to resources like science laboratories, where you’d get hands-on experience handling and analyzing evidence materials, might vary widely.

Types of Online Criminal Justice Degree Programs

Online criminal justice degree programs and non-degree programs may be offered at a variety of levels. This could range from undergraduate programs aimed at total beginners, to online graduate programs in criminal justice designed for experienced professionals. Each type of program might have unique prerequisites, from minimum professional experience to prior education. Generally, your options could be as follows.

  • Online Associates Degree in Criminal Justice: Typically completed in around two years, assuming a full course load, online criminal justice associates degree programs tend to focus on the essentials, They may aim to establish a firm foundation of rigorous study, from which one could launch a new career, continue their study, or progress in their current professional role.
  • Online Criminal Justice Bachelors Degree: These programs might be completed anywhere from two to four years full time, depending on whether the student in question has already earned an associates degree and can transfer credits, whether the program grants credits for professional experience, and other factors. In addition to the basics of the criminal justice system, many bachelors programs aim to develop the organizational and leadership skills one might need to lead a team.
  • Criminal Justice Masters Programs Online: Also sometimes referred to as an MCJ or Master of Criminal Justice, these programs take an advanced look at the criminal justice world, often focusing specifically on a certain topic or discipline within the broader subject. Whether that’s a focus on leadership in law enforcement settings, advanced criminology, cybercrime, or something else entirely, online criminal justice masters programs offer students the opportunity to pursue the expertise they need. The amount of time required to complete a masters in criminal justice may vary; however, often, it takes around two years.
  • Online Criminal Justice Doctoral Programs: Criminal Justice PhD programs build on the expertise students have gained in their careers, in one of a few potential directions. Some doctoral programs may focus on conducting research into topics like criminology, forensic science, or the justice system. Others might look at applying that research in the real world, in positions of authority. Some may even look at using a blend of theoretical and practical knowledge to influence policy.
  • Criminal Justice Certificate Programs Online: Criminal justice certificates might be offered at both the undergraduate and graduate level. In both cases, these are shorter, non-degree programs that usually center on a specific topic, and build on prior education and experience. Options might range from undergraduate certificates requiring little or no prior education, to graduate certificates requiring a masters degree and a built-up resume.

Example Online Criminal Justice Curriculum

The specific curriculum offered at your program of choice may depend on your area of focus, the type of program you’re attending, the students it’s designed for, and more. However, in general, criminal justice degree programs tend to be interdisciplinary in nature, resulting in a broad array of course types covering a variety of skills. The goal is to prepare students to face any problem they might encounter in the field by providing them with a broad foundation of expertise.

Examples of the types of course topics you might encounter include the following.

  • Criminal Justice System Basics: Many programs, especially undergraduate programs aimed at students new to the discipline, will incorporate an overview of the criminal justice system in itself, from the history and legal framework on which it is build, to the mechanics how offenders are processed, to the different types of crime.
  • Criminology: This type of course examines crime in itself, from the type of crime one might commit, to the characteristics of different types of criminals one might encounter and what drives them to offend. These courses might also touch on the impact those crimes may have on victims, families and the community.
  • Criminalistics: This type of course would examine the principles and process of identifying, handling, and understanding different types of evidence. If you have elected to attend a program that emphasizes this topic, you might explore it in greater detail throughout the curriculum.
  • Policing: Courses like this one examine the responsibilities, challenges, and day to day operations of police departments across the country, as well as how they interact with the community and other branches of criminal justice.
  • Courts & Prosecution: This type of course examines the challenges, processes, and limitations of prosecution, and looks at how the court system works in general. How this topic is approached may vary depending on the program. For example, a program focused on handling and interpreting evidence might focus on different aspects of the prosecution system than a more general program.
  • Criminal Justice Research: This topic centers not just on the body of research already informing the field of criminal justice. It also addresses the methodologies and best practices governing how that research is performed.
  • Ethics in Criminal Justice: This course might examine traditional ethic texts, as well as legal texts. Classes may discuss what it means to behave ethically while enacting law enforcement, and how to ensure one’s team aligns with ethical guidelines.
  • Statistics: Statistical analysis could be applied in many ways throughout criminal justice, from performing research, to analyzing the effectiveness of crime prevention initiatives in one’s community. Courses would examine the collection, analysis, interpretation and presentation of data.
  • Juvenile Justice System: Study the history of the juvenile justice system and how it operates today. This may also touch on how the juvenile justice system affects young people, the philosophies driving its operations, and the unique challenges faced in this area.
  • Administration in Law Enforcement: This course topic aims to build leadership skills. It would examine the role of leaders in different areas of law enforcement, and how law enforcement leaders can influence crime prevention and policy development.

These and other courses may vary between programs and schools. Some may not be offered, or may differ in content from what is described here. Other programs may include different options not listed here. To learn more about a given curriculum, direct your questions to that program's representatives.

Example Criminal Justice Topic Concentrations

Online criminal justice degree programs may offer a wide range of concentration options. In addition to the three defined above (criminal justice, criminalistics, criminology), programs may examine specific responsibilities within law enforcement, certain types of crime, and more. Here are a few examples:

  • Cybercrime or Cyber Security Operations
  • Homeland Security
  • Case Management
  • Forensic Psychology
  • Juvenile Justice
  • Corrections

Remember, these are only a few examples in a wide range of possibilities. Some programs may offer a different set of options. Other programs may not offer concentrations at all! For more information about what might be available to you, reach out to the school you’re looking at with questions.

Additional Information

While many online criminal justice degree programs could be completed one hundred percent online, when choosing your program, make sure to follow up on this detail. Some programs may include elements that need to be completed in person.

In-Person Requirements: This could be campus visits, internships, or observation elements in the field, and more. These requirements may not always be present and may vary in form from one program to another. For more information, reach out to the program in question.

Criminal Justice Career Info

A variety of entry level positions in criminal justice may be available with a high school diploma and additional training. Career opportunities may be diverse, ranging from roles interacting with the public in the field to laboratory work or organizational roles.

Earning a degree could support advancement in these roles or help professionals to specialize. For example, forensic science technicians might focus specifically on collecting digital evidence or working with chemical evidence—both of which might be supported with additional education.

Most criminal justice positions require a minimum amount of on the job training or mentorship. The specifics may vary depending on the specific role, the individual workplace, and more. Other professional credentials may vary between jurisdictions.

Example positions one might pursue:

  • Forensic Science Technicians: $56,750 2016 Median Payi
  • Private Investigators: $48,190 2016 Median Payii
  • Police and Detectives: $61,600 2016 Median Payiii
  • Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists: $50,160 2016 Median Payiv
  • Correctional Officers and Bailiffs: $42,820 2016 Median Payv

Apply to Online Criminal Justice Degree Programs

Begin your search for online criminal justice degree programs here! If you already know what type of degree you’re interested in earning, use the menu to choose the correct option.

Then read more about what those programs are like and review the sponsored program listings. Click on the Request Info button to find out more about a specific program and get in touch!


[i] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/forensic-science-technicians.htm | [ii] bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/private-detectives-and-investigators.htm | [iii] bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm | [iv] bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/correctional-officers.htm |[v] bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/probation-officers-and-correctional-treatment-specialists.htm

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