What Are the Education Requirements to Become a Correctional Officer?

Correctional officers are employed by federal, state, and local governments. This is meaningful because the educational requirements to become a correctional officer vary depending upon what level of government or state in which you wish to work. Currently, many states and local governments require only a high school diploma or GED. This is a changing trend, however, as each year more states and local governments are requiring new hires to have a post-secondary education. To work in a federal prison, you must have a bachelor’s degree as a requirement of employment. Also, a candidate with a degree or some college level education will almost always be given preference in the hiring process over those who don’t.

What Type of Degree Is Needed?

The best answer to this question is: a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice. A bachelor’s degree in Criminology is also good, but a criminal justice degree is typically preferred. Criminal justice programs focus on establishing systems for dealing with crime, specifically crime detection, detention of criminals, prosecution, and punishment. Criminology is the study of the anatomy of crime including its causes, consequences, and costs. Criminal justice students study the components of the criminal justice system and law enforcement systems. Criminology students study behavior patterns, backgrounds, statistical analysis, and criminal social trends. Other bachelor’s degree programs that employers of correctional officers will consider relevant are psychology, sociology, counseling, or another field of behavioral sciences.

While a bachelor’s degree is certainly the best degree for a job candidate to possess, there are other education options. A bachelor’s degree is a four year program at a college or university. In the U.S. there are also many institutions that offer associate's degree programs in criminal justice. An associate’s degree typically takes two years to complete. Additionally, there are many trade schools now offering certifications in criminal justice. A certification means that you have completed a specialized form of training. Certification programs typically take less than a year to complete, but you do not get as broad of a knowledge base as compared to completing a bachelor’s or associate’s degree. If you are considering a certification program, you should be very careful. Certifications programs tend to be unregulated. You want to verify the quality of the program and its success in placing students in jobs as correctional officers before you enroll.

Criminal Justice Program Curriculum - What Will You Learn?

A typical college level criminal justice bachelor’s program will cover the following topics:

  • Introduction to Criminal Justice
  • Courts and Criminal Procedures
  • Fundamentals of Criminal Law
  • Community Resources in Corrections
  • Correctional Systems and Practices
  • Criminal Investigation
  • Police Systems and Practices
  • Criminal Law
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness
  • Class, Race and Gender
  • Criminal Behavior
  • Crimes and Criminals
  • Criminal Procedure and Evidence
  • Correctional Counseling
  • Juvenile Justice System
  • Correctional Counseling Internships
  • Correctional Law
  • Social Justice
  • Criminal Justice Research Methods
  • Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice
  • Contemporary Issues in Criminal Justice
  • Incarceration and Institutions
  • Criminal Justice Administration
  • Conflict Resolution

Criminal Justice Careers - What Can You Do with a Degree in Criminal Justice?

A degree in criminal justice is useful in many other careers. According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the six most common careers held by individuals with criminal justice degrees are:

  1. Police Officer
  2. Paralegal / Legal Assistant / Legal Secretary
  3. Probation Officer / Correctional Treatment Specialist
  4. Detective or Criminal Investigator
  5. Security Officer / Security Manager
  6. Loss Prevention Manager / Loss Prevention Agent

Can I Become a Correctional Officer Without a Degree?

Prior Work Experience in Lieu of a Degree

While most departments have policies that will accept prior work experience in place of a degree, there is a short list of positions that qualify, and it is still recommended that you obtain a degree to be as prepared and competitive as possible. Candidates may be hired without a degree if they have worked in one or more of the following fields:

  • Parole/Probation Officer
  • Firefighter
  • Nurse
  • Welfare/Social Worker
  • Security Guard
  • Juvenile Probation Officer
  • Teacher or Counselor
  • Emergency Medical Technician
  • Police Officer

The most common situation is for a local correctional officer to advance from a position within a local or county jail to a position in a state correctional system. Prior experience in law enforcement officer may also be accepted in place of college degree. In both cases, your prior experience will be scrutinized, so you must have an excellent work history and strong references from your supervisor or commanding officer.

Military & Veteran Candidates

It is universally recognized that the skills and professionalism learned during military service will prepare a military veteran well for a career as a correctional officer. For this reason, persons retired from the United States military or those who have been honorably discharged from active duty are typically given preference when entering any competitive examination. This means that eligible veterans (dishonorably discharged veterans do not qualify), will be added to the top rank when competing in a state civil service examination, and will most certainly be among the most desirable candidates in the applicant pool. For specifics about veteran preference and eligibility, check your state Department of Corrections website.

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