Guide to Becoming a Criminal Justice Social Worker with Department of Correctional Services

Guide to Becoming a Criminal Justice Social Worker with Department of Correctional Services! Forensic social work is a diverse and broad field that includes any type of macro, micro or mezzo social work that assists …

Guide to Becoming a Criminal Justice Social Worker with Department of Correctional Services

Guide to Becoming a Criminal Justice Social Worker with Department of Correctional Services!

Forensic social work is a diverse and broad field that includes any type of macro, micro or mezzo social work that assists people in the legal system or criminal justice system. Starting over after being released from prison or living in a crisis center isn’t easy, so criminal justice social workers work with people to help them navigate these situations. If you’re interested in helping people as a criminal justice social worker, it’s important to learn what it takes to become one.

In this article, we discuss what criminal justice social workers do, explain how to become a criminal justice social worker and explore the workplace environment, job outlook and salary of criminal justice social workers.


What is a criminal justice social worker?

Criminal justice social workers, also called forensic social workers, are special social workers who serve people in the criminal justice or legal system. They play an important part in identifying rehabilitation services for offenders or people who need intervention and supporting the family members affected by these actions. Criminal justice social workers protect the rights of people in society who often get dismissed, abandoned or forgotten. Many people rebuild their lives and get the support they need because of criminal justice social workers.

Criminal justice social workers can have a wide variety of job titles, depending on where they work and what populations they are working with. Some more specific job titles criminal justice social workers may have are:

  • Diversion program manager

  • Guardian ad Litem

  • Mitigation or arbitration specialist

  • Conflict mediator

  • Probation or parole office

  • S*x offender clinician

  • Transitional case manager

  • Law enforcement counselor

  • Victim advocate

Because they diagnose and treat the mental health of the populations they serve, criminal justice social workers may need a strong clinical social work background, especially when working in courts or forensic venues. Criminal justice social workers can work in a variety of settings, such as:

  • Courthouses

  • Juvenile hall

  • Correctional facilities

  • Crisis centers

  • Victim support programs

  • Psychiatric hospitals

  • Domestic violence support centers

  • Legal advocacy groups

  • Pro-bono law firms

Criminal justice social workers can work in a variety of areas, such as working with the re-entry population or adolescents or helping people find housing or employment after their custody release. The populations that criminal justice social workers often work with include:

  • Minorities

  • Children in the child welfare system

  • Domestically abused women

  • Victims of neglect or sexual abuse

  • Incarcerated adults or youth

  • Recently released inmates

  • Juvenile delinquents

  • Mentally ill criminals

What do criminal justice social workers do?

Criminal justice social workers support people within the legal or criminal justice systems dealing with trauma or severe mental health issues by providing psychotherapeutic methods. They conduct psychosocial assessments to identify underlying social, emotional, developmental or psychiatric needs. Then, they find their clients the resources to meet those needs, like coping skills, case management, life skills development and home visits.

The responsibilities and duties of a criminal justice social worker vary depending on their work setting and the population they are serving. For example, the duties of a criminal justice social worker who works at a domestic abuse crisis center differ greatly from a criminal justice social worker who works at a juvenile corrections facility.

Some of the major responsibilities of criminal justice social workers are:

  • Conducting psychosocial and risk assessments

  • Implementing crisis interventions

  • Providing effective therapeutics services

  • Assessing for abuse or neglect

  • Coordinating out-of-home placement

  • Representing displaced children in court

  • Coordinating adoption of inmates’ children

  • Navigating the legal or court systems

  • Providing emotional support

  • Helping with housing or employment applications

  • Connecting clients to resources

  • Offering policy or individual advocacy

  • Connecting family members of inmates with resources

  • Running psycho-educational groups

How to become a criminal justice social worker

Social workers can earn bachelor’s or master’s degrees which, along with the proper credentials, allows them to work with a wide range of people in a variety of settings. Social workers who choose a criminal justice specialization get special training through post-degree practice and practicum work. Additional academic coursework and continuing education classes provide them with ways to further specialize their knowledge. They must prepare themselves academically, professionally and emotionally for the complexities of caring for their clients.

Here are the general steps for becoming a criminal justice social worker:

1. Earn a degree

Criminal justice social workers must have a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or a master’s degree in social work (MSW). The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) must accredit the bachelor’s or master’s degree program. Common coursework for these general social work degrees includes:

  • Sociology and human behavior

  • Social welfare policies

  • Social justice

  • Working with people and families

  • Group practice methods

  • Research

The majority of schools don’t offer a social work degree specifically in criminal justice. Social work students who want to specialize in criminal justice should take as many relevant classes as possible to learn about and specialize in criminal justice knowledge like:

  • Criminal justice administration

  • Ethics

  • Domestic violence

  • Juvenile justice systems

  • Program evaluations

  • Mental illness and crime

  • Political advocacy

  • Subst@nce @buse and family dynamics

  • Law and public policy

Some students choose to continue their education with a doctoral degree in social work (DSW) or a Ph.D. in social work. The DSW focuses on practicing social work and preparing social workers for administrative or leadership positions. The Ph.D. in social work focuses on research and preparing social workers for research or academic positions.

2. Gain experience

Gaining hands-on experience with criminal justice social work is a critical part of the learning process. Most social work degree programs require a practicum, and students specializing in criminal justice can seek to do their practicum in a legal or criminal justice setting, like an advocacy organization or correctional institution. Students can seek out field internships or fellowships in legal or criminal justice settings during their graduate or undergraduate work.

There are also professional opportunities to gain experience, like working in a legal or criminal justice setting. Volunteering is another way to gain valuable experience, such as at a domestic violence organization or rape crisis center.

3. Get licensed

Most states require social workers to obtain a license when working with clients for research, in academia or in administration. Some states license social workers with a bachelor’s degree, while other states only license social workers with a master’s degree or higher, so it’s important to check your state’s unique requirements for licensure. Many states also require specific continuing education courses to keep licensure current. Obtaining licensure typically requires getting a licensed bachelor of social work (LBSW) or licensed master of social work (LMSW) from the Association of Social Work Boards. This normally includes:

  • Paying a fee

  • Submitting academic transcripts

  • Passing an exam

5. Get voluntary certificates

In addition to state licensure, there are various voluntary certificates that social workers can earn. Employers don’t typically require these certifications, but earning them is a marker of distinction. These certifications demonstrate advanced skills in a particular area and can possibly lead to obtaining competitive positions or an increase in salary.

While there aren’t currently any certifications specifically for criminal justice social workers, the National Association of Social Workers is advocating for their development. They currently have a variety of other certifications social workers can pursue that can still help their careers, such as the Qualified Clinical Social Worker credential.

Related: How To Become a Social Worker: Guide to Education and Training Requirements

Work environment for criminal justice social workers

A criminal justice social worker typically works during regular daytime business hours with an average of 40 hours per week. There may be some occasions where they need to work evenings or weekends in order to help their clients with legal, criminal or resource needs. Criminal justice social workers typically spend part of their day visiting clients and part of their day working in an office. Criminal justice social workers often work alongside attorneys, judges, probation and parole officers, court advocates and other professionals.

Related: Working in Social Justice: Why 90% of People Would Sacrifice Money for Meaning (With Example Career Paths)

Criminal justice social worker job outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is a collective and trustworthy source for career outlook information. While the BLS doesn’t have information specifically for criminal justice social workers, it does have information for social workers in general, which encompasses all types of social workers, including criminal justice. According to the BLS, social workers can expect an employment growth rate of 13% from 2019 to 2029. This growth rate is much faster than the average growth rate for all occupations.

Criminal justice social worker salary

The salary for a criminal justice social worker varies depending on the individual’s level of education, amount of experience, geographic location and specific industry. With criminal justice social work, higher levels of education usually equate to higher salaries. In the United States, the average salary for all types of social workers is $60,204 per year.