Working in the criminal justice field hasn’t always been a high-skill occupation. In fact, early police forces were generally comprised of minimally trained volunteers or, worse yet, reluctant community members drafted to patrol the city’s streets.
The same was true of early correctional officers, or guards as they were called, who relied more on brute strength, personal toughness, and a certain amount of violence to get their work done than on any other skill set.
The work was not only dangerous and thankless in many respects, it was much less regulated, less public, and far less technical than it is today.
Modern criminal justice practitioners, by comparison, are anything but low skilled. The rise of technology in nearly all fields has contributed to a need for better educated and more highly skilled individuals who can take on today’s challenges.
Modern-day police officers, for example, carry a tremendous amount of technology with them while doing their jobs. Body cameras, firearms, tasers, pepper spray, communication gear, not to mention all of the technology carried in modern squad cars, have all become standard.
Likewise, correctional officers carry many of the same technologies, and also operate complex security systems, computerized inmate tracking programs, and other related technologies as part of their work.
But, it’s not just technology that’s driving the need for better education and skills – it’s also the need for strong interpersonal communication abilities, knowledge of research and its implications, and the ability to effectively navigate complex social issues that also drives the need.
According to an information paper by the Police Association for College Education, requiring college degrees for police officers has long been a matter of professionalizing the field:
Some 68 years ago Chief August Vollmer, the Dean of American Policing, called for mandatory college education for police officers. As society has become more complex, basic police qualifications have not maintained the same pace. If police officers are to be considered a profession in their own right, then a college education, the hallmark of a profession, must be mandated to better serve society. Departments requiring college degrees for officers have increased – not decreased – minority hiring. Establishing an associate’s degree requirement is a good start towards ultimately achieving the recommendation of several national commissions and the Federal Courts of a bachelor’s degree standard.
The same is true in other criminal justice fields, in which the ability to understand and use research has taken on increased importance. Probation and parole officers, for example, are using complex assessment instruments – such as the LSI-R, the Static-99, and the ASUDS – to evaluate offender risks and needs as part of case planning and supervision.
Likewise, those who work with juvenile offenders are using new tools, like the YLSI, to assess the unique needs that younger individuals have for intervention and rehabilitation.
As a result, more police and correctional departments have been requiring a college degree of their applicants. But, even in jurisdictions that don’t require a college degree, many who apply do have some type of degree, which places those with less education at a distinct disadvantage.
I’ve long argued for higher standards for criminal justice practitioners, and a solid education is the first step in the continued professionalizing of the field and everyone who works in it.
If you’re interested in working in criminal justice, start by exploring education options and selecting a program that can help you meet your goals.
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