There are many routes you can take within a career in social work. Jobs in child welfare, geriatrics, criminal justice, addictive behaviors, and more. You may work within many of these fields throughout your career until you find your passion. Here are a few potential roles in the criminal justice and corrections sector:
Corrections counselors work with inmates to help them rehabilitate and make positive life changes. They often work in prison facilities, and they may also find employment supporting released prisoners who are in need of long-term rehabilitative and transitional assistance. They help clients to develop strategies for relapse prevention, often by exploring life-skill, career, and educational outlets to direct offenders toward positive change. Correctional counselors frequently work with inmates who are dually diagnosed, as clients may struggle with mental illness and/or addiction. Their ability to maintain a positive, objective outlook and strong communication skills – when interacting both with clients and colleagues – is vital to success in the field.
- Create rehabilitative action plans with their clients
- Provide counseling, especially when working with dually diagnosed inmates
- Educate inmates regarding options for career or educational growth
- May support released inmates who need transitional support and services
Salaries for correctional counselors are competitive, with an average annual income of around $48,000. Education, experience, and location all impact potential earnings.
Beginning-level corrections counselors may enter the field with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or social work. In order to best support clients with mental illnesses and addictive behaviors, many candidates pursue a master’s degree in criminal justice or social work. Receiving an MSW and subsequent licensure allows employees to move into supervisory positions in the correctional field.
Juvenile or Adult Probation Counselor
Probation counselors’ duties vary, depending on whether they work with juveniles or adults. Juvenile probation counselors help to determine whether minor offenses committed by juveniles can be handled outside of court, via methods such as interviews with complainants and offenders, discussions with offenders’ family members, and evaluation of possibilities for alternative interventions. Juvenile counselors handle considerations such as living facilities (deciding whether a group home, correctional facility, or other location is best), court appearances or diversion opportunities, and counseling for juvenile delinquents. For adults, a probation counselor’s role may focus more heavily on counseling, including behavioral, mental health, and addictions treatment. While probation officers emphasize enforcement of parole adherence, probation counselors focus on helping parolees to make positive life changes and re-adjust following their time in correctional facilities.
Specifically, probation counselors:
- Conduct intake appointments with offenders (and their families, if offenders are juveniles)
- Consider diversion opportunities for minor offenses
- Provide counseling to address mental illness and substance abuse issues
- Help to select appropriate living facilities for parolees
- Testify during court proceedings
The median salary for probation officers and correctional treatment specialists is $49,350 per year. Salary and career opportunities increase for those with advanced degrees.
Most employers seek candidates with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a human service field, such as social work. An MSW, with clinical licensure, is an in-demand degree in the correctional field. Experience in the criminal justice field also opens doors for work in the realm of probation counseling.
Criminal Defense Social Worker
Criminal defense social workers operate in tandem with attorneys, legal advocates, and investigators. They work with legal clients who may be members of disadvantaged populations to ensure that justice is served. They also conduct assessments, refer clients to treatment services, and assist in locating community resources. Criminal defense social workers advocate for clients during their trials and may visit them in criminal justice or other residential facilities. They may work with adults or juveniles; for juveniles, additional job duties include working to move cases from adult to juvenile court for review and processing. In all cases, their primary goal is to facilitate social justice and fair treatment of every client.
The responsibilities of criminal defense social workers include:
- Psychosocial assessments
- Referrals to community and treatment services
- Court advocacy
- Client visitation
Annual salaries for criminal defense social workers are highly competitive, averaging $61,000. Salaries vary by location, and positions are often obtained within community organizations and private practices specializing in work with minorities or marginalized populations.
Most roles require an MSW, with clinical licensure, to practice. Some positions may also require prior experience in the criminal justice field. In addition, certain states and organizations may call for specific courses or certifications.
Criminal justice and mental health often coincide. Crisis workers intervene in stressful situations to help mentally ill individuals stay calm and find treatment. Crisis workers may be alerted to these situations by law enforcement personnel, or they may work in environments, such as suicide hotlines, where individuals seek their help directly. Crisis workers must be able to maintain a calm demeanor, assess an individual’s needs quickly, and respond with appropriate action and follow-up to ensure long-term health and safety. Crisis workers support individuals who are experiencing or recovering from traumatic experiences; for example, they may join law enforcement teams who are responding to emergencies within a community. They may also work with populations, such as military personnel and veterans, who are dealing with the long-term effects of trauma. Crisis counselors work in a variety of settings, including state and federal agencies, suicide hotlines, VA hospitals, and criminal justice facilities.
Crisis workers’ duties include:
- Interventional counseling
- Creation of follow-up treatment plans
- Referrals to community, mental health, and medical resources
- Networking with law enforcement, medical professionals, and government agencies
Crisis counselors are often employed in the public sector, where salaries vary by location, experience, and educational background. The national average salary for crisis workers is around $36,000.
Crisis workers can enter the field with a bachelor’s degree in social work or another human service field. They often need to take courses or certifications related to trauma intervention. Many choose to pursue a master’s degree in social work (MSW). Some MSW programs, such as the online option at Widener University, provide the opportunity to specialize in trauma care.
When a victim of a crime experiences emotional, physical, or psychological trauma, a victim advocate often steps in to provide support. Victims’ advocates work with individuals, and sometimes in support groups, to provide counseling. They also provide information regarding what victims can expect from any legal proceedings, and they may join victims for court hearings. Additionally, they help to locate safe living quarters if victims are in danger, and they work with clients to develop long-term safety plans. Integrity, confidentiality, and steadfast support are valuable qualities for a victim advocate, as they are part of a network of law enforcement, legal, and social service representatives whose primary goal is to protect victims’ rights and help them recover from the effects of trauma and abuse.
Victim advocates’ responsibilities include:
- Prevention: advocates can educate members of their communities to help them avoid potentially traumatic situations
- Information-sharing: advocates provide details on legal rights, the criminal justice process, and status of offenders (e.g., an inmate being released from prison)
- victim advocates may offer individual or group support sessions
- Administrative support: advocates assist with applications for compensation, locating safe living facilities, and handling communications with employers or creditors
Salaries for victims’ advocates vary widely. Some may operate on a volunteer basis, while others may need licensure and an advanced degree to practice. Overall, the average annual salary is around $34,000.
Some advocacy roles are available to those with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or social work. However, many governmental organizations and private agencies are employing victim advocates at the master’s level, so candidates may need a master’s degree in social work, as well as clinical licensure and specific trauma-response training, to become victim advocates. An accredited MSW program is the best first step toward career opportunity in the advocacy field.
Forensic Social Worker
Forensic social workers operate where legal processes and social work intersect. According to the National Organization of Forensic Social Work, this field addresses “social work practice which in any way is related to legal issues and litigation, both criminal and civil.” A forensic social worker’s role involves evaluation and diagnosis of criminals with mental health issues, consulting with members of the legal and law enforcement communities, and making referrals to community-based and psychiatric resources. They may also be called to serve as witnesses in cases pertaining to abuse, neglect, and custody disputes. Forensic social workers must have an in-depth understanding of social work principles and criminal justice, with a focus on prevention of criminal activity (especially among at-risk populations), advocacy for clients’ rights, and training for law enforcement personnel. Specifically, their duties may include:
- Diagnosing and assessing children, juveniles, and adults involved in the justice system
- Serving as an expert witness in court cases
- Screening, education, and training for law enforcement officers
- Providing treatment and referral services to clients in need of mental health care
- Engaging with many members of the legal community, including attorneys, correctional officers, law enforcement personnel, and lawmakers
Forensic social work is a growing field with competitive salary opportunities; average annual salary is around $70,000.
Because the field calls for an acute understanding of legal issues and social work, most roles require a master’s degree in social work, clinical social work licensure, and additional training in the realm of criminal justice. These requirements vary by state, so it’s important to research state requirements as well as MSW programs that lead to clinical licensure. Additionally, experience in any human service setting, especially the corrections field, is valuable for those seeking a position in forensic social work.