Learn What Criminal Justice Social Workers Do and How to Become One

Written by Rebecca Munday
Last Updated: July 2023

If you want to help improve the lives of incarcerated individuals, victims of crimes, and others in the legal system, consider becoming a criminal justice social worker. Criminal justice social workers, also called forensic social workers, work with anyone in the legal system or at risk of entering the legal system. Find out more about how you can become a criminal justice social worker and what social workers do in the criminal justice system.

What Is Criminal Justice Social Work?

Criminal justice and forensic social work is similar to other social work specialties. Any social worker can practice forensic social work.

Forensic social workers create and implement programs, identify clients who need assistance, help clients adjust to the changes and challenges in their lives, and advocate for clients' needs. The difference between forensic social work and other social work specialties is forensic social work focuses on psychosocial needs of people connected to the legal system.

If you want to help clients understand their rights and navigate the legal system, choose a career in criminal justice social work. Find out what social workers do and where they work to see if criminal justice social work could be right for you.

Criminal Justice Social Worker Responsibilities

  • Helping clients navigate the legal system
  • Serving as an expert witness
  • Examining, diagnosing, treating children and adults in the criminal justice system with mental health or substance misuse conditions
  • Making recommendations about mental status, inability to stand trial or testify, and children's interests
  • Advocating for victims of crimes

Traits of a Criminal Justice Social Worker

  • Interpersonal and communication skills
  • Knowledge of the law and legal system
  • Empathy
  • Time management skills
  • Organizational skills

Workplaces for Criminal Justice Social Workers

  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Court systems
  • Correctional facilities and jails
  • Community non-profit organizations serving people who were formerly incarcerated or who are at risk of re-entering the criminal justice system
  • Probation and parole agencies

Featured Online Social Work Programs

How to Become a Criminal Justice Social Worker

Becoming a forensic social worker takes 4-9 years. A bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) prepares you to:

You must become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) if you want all the responsibilities available in criminal justice social work. If you have a BSW and enter an MSW program with advanced standing, you can earn an MSW in two years. An MSW qualifies you to:

Most states require about two years, or 3,000 hours, of supervised experience, and 100 hours of supervision. However, these requirements vary by state, so check with your state's social work licensing board to find out how to become an LCSW in your state.

Criminal Justice Social Worker Salary and Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 9% job growth for all social workers between 2021 and 2031. Criminal justice social workers earn an average $65,200 per year, according to ZipRecruiter data from July 2023. This annual salary comes out to about $31 an hour. Most social workers make $25-$36 per hour.

Your salary as a criminal justice social worker varies based on your location and license level. According to ZipRecruiter data from July 2023, six of the ten highest-paying cities for criminal justice social workers are in California, which has the second highest cost of living in the country. Social workers who practice clinical social work make over $11,000 more annually than social workers who offer direct services, according to Payscale data from July 2023.

Related: See all social worker salaries in our comprehensive guide.

Frequently Asked Questions About Criminal Justice Social Work

What is the role of a criminal justice social worker?

The role of a criminal justice social worker is to help clients understand their rights and navigate the legal system. They also help prevent adolescents and adults from entering or reentering the criminal justice system. Professionals fulfill this role by advocating for clients; creating programs and plans for clients to improve their circumstances; and examining, diagnosing, and treating clients with mental health conditions.

What skills do you need to be a criminal justice social worker?

Criminal justice and forensic social workers need skills in communication, organization, teamwork, mental health assessment, victim advocacy, and time management. They also need knowledge of the law and how the legal system works to help their clients understand their rights and navigate the legal system.

Where do criminal justice social workers work?

Criminal justice social workers work in a variety of settings in and around the legal system, such as community-based non-profit organizations, psychiatric hospitals, correctional facilities, jails, probation or parole agencies, and court systems.

How much do criminal justice social workers make?

Criminal justice social workers make an average of $65,200 annually, according to data from ZipRecruiter in July 2023. They make an average hourly wage of about $31 per hour. Factors like skills and location can affect how much you earn as a social worker.