Online Master of Science in Criminal Justice Opens a Wide Array of Career Options

- Author: Susan L. Wampler - Categories: ,

USC Bovard College’s flexible MSCJ program enables students to explore all facets of the intertwined justice system — from policing and the courts to correctional institutions.

Male legal professional walking down the steps of a courthouse.
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Judging by everything from bestsellers to TV listings and podcasts, crime is never far from our minds. But beyond the media sensationalism lie complicated issues — and a multitude of professional opportunities for addressing them. What seldom gets communicated in such portrayals is the reality that criminal justice is a complex field with three interwoven pillars: the law enforcement charged with keeping order, the legal system that we turn to in hopes of just verdicts, and the corrections institutions entrusted with the custody and rehabilitation of people after their conviction.

Offered online by USC Bovard College, the Master of Science in Criminal Justice (MSCJ) enables students to explore all aspects of the interconnected agencies and disciplines that comprise systems of law and order. Designed and taught with a balance of synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities to accommodate busy schedules and students everywhere, the MSCJ curriculum provides a holistic view of the criminal justice environment.

Pracademic Approach

The program’s greatest advantage is its supportive faculty, who combine expertise in policing, courts, and corrections with educational acumen and research experience. As distinguished academics who are also real-world practitioners, the program’s professors exemplify the term “pracademic” — to the benefit of students.

“In addition to teaching with evidence-based materials, we support students as critical thinkers, because they’re learning from the diverse perspectives of practitioners and academics who are pushing the frontiers of criminal justice forward,” says Joseph Cortez, a former lieutenant with the Santa Monica Police Department and current special investigator with the Los Angeles Police Department in addition to being a scholar and professor.

“USC Bovard offers students practitioners who are also excellent teachers,” adds Steve Lurie, who himself exemplifies the program’s interdisciplinary nature as a commander of the Los Angeles Police Department who is also a lawyer. “I look at my colleagues’ CVs and know they’re doing important stuff in the real world of criminal justice that they bring to the classroom.”

That breadth and depth of expertise explain why the program attracts everyone from post-baccalaureate students considering law school to military personnel, social workers, seasoned law enforcement officers and probation officers. Classmates’ diversity of backgrounds also enables students to learn from each other as they collaborate.

Accessible and Impactful

Faculty member and IRS Senior Trial Attorney Stephen Abanise believes that USC Bovard’s MSCJ program offers a model for how criminal justice can be taught nationwide. “Our online platform delivers top teaching to diverse students from different backgrounds,” he says.

The MSCJ program is accessible and flexible as well. “Students can attend from anywhere in the world,” Victor Fazio says — and they do. “But they still get that applied experience of live discussion every week from with a criminal justice expert and program colleagues.”

Lurie adds that the program “lifts boundaries,” noting that a lot of the MSCJ students serve in either federal law enforcement or the military and might move two or three times while working on their degree. “Bovard allows them to continue their education as long as they have an internet connection, which is essentially everywhere.”

“The degree program enables students to explore issues at a high, then analytical, level,” says Mischelle Van Brakle, an instructor and researcher whose experience includes serving as a congressional fellow for the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-leading a domestic violence awareness program at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. “We go beyond the textbook and mainstream understanding of the criminal justice and legal processes to identify what the foundations are,” she says. “Then we examine their effectiveness.”

With knowledge gleaned from their latest studies and professional experiences, the MSCJ faculty “arm students with the ability and confidence to look at research and explore different approaches that can have better outcomes,” Van Brakle adds.

Students also receive mentorship and support. “USC is a top academic institution,” Abanise notes. “You get access to leading faculty members and the greatest alumni network.” But the advantages go beyond career networking, he emphasizes. “Students develop meaningful relationships that can last a lifetime.”

United, Smart and Courageous

The MSCJ faculty teach according to a model that Cortez calls “united, smart and courageous.”

“I want students to be united with their communities and to understand how the overall criminal justice system works together,” Cortez explains. “Then I want them to be smart in the practical application of their degrees and courageous in pointing out what needs to be changed.”

Students must also examine how each part of the criminal justice process affects the other. “For example, instead of thinking about plea bargaining as a concept, you’re considering its meaning within the overall legal process,” Van Brakle says. “How does it affect the way people police? What impact does it have on how we use our justice system?”

Since the pillars of criminal justice are interconnected, MSCJ courses reflect that intertwining as well. “It’s not just a class about policing, corrections or the courts,” Fazio notes. Instead, most courses incorporate all three prongs of the system while focusing on outcomes that are central for program graduates as criminal justice leaders to embody and exercise, including ethics, applied research methods, change management, policy and program development, to name a few. Fazio adds that these interrelationships, as well as how courses build into each other, makes the MSCJ degree equally valuable for students pursuing a range of goals — from aiding communities through nonprofits, social work or the military, in addition to careers in law enforcement, the court system, policy development, or corrections.

“That’s why it’s important that our program gives a broader view of these practices,” Van Brakle says. “Showing that big picture,” she adds, “not only sensitizes students to the system’s challenges, but also alerts them to opportunities.”

“We’re at a pivotal time in criminal justice, and we have to be more measured and thoughtful about reforms than ever,” notes Fazio. “At the same time, we must recognize that the system can always be improved by marrying science and academia with the real-world practice of policing, corrections, courts and all related criminal justice processes.”

Connecting the Dots

Because aspects of criminal justice interrelate, Miji John Vellakkatel challenges students to think about what happens before law enforcement is called upon and the case reaches his office as a Los Angeles deputy district attorney. “What factors impacted that 911 call?” he asks, noting “the many circumstances and policies that lead to criminal activity — like the breakdown of deterrence theory and social bonds, as well as the personal strains that can drive people’s decisions. And then what happens as people go through the courts and into corrections?”

Those connections must be made for effective progress to occur. That’s why every course is connected, Vellakkatel notes — including statistics. “If we’re going to consider policy changes, we have to test the data,” he says.

Cortez shares, “I love teaching applied statistics. We’re showing students how to use data correctly, and many law enforcement organizations and government organizations use statistics incorrectly to throw their preferred narrative forward.”

Enthusiastically Curious

As the MSCJ trains students in so many techniques and concepts, Vellakkatel urges his classes to be enthusiastically curious.

“It’s not just about expanding our own lenses but also how we can broaden other people’s perspectives and understanding as well,” Vellakkatel says. “By learning about other people’s lives, as well as putting others first, you can make a lot of impact.”

By fulfilling that enthusiastic curiosity, the MSCJ is enabling criminal justice personnel — as well as the politicians in charge of budgets and policy — to gain a better understanding of the system’s connections.

“What’s the next best step for the person who’s just been arrested?” Lurie ponders. “These conversations — and knowing enough to understand why people do what they do — are vitally important. We’re having them at Bovard and across the criminal justice world.” The knowledge students gain through the MSCJ leads to outcomes that are not only better for those being arrested but for the victims as well, he notes.

The degree’s advantages extend throughout the three pillars of criminal justice and beyond. Because crime impacts all of society, Abanise notes that students can also make a difference as policymakers, legislators and advocates. Other students have careers as federal agents, district attorneys, forensic psychologists, private investigators, journalists, probation officers, and more.

“Students can utilize the graduate degree for societal impact and policy change in more than one career pathway,” Abanise says.

“If you’re passionate about criminal justice, this is the type of knowledge you need,” Lurie adds. “And USC Bovard provides it.”

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