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Forensic Social Worker: Career and Salary Overview


Forensic social work plays a key role in criminal justice reform in the United States. Also called corrections social workers or correctional treatment specialists, forensic social workers play a variety of roles within the criminal justice system. They provide offenders with psychosocial guidance, offer expert testimony, and advocate for defendants.

Forensic social work is not just "social work for prisoners," although that is certainly a component of the job. Forensic social workers might provide criminal justice offices, lawmakers, and attorneys with consulting services or training. They may also screen, assess, and treat offenders within the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these professionals earn a median annual salary of $54,290. This figure is a bit higher than salaries for social workers in general, who make median earnings of about $50,470.

Are you interested in a career in correctional facility social work? Read on for information about job requirements, salary expectations, and the professional outlook for the field.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does a forensic social worker make an hour?

According to data from Payscale, forensic social workers earn an average wage of $28 an hour. In comparison, social workers, in general, make about $24.26 an hour.

Where do forensic social workers work?

Forensic social workers work within the criminal justice system, taking jobs in correctional facilities or legal institutions. They might also work in places like schools, government agencies, hospitals, and mental health clinics, depending on their role and their specialty.

How long does it take to become a forensic social worker?

Forensic social workers typically need about 4-6 years of higher education before they can enter the profession. Some forensic social workers earn a bachelor of social work (BSW), which traditionally lasts four years. Many pursue a master of social work (MSW) degree, which can add about two years to aspiring social workers' educational timeline. That said, these numbers vary depending on whether students choose accelerated programs or enroll part-time.

Is a forensic social worker a mandated reporter?

Each state considers certain professionals mandated reporters, or people who must report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect to the appropriate authorities. Generally speaking, forensic social workers fall under the mandated reporter category, no matter the state.

Top Industries for Forensic Social Workers

Two of the top-paying industries for forensic social workers and correctional treatment specialists include local and state government agencies, where these professionals make mean salaries ranging from about $59,000-$62,000.

Other lucrative industries include elementary and secondary schools, although only about 70 of these social workers are employed in these settings in the entire country. They earn an annual mean wage of about $44,880.

Top Paying States for Forensic Social Workers

Location can also impact forensic social worker salaries. Forensic social workers earn the most in California, enjoying a mean wage of almost $92,000.

New Jersey and New York also ranked highly in terms of salary potential, with individuals in the field earning an average of $71,280-$71,420 a year. To round out the top paying states, forensic social workers in Iowa earn annual mean wages of over $69,000, and those in Massachusetts make average salaries of more than $68,000.

The states with the highest concentrations of forensic social workers and correctional treatment specialists, however, do not overlap with the top paying states. According to BLS data, Alaska, Oregon, West Virginia, Missouri, and Arizona employ the most forensic social workers.

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for Forensic Social Workers

Even within states, salaries vary. California is home to seven of the highest-paying metropolitan areas for forensic social workers, with average mean wages ranging from about $85,000-$130,000. Those areas include:

  • San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara
  • San Francisco/Oakland/Hayward
  • Sacramento/Roseville/Arden/Arcade
  • Bakersfield
  • Riverside/San Bernardino/Ontario
  • Los Angeles/Long Beach/Anaheim
  • San Diego/Carlsbad

Other top paying metropolitan areas include St. Cloud, Minnesota, where these professionals enjoy a mean salary of $76,489; New York/Newark/Jersey City, where they earn average mean wages of $73,580; and Iowa City, where mean earnings reach $71,520.

The metro areas with the highest concentrations of employment vary from the highest-paying cities. The cities with the most forensic social workers are Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Jefferson City, Missouri; Salem, Oregon; Chico, California; and Twin Falls, Idaho.

Salary and Job Growth for Forensic Social Workers

Social workers employed in the corrections field can look forward to robust industry-wide growth. The BLS projects that the number of social workers in this field could increase by 14% from 2019-29 -- much faster than all other occupations combined.

The BLS attributes this growth to an increased focus on community corrections rather than prison sentences. Some U.S. cities have already invested increased funding into social work rather than policing to try and help vulnerable people leave potentially dangerous situations.

These jobs can come with stressful work environments. Forensic social workers spend time in communities with high rates of violence. That said, many correctional treatment specialists and forensic social workers consider their jobs -- positions in which they exert a tangible influence on people's lives -- to be personally and professionally fulfilling.

For more information, check out our resources about social work salaries and social work careers.

How to Become a Forensic Social Worker

Typically, forensic social workers must hold both a BSW and an MSW. Employers look for job candidates with advanced degrees, and some prefer applicants with certifications from the National Association of Forensic Counselors (NAFC). The Certified Forensic Social Worker (CFSW) credential requires candidates to hold an MSW or even a doctorate.

Traditionally lasting four years, BSW programs explore fundamental social work concepts, including the psychological and sociological theories that inform social work practice. MSW degrees take a more advanced dive into the topic, allowing students to pursue a specialization like forensic social work. These programs typically last two years.

Online MSW degrees allow students who already work full time to study when and where it is most convenient. Distance learners often appreciate the flexibility of online degrees, although part-time students may need more time to graduate.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

The proper certifications can help forensic social workers find a job in the field. CFSW certification from the NAFC requires a master's or doctoral degree in social work. Applicants must also provide professional references and pay a fee.

The NAFC classifies the CFSW certification as a clinical-level credential, which means candidates must hold a clinical license from their state. State licensure usually involves completing two years of supervised clinical work experience. You can learn more about social work licensure here.