Steps to Become a Criminal Justice Social Worker

Written by Rebecca Munday
Last Updated: June 2023

Criminal justice social workers testify in court about the mental fitness of a defendant, counsel incarcerated older adults who will die in prison, and create a plan with an incarcerated person to decrease their risk of re-offending.

As a social worker in the criminal justice system, you can help clients navigate the legal system. Learn about career opportunities in forensic social work, the steps to take to get these opportunities, and criminal justice social worker salaries.

Steps to Become a Criminal Justice Social Worker

You can start your forensic social work career in as little as four years with a bachelor’s degree and an entry-level position, such as victim advocate. However, many social work positions in the criminal justice system require a master’s in social work (MSW) and licensure, which could take up to eight years to complete.

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or a related field: A bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) introduces you to human behavior and the life span, research methods, case management, and social welfare policy. This degree prepares you to earn an MSW, an entry-level social work position, or a licensed baccalaureate social work license (LBSW).
  2. Earn a master’s of social work (MSW) degree: You need a master’s in social work (MSW) to become a criminal justice social worker. Master’s programs explore human behavior, the social environment, and social welfare policy. Enrollees complete a field placement. If you earn a BSW and enter your program with advanced standing, you could complete it in as few as 30 credits.
  3. Complete field work in criminal justice: Find a field placement that allows you to practice forensic social work in settings, such as psychiatric hospitals and correctional facilities. Your experience in criminal justice social work can help you learn more about the field and find a job in criminal justice social work after graduation.
  4. Become licensed in your state: You must become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) for most positions in forensic social work because they involve diagnosing, treating, and making recommendations about defendants, incarcerated individuals, and their families. To obtain your clinical license, you need an MSW, the required supervised experience, and a passing score on the ASWB clinical exam.
  5. Gain experience: Forensic social work is found in every area of the legal system. Most forensic social workers practice directly with the justice system. As a forensic social worker, you can work in child welfare, victim support, psychiatric hospitals, the public defender’s office, and correctional facilities.
  6. Consider additional certifications and credentials: Forensic social work takes place across various social work settings. Certifications, such as Certified Forensic Social Worker (CFSW), show that you have knowledge specific to forensic social work and the legal system and may help you stand out to employers.

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What Is a Criminal Justice Social Worker?

Criminal justice workers, also called forensic social workers, work with individuals in every aspect of the legal system. They help people navigate the legal system, understand their rights, and counsel them through trauma and mental health conditions. Criminal justice social workers connect incarcerated individuals with the resources they need to reduce recidivism, or the likelihood that incarcerated individuals will reoffend.

What Do Criminal Justice Social Workers Do?

The responsibilities for criminal justice social workers vary depending on where and with whom you work. Employers may require you to hold an LCSW, so you can diagnose and treat individuals with mental health and substance misuse conditions. Other duties may include:

  • Connect families and incarcerated individuals to resources, such as housing assistance.
  • Work with other social workers to create and monitor programs that teach incarcerated individuals skills to cope with trauma, substance misuse, or mental health conditions.
  • Counsel individuals and groups through trauma, substance misuse, and mental health conditions.
  • Evaluate individuals for mental health and substance misuse conditions.
  • Testify in court about the mental fitness of individuals or about the progress their clients have made.
  • Help victims of crimes fill out paperwork, understand their rights, and navigate the legal system.

Where Do Criminal Justice Social Workers Work?

Criminal justice social workers work in settings, such as correctional facilities, psychiatric hospitals, and victim support centers.

  • Psychiatric Hospitals: Social workers in psychiatric hospitals evaluate and treat mental health conditions for defendants who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity, are awaiting trial, or were found unfit to stand trial.
  • Correctional Facilities: Social workers who work in corrections evaluate incarcerated individuals to see if they are eligible for conditional release, work with them to reduce recidivism, and provide the counseling and resources that help prevent recidivism.
  • Victim Support and Crisis Centers: Social workers who work with victims of crimes counsel them, help them find resources and fill out paperwork, and make sure they understand their rights.

Certification and License Requirements for Criminal Justice Social Workers

You may get an entry-level social work position, such as a victim advocate with a BSW, depending on your state’s requirements. However, social workers in the criminal justice system usually need to be at least a licensed master social worker (LMSW) or their state’s equivalent.

To become an LMSW, you need a bachelor’s degree and an MSW. Your education in social work will teach you about human behavior, social welfare policy, and research methods. Some states may also require you to complete additional supervised experience on top of the field placement in your MSW.

Positions in forensic social work, such as substance misuse counselor and correctional social worker, require you to become an LCSW. This allows you to assess, diagnose, treat, and make recommendations about individuals with mental health and substance misuse conditions.

Certifications, such as the Certified Forensic Social Worker (CFSW) from the National Association of Forensic Counselors (NAFC), show your expertise and experience in a certain area of social work. To get your CFSW, you need:

  • A clinical social work license
  • An MSW or doctoral degree
  • 270 hours of formal training in forensic social work
  • 6,000 hours or three years of supervised experience in forensic social work
  • A passing score on the NAFC certification exam

How Much Do Criminal Justice Social Workers Make?

Criminal justice social workers make an average annual salary of $77,602, according to ZipRecruiter data from May 2023. This annual average salary comes out to about $37 an hour. Most forensic social workers make between $54,000 and $90,000, depending on their license and experience level.

Clinical social workers can make an average of $5,000 more annually when they begin their career than social workers who provide direct services, according to Payscale data from May 2023. The pay gap between social workers and clinical social workers widens to an average of $9,000 per year, with twenty or more years of experience.

Frequently Asked Questions about Criminal Justice Social Worker

Why are social workers important in law enforcement?

Social workers are important in law enforcement because they help people understand their rights and navigate the legal system. They also help reduce the likelihood incarcerated individuals will re-offend.

What do social workers do in the criminal justice system?

Social workers help individuals navigate the criminal justice system, understand their rights, counsel them through trauma and mental health conditions, and provide resources to incarcerated individuals.

What are examples of forensic social work?

An example of forensic social work includes assessing whether defendants are mentally fit to stand trial, testifying in court about their mental fitness, and, if they are not mentally fit, treating their mental conditions. Other examples include counseling incarcerated individuals through dying in prison and working with the court in the best interest of children in foster care.

What state is best for forensic social work?

California offers forensic social workers a higher average salary and more employment opportunities than many other states, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from May 2021. California pays forensic social workers an average annual salary of $78,050, according to data from ZipRecruiter in May 2023. Four of the ten highest-paying cities for forensic social workers are in California.