Learn How to Become a Criminal Justice Social Worker
Written by Ann Feeney
Last Updated: July 2023
Criminal justice social work can make a tremendous difference for individuals and communities. Criminal justice social workers (also known as forensic social workers) work with people who have been convicted, and sometimes their families, to help reduce the chance of re-offending. Some specialize in helping the victims of crime or witnesses experiencing trauma.
This guide explains how to become a criminal justice social worker, especially the educational and licensing requirements. Learn how to prepare for this demanding but rewarding career.
What Does a Criminal Justice Social Worker Do?
Criminal justice social workers work with people who have been convicted of a crime and assist them during and after their imprisonment. They may also work with an offender’s family to help minimize the disruption and trauma in their lives. Their role typically involves counseling and support during re-entry to society.
Forensic social workers may work in prison, parole offices, juvenile justice offices, crisis centers, legal advocacy, halfway housing, or other settings inside or outside the justice system. They may work as violence interrupters in hospitals or in nonprofit or government agencies that work to stop cycles of violence.
Steps to Become a Criminal Justice Social Worker
Each state has its own regulations and licensing requirements for social workers, so check with your state board for specifics. However, the general outline for how to become a forensic social worker follows these steps.
- Earn a Bachelor’s Degree: Earning a bachelor of social work (BSW) provides exposure to the field as part of your undergraduate degree and often means you can finish your graduate degree faster.
- Earn an MSW Degree From an Accredited Program: Most master of social work (MSW) programs accept students with any undergraduate degree, but students with a BSW may be able to finish in just one year. Be sure that your program is certified by the Council for Social Work Education (CWSE), since you cannot get a license otherwise.
- Pass the ASWB Exam: You must pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) master’s examination to earn a license. The fee is $230.
- Apply for State Licensure: Each state has its own licensing regulations and requirements for becoming a social worker, including education, experience, and background check. Check with your state board for specifics.
- Apply for Certification: You do not need certification to be licensed, but certification shows your knowledge and commitment of the field, and most employers require or strongly prefer certification. The National Association of Forensic Counselors offers several certifications, including a certified forensic social worker option.
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Education Requirements for Criminal Justice Social Workers
Every state requires at least an MSW to become a licensed social worker. If you earn a BSW, you can gain experience in social work settings during your fieldwork and may be eligible to finish your MSW faster than students without a BSW.
A BSW combines classroom work and field work to give you a solid overview of social work theory and practice. If you are not sure you want to major in social work, other degrees like psychology, criminology, sociology, or other social sciences can give you a good background for criminal social work.
- Admission Requirements: High school diploma or GED certificate, typically 2.5 GPA or higher
- Program Curriculum: Theory and practice of social work, human behavior, social work interventions. Programs include field work.
- Time to Complete: Typically four years of full-time study
- Skills Learned: Understanding how social work interventions work, conducting basic assessments
Some MSW programs offer a concentration in criminal justice social work, but most do not. An MSW is the minimum educational requirement to become a licensed master social worker (LMSW) or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). If you have a BSW, you may be eligible for advanced standing, which will let you finish the program in approximately one year.
- Admission Requirements: Bachelor’s degree, typically 3.0 GPA or higher
- Program Curriculum: Advanced assessment and intervention, advanced theory. Fieldwork often includes a general session and a specialized session. Many programs can arrange placement in a criminal justice setting, but you may want to confirm this.
- Time to Complete: Typically one year for advanced standing students and two years for regular track students
- Skills Learned: How to conduct assessments and interventions in social work, advanced understanding of social work theory
Licensure and Certification for Criminal Justice Social Workers
While you can work in the social work sector without a license, you must have a state license to become a forensic social worker. The specific regulations vary by state, so check with yours for the details.
The two primary licenses for criminal justice social work are an LMSW or an LCSW. Not all states require experience to become an LMSW, but you must have approximately 3,000 hours of experience to become an LCSW. An LCSW is licensed to diagnose certain mental health conditions and provide counseling.
You must also pass the applicable Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) examination, either the master’s or the clinical examination, to earn your license.
While certification is not a requirement for earning your license, it shows your knowledge of and commitment to criminal justice social work. Some employers may require or strongly prefer certification for certain criminal justice social work certification. The National Association of Forensic Counselors (NAFC) offers several general and specialist criminal justice certifications, including a certified forensic social worker certification (CFSW).
While the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) does not offer a specific criminal justice certification, some of its other certifications may be relevant. Most certifications require passing an examination and documenting experience and continuing education in the field. The National Organization of Forensic Social Workers (NOFSW) offers certification courses in forensic social work, as do some colleges and universities.
Career Outlook for Criminal Justice Social Workers
According to Glassdoor, the median annual salary for criminal justice social workers is $52,564. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not single out forensic social workers, it projects 9% growth for all social workers between 2021 and 2031, faster than the average growth for all jobs.
Take advantage of your fieldwork to start building a professional network. If you get placement in a criminal justice social work setting, keep in touch with coworkers. Consider joining associations like the NAFC or the NOFSW.
Reach out to criminal justice social workers whose careers interest you, and ask them for advice or even to shadow them. Many social workers are happy to advise students and new graduates.
Learn more and compare social worker salaries in our comprehensive salary guide.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the requirements to become a criminal justice social worker?
You must have a state license to become a criminal justice social worker. The minimum requirement to get a license is an MSW degree and passing the ASWB master’s examination. Each state has its own regulations, so check with your state board of social work.
How long does it take to become a criminal justice social worker?
You must earn an MSW, which takes approximately one year for most students with a BSW and approximately two years for students with another undergraduate degree. This requires a total of 5-6 years of formal education. Depending on the state and license you are seeking, you may need work experience before becoming licensed.
What skills are needed for a social worker in the criminal justice field?
One of the most important questions about how to become a criminal justice social worker is what skills and attributes are needed. You must be able to communicate effectively with all levels of the justice system staff, with offenders, and with victims. You also need a thorough understanding of the justice system as it relates to your clients.
What roles do social workers play in the criminal justice system?
Criminal justice social workers assist victims and witnesses to help reduce their trauma. They assist offenders by providing support and counseling to help prevent recidivism. These professionals also act as general advocates for helping victims and witnesses, or for increasing rehabilitation efforts for offenders.