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The Tale of Criminal Justice Careers and Television

In the criminal justice system, there are factors that influence and shape the minds of the young: the faculty who provide guidance and television programs that intend to represent reality. These are their stories…

If it sounds like a real-life episode of "Law & Order," it's because that's actually the life lived by a criminal justice professional, especially one who has received top-notch training at a criminal justice school.

The Faculty
Ted Kirkpatrick, a criminologist, is the co-director of Justiceworks, an organization at the University of New Hampshire (Durham, NH) that conducts research about the criminal justice system. He is also the Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts. And with lots of experience in his criminal justice career, he can speak to its ups and downs. He's trained with municipal police officers, worked as a correctional officer, and has done numerous studies on issues that those in criminal justice careers face.

A challenging part of criminal justice careers is the emotional side, says Kirkpatrick. "You work with sadness and tragedy continually, and often in high pressure and conflict-laden environments," he says. "The public expects you to be unemotional. After all, you don't want to see a police officer run away and cry when responding to a homicide victim."

The Television Programs
So how factual is television's portrayal of criminal justice careers on shows like Law & Order and CSI? "Not very true," says Kirkpatrick. "TV shows tend to glamorize criminal justice careers and, given that they must take place within an hour, compress the time it actually takes to work a case through."

In order to counter the non-realistic impressions of his students, Kirkpatrick attempts to get in those already in criminal justice careers in his classroom. This is especially true of a Homicide class he teaches. "Most students in it say they want to be like CSI," he says. "That's why I bring in guest lecturers in forensics and real prosecutors to talk with them about the real demands of the roles and the actual time it takes to adjudicate a murder case in the criminal justice system."

The Verdict
Criminal justice careers include many different job options. You may want to work as a private investigator or detective. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that employment will grow faster than the average by 2014 and that the average wage was $32,110 in May 2004. Or perhaps you want to work as a probation officer, who the BLS reported to have earned an average $39,600 in May 2004. You can also work as a criminologist (like Kirkpatrick), in forensic science, or as a paralegal, among others. All require at least certification from criminal justice schools, which will put you at the top of the competition.

So what's the best part of the career? According to Kirkpatrick, "The reward is in the service to the wider society. Also, generally speaking, criminal justice professionals tend to be respected people by the publics they serve." And an added perk: "The pay and benefits aren't bad either," he says. And while in school, if you take advantage of an internship you'll get great experience in criminal justice careers, says Kirkpatrick.

Criminal justice careers are a great way to get into a profession that may get you excited each week on TV, even though the professionals know that this isn't always reality. Kirkpatrick describes the philosophy of a colleague: "I don't drive a Hummer or wear leather pants, and I don't work under sexy blue lights. I drive a Dodge Neon, wear khakis, and my lab is lit like an airport runway at night." Though it may not be all it's portrayed to be, it's definitely a growing and popular profession.
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