In 2022, the California Department of Justice reported making over 130,000 arrests. More than 10,000 were for violent crimes, 2,500 were for drug-related offenses, and over 500 were for sex crimes like assault, rape, and trafficking. But while crime statistics make great fodder for pearl-clutching talking heads, they fail to tell the whole story.
Behind each of these numbers are people — scared victims and families who don’t know what to do next. Traumatized, caught-in-the-middle children. And countless offenders who were chewed up and spit out by a justice system that not only isn’t blind, but seems to home in on the poor, the mentally ill, and people of color. They all deserve a chance at happiness. They all deserve a chance at justice.
Criminal justice social workers are the professionals who help them get that chance. Fortunately, California is home to a wide range of opportunities for people with an unquenchable thirst for social equity and true justice.
What Does a Criminal Justice Social Worker Do?
Also called forensic social workers, criminal justice social workers serve anyone that comes into contact with the criminal justice system. This includes offenders, victims, and their families, and law enforcement professionals. For each group, social workers have slightly different responsibilities.
To help victims and families, criminal justice social service providers:
Social workers who serve offenders often:
However, forensic social workers aren’t limited to helping these two broad groups. Some support other law enforcement professionals by teaching classes on topics like crisis de-escalation and trauma-informed care. Others serve their communities by running outreach programs and connecting people to resources that make crime less likely.
Other Criminal Justice Social Work Job Opportunities and Titles
Not everyone who advocates for people’s rights in the justice system have the same title or responsibilities. In fact, many positions you may be interested in don’t even have “social worker” in the name.
Some career paths and job opportunities you may want to explore include:
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).
- Mental health social worker.
- Transitional housing manager or coordinator.
- Reentry specialist.
- Arbitration specialist.
- Victim advocate.
- Juvenile case manager.
- Restorative justice facilitator.
- Criminal justice researcher or analyst.
- Probation or parole officer.
Coordinator, specialist, and social worker jobs are often open to people with social work experience in other fields (child welfare, healthcare, etc.). However, LCSW, probation and parole officer, and analyst roles may require extra certifications, education, and experience.
Where Do Criminal Justice Social Workers Work?
Criminal justice advocates and social workers can be found working for agencies focused on every step of the legal process. However, their exact duties and the types of clients they serve vary widely from place to place.
Correctional facility social workers typically have two main responsibilities. The first is advocating for inmates’ rights. This often includes working with outside healthcare and mental health providers and local civil rights groups.
Their second objective is to prepare inmates for reentry into society. Many correctional facilities host job training and work release programs, substance abuse and mental health support groups, and allow inmates to earn their degrees. While social workers may not actually run all of these programs by themselves, they make sure everyone gets the services they need.
Probation and Parole Offices
When an offender is on probation or parole, they must typically abide by certain conditions like abstaining from drugs and alcohol, maintaining employment, and completing community service hours. But for people battling addiction or struggling to readjust to life outside of prison, these tasks aren’t always easy.
Social workers can help them find jobs, substance abuse counseling, and other resources that help them avoid more jail time and become happy, healthy people. Some social workers even transition into probation and parole officer roles after completing the required training.
Social workers are often employed by local court systems to help victims, offenders, and witnesses understand and navigate proceedings. When these professionals have already had contact with their clients before their court cases began, they can also provide witness testimony and offer recommendations to the court. This is especially valuable for cases involving juvenile offenders, family law and custody hearings, and domestic violence.
Victim Service and Advocacy Agencies
Victim advocates support clients and their families by offering emotional support and trauma-informed counseling following a crime. They can also connect victims to relevant services and make sure court decisions truly protect and serve them. Victim service agencies are operated by courts, law firms, and county attorney offices or are their own independent organizations.
While the practice of sending social workers to respond to calls themselves is relatively new and rare, they can aid law enforcement officers in many other ways.
Some departments employ social workers to train officers to respond to people battling mental health crises, poverty, and substance abuse with de-escalation techniques. After officers have gotten the situation under control, social workers can step in to address the person’s immediate and long-term needs. In some cases, people aren’t arrested at all. Instead, they’re connected to the life-saving services they truly need.
Crime isn’t just an individual problem. It’s a community-wide one with roots in poverty, discrimination, and other wider issues. Social workers who work for nonprofit and community-based organizations often provide and connect people to resources that address local crime-related issues. Some organizations conduct research to inform new laws and policing practices.
Where To Find Criminal Justice Social Work Jobs in California
California employs almost 330,000 community and social service workers and about 147,000 legal professionals. So whether you’re looking to start a career in forensic social work or pivot into another related role, the state is home to an impressive amount of career opportunities.
If you’re just beginning your own job search, you may want to investigate roles with:
- San Quentin State Prison and other adult correctional facilities. San Quentin, Mule Creek, and other large detention facilities employ social workers of all kinds. Many even employ Licensed Clinical Social Workers to administer mental health treatments directly and on-site.
- The Division of Adult Parole Operations (DAPO). DAPO oversees California’s probation and offender reentry programs. While DAPO Headquarters in Irvine may present some unique administrative opportunities, frontline social work and probation officer jobs can be found in the over 100 local offices across the state.
- Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC). ARC strives to end mass incarceration in California by serving former and current prisoners and advocating for policy reform. ARC itself employs mental health professionals, housing coordinators, re-entry specialists, researchers, and more, but they also work with other nonprofits across the state.
- Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR). The OYCR is a division of the California Health and Human Services agency. They’re responsible for researching and crafting equitable, evidence-based policies about the state’s court-involved youth.
- City and county social service agencies. While the OYCR is focused on making policies, California’s city and county social service departments are the agencies responsible for carrying them out. However, these organizations employ social workers of all kinds.
- The Victims’ Services Unit (VSU) of the California Department of Justice. VSU works tirelessly to ensure all victims’ rights are respected. While they often work with local agencies to accomplish this task, they also provide services themselves to make sure no victim falls through the cracks.
Forensic social work job opportunities don’t end with these organizations. In fact, many cooperate with community-based agencies across the state. If you’re interested in working with a smaller social service provider, you may want to investigate which ones frequently partner with the state’s larger agencies.
How To Become a Criminal Justice Social Worker in California
Becoming a criminal justice social worker in California isn’t too different from becoming any other type of social service provider. Many entry-level jobs require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). More advanced roles often require a Masters of Social Work (MSW). This is because at the Master’s level, students often get to specialize in a specific type of social work while they also learn about more general yet highly advanced principles.
However, if you’d like to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and provide psychotherapeutic mental health services to clients, the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS) says an MSW is required. You’ll also have to complete fieldwork hours after graduation, pass a state clinical social work exam, and apply for a license through the BBS.
And while many types of social workers have to pass background checks, social workers who who work with inmates, victims, and otherwise vulnerable people who are involved with the legal system almost always do. You may also be asked to provide fingerprints to state and federal authorities. If you become an LCSW, this step is required.
Criminal Justice Social Work Salaries in California
Even though forensic social work is its own unique field, the people who work in it can have a number of different titles. For this reason, it’s difficult to present an accurate average salary for criminal justice social workers in California with just one number. Instead, it may be more helpful to look at salary data for various related positions.
Criminal justice social workers who serve families and juvenile offenders may be grouped with child, family, and school social workers. In California, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that this group makes an average salary of $66,340.
Others focus more on the mental health and substance abuse issues their clients face. According to the BLS, they make an average wage of $81,720.
Professionals whose duties don’t completely align with either category might be considered social workers (all other) in BLS data. This group makes an average annual salary of $61,420. Professionals who go on to become probation officers and correctional treatment specialists earn an average of $97,300 in California — the highest in the nation.
For a more in-depth look at criminal justice social work salaries in California, refer to the following table of BLS-reported income data. Entry-level workers often fall between the 10th percentile and median range. Experienced professionals, LCSWs, and those with MSWs often make salaries that reflect the higher end of the range.
Social Work Specialty
Child, Family, and School Social Workers
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Treatment Specialists
Social Workers (All Other)
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists
Table data taken from 2022 BLS reports for California.
2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for child, family, and school social workers, healthcare social workers, mental health and substance abuse social workers, and social workers (all other) are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed December 2023.
Discover more about other social work specializations in California.