How to Become a Forensic (Criminal Justice) Social Worker

If you’re intrigued by the intersection of social work and the criminal justice system, the forensic social worker career path might be the perfect fit for you. Forensic social workers play a critical role in advocating for justice, providing support to vulnerable populations, and influencing policy changes. 

Individuals who are interested in how to become a forensic social worker can explore the education, responsibilities, and impact of this rewarding career. Whether you’re a student considering your career options or a working professional looking to pivot, it’s important to understand what a forensic social worker is, what they do, and their salary prospects and job growth outlook. 

What Is a Forensic Social Worker?

A forensic social worker is a specialized professional who operates at the intersection of social work and the legal system. They apply social work principles to various settings within the criminal justice system, including courts, correctional facilities, and community organizations. However, their work is not limited to criminal cases; they also provide services in civil matters such as domestic violence cases and immigration issues. 

Unlike traditional social workers who focus solely on individual well-being, forensic social workers aim to ensure justice is served. They conduct psychosocial assessments, provide expert testimony in court, and develop treatment plans for clients. They also work with a diverse range of clients, including victims of crime, offenders, families, and even professionals within the legal system.

What Does a Forensic Social Worker Do?

Criminal justice social workers wear many hats, and their roles can vary depending on the setting and their clients’ needs. Below are some of the key responsibilities and areas where they can make a significant impact.

Daily Responsibilities

  • Client Assessment: Conduct comprehensive assessments to understand clients’ social, emotional, and legal needs
  • Case Management: Coordinate with various agencies and professionals to ensure clients receive their needed services
  • Advocacy: Represent the interests of clients in legal settings, often providing expert testimony
  • Counseling: Offer emotional support and therapeutic services to clients dealing with trauma or stress
  • Report Writing: Prepare detailed reports for court proceedings, which may include recommendations for sentencing, treatment, or child custody

Types of Cases Handled

Criminal justice social workers are involved in a wide range of cases, such as:

  • Criminal defense
  • Child welfare and custody
  • Domestic violence
  • Substance abuse
  • Mental health cases
  • Immigration and asylum

Role in Court Proceedings

In court, forensic social workers serve as a crucial link between the legal system and the client’s well-being. They may: 

  • Provide expert testimony
  • Assist attorneys in understanding the social and psychological aspects of a case
  • Advocate for alternative sentencing, like rehabilitation programs over incarceration 

By understanding the nuances of both the social work and legal fields, forensic social workers are uniquely positioned to advocate for more equitable outcomes for their clients.

How to Become a Forensic Social Worker

Becoming a forensic social worker requires a combination of education, licensing, and practical experience.  

1. Meet Educational Requirements

The first step toward a social work career is to fulfill the educational requirements. For forensic social work, you can start by enrolling in a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program or a bachelor’s degree program in a related field such as psychology or sociology. 

After earning a bachelor’s degree, you can proceed to enroll in a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree program, which is a requirement to become a criminal justice social worker. Not all MSW programs require a BSW; an advanced-standing MSW program can require a BSW. You should ensure that any program you’re enrolling in, whether BSW or MSW, is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)

2. Gain Licensure and Certification 

After completing your MSW, you’ll need to obtain state licensure to practice as a social worker. This licensure is usually required in non-entry-level social work roles. Since each state has unique licensing requirements, you should check the requirements in your state. You can also increase your credibility by getting certified by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). This way, you will open doors to more opportunities.

3. Gather Experience

Gaining real-world experience on your journey to becoming a criminal justice social worker is important. You can start with entry-level positions in social work and then expand from there. Meanwhile, you should note that specialized training in forensic social work is often offered through continuing education programs or on-the-job training.

4. Complete Continuing Education

By continuing your education, you can stay updated with the latest practices in the forensic social science field. Many professionals do this by attending workshops, seminars, and conferences focused on forensic social work. 

Why Become a Criminal Justice Social Worker?

Choosing a career is a significant decision, and it’s essential to understand the benefits and challenges of the path you’re considering. Here are some compelling reasons why becoming a forensic criminal justice social worker can be a rewarding experience.

Personal and Professional Rewards

  • Job Satisfaction: The ability to impact people’s lives and the justice system can be incredibly fulfilling.
  • Skill Development: You’ll gain unique skills that combine social work and legal expertise.
  • Diverse Work: No two days are the same, offering a dynamic and stimulating work environment.

Impact on the Community

  • Social Justice: You can play a role in advocating for fair treatment and justice for marginalized communities.
  • Policy Influence: You’ll have the opportunity to influence public policy and systemic changes.
  • Community Support: You’ll provide essential services and support to individuals and families in crisis.

Career Longevity and Stability

  • Growing Demand: As social issues become more complex, the need for forensic social workers is expected to rise.
  • Career Progression: Numerous opportunities for career advancement, including managerial roles or specialized areas within forensic social work.

Where Do Forensic Social Workers Work?

Forensic social workers can be found in various settings, each offering different challenges and opportunities. Knowing where you can work can help you tailor your education and career path accordingly.

Courts and Legal Settings

  • Family Courts: Assist in cases involving child custody, divorce, and domestic violence
  • Criminal Courts: Work with defendants, victims, and their families to provide social context in criminal cases
  • Civil Courts: Become involved in lawsuits where emotional or psychological well-being is a concern

Correctional Facilities

  • Prisons and Jails: Provide services to inmates, including mental health support and reentry planning
  • Juvenile Detention Centers: Work with young offenders, focusing on rehabilitation and family reunification

Community Organizations

  • Nonprofits: Engage in advocacy work, community outreach, and direct service provision
  • Government Agencies: Work in various capacities, such as child protective services or mental health agencies


  • Emergency Rooms: Assist victims of violence or accidents and their families
  • Psychiatric Units: Work with patients dealing with mental health issues that may have legal implications

Forensic Social Worker Salary

The average salary of a forensic social worker is based on factors like location, experience, and specialization. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the median annual salary for social workers was about $55,350 in May 2022. The same data showed that the lowest 10% of social workers earned less than $36,600 while the highest 10% earned more than $87,300.

The average annual salary for forensic social workers was about $68,000 as of 2023, according to ZipRecruiter. For location-based forensic social worker salary, ZipRecruiter data showed that the highest paying states are Washington, with an average salary of around $79,000; New York, with an average salary of around $75,000; and California, with an average salary of around $73,000.

Forensic Social Worker Career and Job Growth

The field of forensic social work is not just rewarding; it’s also growing.  

Ten-Year Job Growth Projection

According to the BLS, openings for social worker positions, including those in the forensic field, are expected to increase 7% between 2022 and 2032. This rate is faster than the average for all occupations combined.

Emerging Areas in Forensic Social Work

  • Restorative Justice: A focus on repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior
  • Immigration and Asylum Cases: Increasing need for social workers skilled in navigating immigration laws
  • Mental Health Advocacy: Growing awareness of mental health issues in the criminal justice system

Forensic Social Worker Degrees

To become a forensic social worker, specific educational degrees are generally required. Here’s a breakdown.

Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)

A BSW provides the foundational skills needed for an entry-level position in social work. The BSW curriculum can vary by program, with approximately 120 to 130 total credit hours. About 51 hours are allocated to social welfare hours, 37 hours for general education requirements, 32 hours for electives, and 12 hours for field practicum. You should expect these programs to cover subjects like psychology, sociology, and social welfare policy.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

A BSW degree is often not enough to become a forensic social worker. You’ll typically need to apply for an MSW program that offers specializations in forensic social work. The MSW program will provide you with advanced knowledge in the forensic social work field and also make you eligible for licensure and certifications. It takes approximately two years to complete an MSW program, with its curriculum courses covering advanced social policy, legal issues in social work, and forensic assessment.

Doctorate in Social Work (DSW)

The MSW is enough to start your career as a forensic social worker. But you might be interested in research, teaching, or high-level administrative roles that call for a Doctor of Social Work (DSW). A DSW program is usually a combination of coursework, dissertation, and practicals. The coursework for DSW differs from one program to another but generally covers advanced studies in social policy, research methods, and specialized areas of forensic social work. 

By understanding the educational paths available, you can plan your journey to becoming a forensic social worker more effectively.

Forensic Social Worker FAQ

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Forensic Social Worker?

A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) is often the starting point for a career in social work before going for a Master of Social Work (MSW), which is generally required to specialize in forensic social work. Some professionals opt for a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) for research, teaching, or high-level administrative roles.

What Do Forensic Social Workers Do?

Forensic social workers operate at the intersection of social work and the legal system. They advocate for clients in legal settings, provide expert testimony, and offer emotional support and therapeutic services. They are in charge of handling a variety of cases, including criminal defense, child welfare, domestic violence, and more.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Forensic Social Worker?

It will take approximately six years to complete the educational requirement of becoming a forensic social worker. The BSW typically takes four years of full-time study, while the MSW takes two additional years. Depending on the requirements, state licensure and optional certifications can add more time.

How Much Do Forensic Social Workers Make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for social workers was about $55,350 in May 2022. However, salary can vary based on factors such as location, experience, and specialization.

What Skills Do I Need to Be a Forensic Social Worker?

You need a combination of soft skills, technical skills, and the ability to adapt to various work settings. Some of the soft skills may include empathy, communication, and problem-solving skills, while technical skills include the knowledge of social welfare policy, legal procedures, and case management.

Are There Internship Opportunities for Forensic Social Workers?

Yes, internships are often a component of MSW programs to help you gain practical experience and network within the field. Opportunities may be available in courts, correctional facilities, community organizations, and hospitals.

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