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Forensic social workers, also referred to as criminal justice social workers, help people who are navigating the criminal justice system. These licensed social workers provide support services to their clients and connect them with resources.

They often work with clients who typically cannot deal with the legal system without assistance because of factors like mental illness, juvenile status, or abuse.

If you’re interested in helping and advocating for clients within the legal and corrections systems, forensic social work may be a good fit. In this guide, find out details about educational and licensing requirements, along with salary and employment data.

Featured Programs for Forensic Social Work

Steps to Become a Forensic Social Worker

Forensic social workers usually need a master’s degree and field experience to become eligible for licensure. Below are the typical steps needed to launch a career in criminal justice social work.

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree.
  2. Pursue a master of social work (MSW).
  3. Gain additional social work field experience.
  4. Pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam.
  5. Apply for state licensure.
  6. Consider additional certifications and credentials.

Generally, becoming a forensic social worker takes 6-8 years of academic training and supervised field experiences as part of social work degree programs and postmaster’s. The timeline and process of becoming a criminal justice social worker can vary depending on the state you plan to practice in. Other factors include full- or part-time enrollment and on-campus or online study.

Forensic Social Work Education Requirements

Forensic social work is an emerging specialty, and master’s degrees in forensic or criminal justice social work may not be common. However, it is still possible to earn a master of social work online or in person with a certificate in forensic social work or coursework in criminal justice, forensics, and law.

Bachelor’s Degree

Some jurisdictions may allow bachelor of social work-holders to become licensed social workers, but most require an MSW. A bachelor’s degree is required to enter the majority of MSW programs.

The bachelor’s degree does not need to be in social work; MSW admittees major in psychology, sociology, social sciences, and other fields. However, earning a bachelor of social work can award advanced-standing entry into an MSW program, which can shave a year or so off the time to a master’s degree.

Master’s Degree

An MSW is the minimum degree needed to become a licensed social worker and to practice independently. You may be able to find an MSW with a forensic social work concentration or a dual MSW and master’s in criminal justice.

MSW programs typically take 2-3 years and include field experiences totaling 900-1,000 hours, on average. Students can also expect to complete a thesis, capstone project, or practicum requirement. Admission to MSW programs may require GRE scores, but some schools make it optional.

Doctoral Degree

A doctorate of social work (DSW) is not required to become a forensic social worker unless you’re interested in a career as a professor, researcher, or high-level administrator. DSW programs often require a dissertation or capstone research project and may also require a residency and comprehensive exam.

Fieldwork is not usually a part of the DSW curriculum.

Forensic Social Work Graduate Certificate

Forensic social work graduate certificate programs take different forms and serve different types of students. Some programs admit current MSW enrollees. Others offer postmaster’s forensic social work certificates.

Graduate certificates include coursework in law, forensics, and criminal justice. It also includes fieldwork, labs, or capstones. Certificates usually take 1-2 years to complete.

Gain Additional Social Work Field Experience

State social work boards require supervised, postmaster’s field experience for licensing. The hours and social work licensing requirements vary by state but range from 1,500 to 6,400 hours, depending on license and educational level (e.g., master’s, doctoral).

Some states specify 2-3 years. Massachusetts, for example, bases its hourly requirement on how many years and level of schooling applicants complete. Again, jurisdictions vary, but they typically license clinical social workers (LCSWs) and master social workers (LMSWs).

Field experience offers the opportunity to further practice what was learned in the classroom and MSW internships in a real-world setting under the supervision of a licensed social worker. MSW-holders find positions in settings that include child and family services agencies, mental health clinics, and social services organizations.

Forensic social workers may benefit from supervised experience in a criminal justice or legal setting.

Pass the ASWB Examination

The final step to licensure requires passing the master’s exam developed and administered by the Association of Social Work Boards. Forensic social workers interested in practicing in a clinical setting can take the ASWB clinical exam.

The master’s and clinical exams require an MSW and the requisite number of hours mandated by the applicable social work state board. Some states may impose additional steps so check with your state’s social work board.

Practice tests and study guides are available on the ASWB exam website. Applicants register online, via fax, or by mail and, in most states, apply and pay for their license at the same time. Within two days of registration, applicants receive an email with steps for scheduling their exam date.

  • Degree/Experience Required: MSW
  • Exam Fee: $230
  • Exam Focus: Human development, diversity, and behavior in the environment; assessment and intervention planning; interventions with clients/client systems; professional relationships, values, and ethics

Apply for State Licensure

For most states, the general steps to apply for licensure are submitting an application through ASWB, paying the exam and license fees, and receiving approval to register for an ASWB exam.

Some states, including Texas, only allow candidates to apply for licensure after they take the exam. In this case, candidates apply for approval to take the exam rather than licensure.

Before applying for your license, be sure to visit your state’s board of social work website for specific information about license requirements and application procedures.

Consider Additional Social Work Certifications

While not required for social work licensure or practice, earning social work certifications or credentials can lead to more opportunities and higher salaries. This is especially true for an emerging field like forensic social work where a certificate can demonstrate expertise and advanced knowledge.

Certificates and credentials are available from the National Association of Social Workers in various specialty areas, including addictions, clinical, and children, youth, and family social work. In addition, the National Association of Forensic Counselors offers certification as a certified forensic social worker, a clinical-level credential for MSW and DSW degree-holders. Candidates apply to take the applicable certification examination.

Salary and Employment for Forensic Social Workers

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a median annual salary of $50,390 (or $24.23 an hour) for social workers, a broad category that includes forensic and criminal justice social workers. The May 2021 data reports that the lowest 10% earn less than $36,520 and the highest 10% more than $82,840.

Payscale data from April 2023 categorizes salaries by licensure with LMSWs making average annual salaries of $51,920 and LCSWs bringing in $62,600.

Salaries vary not only by license level, but also by education, certifications, employer, and geographic location. For example, the BLS lists median wages from local government social workers at $61,190, while individual and family services social workers earn $46,640.

Average Annual Salary for Forensic Social Workers, by Licensure
Licensed Master of Social Work$51,920
Licensed Clinical Social Worker$62,600

Source: Payscale

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to become a forensic social worker?

Becoming a forensic or criminal justice social worker can take 6-8 years, including earning a bachelor’s degree and an MSW, completing postmaster’s fieldwork hours, and taking the ASWB licensure exam.

What is the best degree for a forensic social worker?

The best degree for a forensic or criminal justice social worker is an MSW, which qualifies graduates to get licensure as LCSWs or LMSWs. Many employers require forensic social workers to hold licenses and most states only license at the master’s level.

What does a forensic social worker do?

Forensic social workers help clients navigate through the criminal justice and court systems. They may offer counseling and refer clients to resources, facilitate court-ordered mental health treatment or addiction rehabilitation, represent juveniles in court, or work with corrections officers.

Who do forensic social workers work with?

Forensic and criminal justice social workers help clients of all ages and collaborate with agency staff, court personnel, attorneys, corrections employees, and social services. Clients may include incarcerated individuals, abuse survivors, or juveniles embroiled in the legal system.