The arrival of MOOCs and other free online courses has radically changed the higher education landscape, and criminal justice is no different. There is a wealth of free introductory and advanced courses in criminal justice. Online classes for criminal justice include policy, theory, ethics, and history. By studying policy, theory, and ethics, the student will get a better understanding of what criminal justice is all about. More technological classes like forensics and other advanced science classes are less likely to be discounted on price or “free”. Online classes for criminal justice for free are often available for students who want to learn more about the field but aren’t sure if they want to enroll in a degree or certification program. These “free” classes give students a chance to explore their options without having to pay out of pocket.
Besides MOOCs, many elite institutions offer classes that can be audited or reviewed at little or no cost to the student. If they choose to enroll in an online criminal justice degree program, the grades from the audited or “free” classes will be added to your accumulated GPA. The best to defray all or part of the cost of all your classes is to apply for both scholarships and grants. This ensures that every class you take is eligible to be added to your final GPA.
The courses presented here are all totally free, though many offer a certificate for an added cost. Courses are presented in alphabetical order by the institution offering them.
1. Introduction to International Criminal Law
Case Western Reserve University – Coursera
Introduction to International Criminal Law is one of the free criminal justice courses online. Professor Michael Scharf offers eight units, complete with assigned readings, video lectures, and online role-playing exercises. The topics are controversial and thought provoking, with coverage of terrorism, genocide, piracy, and war crimes including Nuremberg trial, Saddam Hussein, as well as Al-Qaeda terrorists and Somali pirates.
This online course explores topics related to Peace versus Justice, Terrorism and Piracy, Unique Modes of Liability, Specialized Defenses, Gaining Custody of the Accused, and Maintaining Control of the Courtroom. To reinforce the learning experience, the course includes enrichment quizzes, a mid-term multiple-choice exam, and a True/False exam. The course is designed to be a flexible and immersive experience that can be completed in approximately 12 hours of online study.
2. Civic Engagement in American Democracy
Duke University – Coursera
Civic Engagement in American Democracy is a free online criminal justice course, which explores how the political system works in the US. Dr. Nicholas Carnes and Dr. Bruce Jentleson are joined by contributors from Duke University to explore the foundation of American politics, including the key figures, why and how they are important to Democracy, and how everyday American citizen can make a difference in the pollical system.
This online course is designed to be flexible so each student can learn at his or her own pace, with flexible deadlines. This exploration of civic engagement offers essential details into the survey of American Democracy in 21st-century American. This beginner-level course is estimated to take approximately 14 hours to complete.
3. Understanding Violence
Emory University – Coursera
Understanding Violence is one of the free criminal justice courses online. The instructors are Deb Houry, MD, MPH, and Pamela Scully, Ph.D. Together, they offer insight into violence, which leads to disability, death, and healthcare requirements. In addition to the focus on reduction of violence, President Jimmy Carter discusses Carter Center activities, as well as its work in human rights. This course features discussion, short videos, and readings, with a focus on reducing violence.
Dr. Houry and Dr. Scully discuss media relations and portrayals in films and news reports. Violent crime can include stalking, rape, homicide, sexual assault, youth violence, domestic violence, elder maltreatment, cyber-bullying, suicide, partner violence, and gang violence. The instructors discuss the statistics of violence as well as offer global perspectives and cultural contexts. This online course taps into a flexible, beginner-level curriculum, which takes approximately 15 hours to complete, with flexible deadlines.
4. Terrorism and Counterterrorism
Georgetown University – EdX
Terrorism and Counterterrorism is one of the free online criminal justice courses. Daniel Byman, Christine Fair, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Piller, and Jordan Abu-Sirriya, from Georgetown, focus on terrorism as an important security issue. The course identifies causes of terrorism, as well as definitions, scope, and limits. The instructors focus on the tactics and strategies of groups that include the Hamas, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State. It also covers the rule of law and counterterrorism, recruiting, technology as it relates to terrorism, and political contexts in the Middle East and South Asia.
This Terrorism course covers the dangers as well as how the international community responds via counterterrorism tools. Terrorism affects nearly every country around the world, with some groups failing and others succeeding in their acts of terror. The introductory course runs for 7 weeks, with flexible deadlines. Georgetown also has an abbreviated 3-section course on Terrorism and Counterterrorism.
5. Incarceration’s Witnesses: American Prison Writing
Hamilton College – EdX
Incarceration’s Witnesses: American Prison Writing is one of the free criminal justice courses online. Doran Larson is the instructor, from Hamilton College. The length of this introductory course is 4 weeks. This online coursework offers an in-depth study of incarceration, with a focus on first-person testimonials by prisoner witnesses in the US. This introductory course surveys the history of the prison system from 1790 to 2015 to facilitate a better understanding of the mass-scale prison’s rise.
The course includes these literary texts: Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America, and The (online) American Prison Writing Archive. It is designed to follow the literary history of prison life, with day-to-day practices, the rise of the mass prison, and rehabilitation. The course offers insight into the history of incarceration and prison writing, but these first-person testimonials help with a better understanding of what the prison system is all about.
Harvard University – EdX
Justice is one of the free online criminal justice courses, taught by Michael Sandel from Harvard University. This online course facilitates a better understanding of criminal justice and social justice with a focus on topics like income distribution, human rights, same-sex marriage, and affirmative action. The course lasts for 12 weeks, focusing on contemporary and classical theories of criminal justice, with flexible deadlines.
This introduction to Justice is one of the most popular courses at Harvard, with more than 15,000 attendees over the time he has taught the class. It is an essential primer in political and moral philosophy, with readings on John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, and Aristotle, as well as readings on court cases and articles. This online course supports and facilitates a better understanding of criminal and social justice, with underlying issues of same-sex marriage, affirmative action, and equality.
7. Terrorism and Counterterrorism
Leiden University – Coursera
Terrorism and Counterterrorism is one of the free criminal justice courses online, with instructors Edwin Bakker and Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn from Leiden University. This free online course explores the controversial and headline-grabbing threats of terrorism. Beyond defining terms and exploring how terrorism affects the premise of peace and security, the instructors delve into who is targeted and why. Before there can be a full understanding and discussion of what terrorism is and how it impacts governments, citizens, and businesses around the world, it is important to understand the terrorist’s purpose.
Why are terrorists at the center of so much fear? As the instructors explore the phenomenon of terrorism, they review assumptions, theories, and conventional wisdom around terrorism studies. How does academia reflect upon the rise of perceived threats, while picking apart fact from fallacy? Beyond the myths, a study of terrorism is not complete without a discussion of policymaking, as a response to the myths and realities of terror. This beginner-level course is designed to take approximately 23 hours to complete, with flexible deadlines.
8. International Law in Action
Leiden University – Coursera
International Law in Action is one of the free online criminal justice courses. Carsten Stahn and Sergey Vasiliev are the two instructors for this free online course. This is the second course in the International Law series from Leiden University, offering an insider perspective on the work of tribunals and the international criminal courts system. Instead of the more-generalized approach of the first course, this second online course offers an in-depth look at how the international criminal courts work, with outcomes and discussion about how criminal justice and accountability could improve.
The course focuses on the legacy of the criminal tribunals, facilitated by the UN, but it also explores the Labanga Case, where the International Criminal Court first convicted a war criminal, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, for enlisting and conscripting child soldiers among other crimes against humanity. The course is designed to take approximately 17 hours to complete, with flexible deadlines.
9. Law in the Time of COVID-19
Northwestern University – Coursera
Law in the Time of COVID-19 is one of the free criminal justice courses online, with Daniel B. Rodriguez as the Northwestern instructor. This pandemic era has already been at the center of a maelstrom of legal battles at the national, state, and local levels. Economic turmoil has risen to the heights of crisis. The shelter-in-place orders have facilitated individual health and safety directives, which have instigated debates, demonstrations, and regulatory briefs.
The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), as well as health care strategies and directives, have inspired debate and legal considerations around COVID-19. Legal issues continue even as surveillance and tracing lead to questions of control strategies and the public good. This beginner-level course is designed to be completed in approximately 11 hours, with flexible deadlines.
10. Media Law
NYU – EdX
Media Law is one of the free online criminal justice courses, with instructors Erik Dykema and Beth Rosenberg from New York University. The online course explores the legal implications of media in relation to privacy, art, and law. The instructors cover a range of topics including Open Source public licensure, Digital Rights Management, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Fair Use, and Creative Commons.
Before entering the world of media in any meaningful way, students must fully understand and appreciate how these topics will impact every aspect of digital media. The range of legal issues covered here have been at the center of controversial digital media work, with court decisions that inform the workings so all creative and design professionals. This introductory course is designed to last 14 weeks, with a focus on building your expertise in ethical issues and legal frameworks.
11. Writing for Social Justice
University of California, Berkeley – EdX
Writing for Social Justice is one of the free criminal justice courses online. Maggie Sokolik is the Director of College Writing Programs at the University of California, Berkley, so she is ideally credentialed to train students on the power of words and the importance of persuasive writing. In this course, Sokolik explores how writing can impact social, political, and personal issues. It can change hearts and minds, while engaging with an active audience in a public arena.
Writing for Social Justice is a primer that demonstrates how to affect change in personal, local, national, and global environments. While the result could be to inspire new perspectives and world-changing solutions, it could also be as simple as keeping a journal to identify issues, writing letters to local and national leaders, launching a podcast or blog, and sharing ideas via articles or local discussions.
12. Incarceration: Are Prisons Suitable Punishment?
University of Leeds
Incarceration: Are Prisons Suitable Punishment? is one of the free online criminal justice courses from the University of Leeds. Richard Peak is the instructor, as he explores law and punishment with a focus on the life inside UK prisons. Peak discusses the role of the incarceration in overcrowded prisons and whether this type of punishment is the best way to prevent crime. What are the challenges? Are there alternative ways to punish crime and rehabilitate wrongdoers? Peak identifies the aims and justifications for imprisonment, while discussing the ethical implications of and alternatives to the prison system. Punishment for less serious crimes could involve community orders, fines, or even a suspended sentence; but what works for more serious crimes if the prison system is called into questions?
Peak explores prison conditions and rehabilitation efforts as part of his examination of the realities of fostering real personal improvement and the development of life skills. The course is designed to offer a full primer into the realities as well as the physical and moral implications of confinement. If prison and incarceration is the best solution to facilitate rehabilitation, then the focus should be on resolving the overcrowding, safety and security concerns, as well as drug misuse. The course is designed to last two weeks.
13. Forensic Science and Criminal Justice
University of Leicester
Forensic Science and Criminal Justice is one of the free criminal justice courses online. The course features a mix of articles, videos, and activities to encourage exploration, discussion, and understanding. The course focuses on a review of the technological advances that have contributed to discoveries with law-enforcement ramifications. DNA profiling alone has influenced the criminal justice system by exonerating and freeing individuals, while identifying and incarcerating those who are proven to be guilty.
Despite the wild leaps forward in Forensic Science in relation to the Criminal Justice System, there is still significant progress that needs to be made to further improve practices and interpretation of the physical evidence. Forensic Science has been romanticized by TV shows like CSI, but it also gets caught up in debates and controversies concerning biometric databases. This free online course is designed to last for six weeks, with a mix of articles, videos, and activities. The course is designed for those individuals considering roles as a Forensic Expert, Lawyer, Police Officer, Judge, etc.
14. Introduction to Environmental Law and Policy
University of North Carolina – Coursera
Introduction to Environmental Law and Policy is one of the free online criminal justice courses, with Donald Hornstein as the instructor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In this free online course, Professor Hornstein explores legal issues and ramifications around water law, pollution, toxic substances, environmental risk, endangered species, and environmental impact analyses.
The syllabus includes videos, readings, and quizzes. The coursework explores exotic species, legal theory, air and water pollution, as well as the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). The focus of the class is on environmental health issues around the American Safe Drinking Water Act, with the basic human right to have healthy air and water. The course is designed to be completed in approximately 14 hours, with flexible deadlines.
15. An Introduction to American Law
University of Pennsylvania – Coursera
An Introduction to American Law is one of the free criminal justice courses online. The instructors for the course are Anita Allen, Shyam Balganesh, Stephen Morse, Theodore Ruger, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, and Tobias Barrington Wolff, from the University of Pennsylvania. The beginner-level course explores American law: Constitutional Law, Tort Law, Property, Criminal Law, Contract Law, and Civil Procedure.
The application of American law is not always easy or straightforward; it is fraught with complications in what is so often American approaches. The beginner-level course is designed to take 9 hours from start to completion, with flexible deadlines. This American Law course features videos, readings, and quizzes to support learning and reinforce understanding.
16. Introduction to Key Constitutional Concepts and Supreme Court Cases
University of Pennsylvania – Coursera
Introduction to Key Constitutional Concepts and Supreme Court Cases is one of the free online criminal justice courses, with Professor Kermit Roosevelt, III, as the instructor, from the University of Pennsylvania. The beginner-level course is designed for completion in six hours, with flexible deadlines. The course syllabus consists of 6 videos for each section: The Constitution & Three Branches of Government, Amendments & the First Amendment, Criminal Procedure & Federalism and Nationalism, and The Fourteenth Amendment & Modern Controversies.
University of Pennsylvania – Coursera
Corruption is one of the free criminal justice courses online. Philip Nichols is the instructor, from The Wharton School. This intermediate-level course is designed to be completed in eight hours, with flexible deadlines. This online course defines corruption, with an exploration of the impact on millions of citizens in the US and around the world. Nichols discusses institutions like the black market and loansharking, which are based on shady dealings and mistrust. What are the true costs of corruption to social development and the economy?
On an individual level, corruption directly correlates with bribery, fines, settlements, and other claims, but the adverse side effects relate to reputation management. How does corruption affect an individual’s reputation, and what is the direct impact of corruption on relationships? While individual repercussions may be difficult to quantify, the effects can be far-ranging and disastrous. Nichols, then, explores how to control corruption on an organizational level, with analysis on how industries, firms, and organized societies are set up to mange corruption. The coursework consists of videos, reading, and quizzes to introduce and reinforce knowledge retention.
18. Intellectual Property Law and Policy 1 and 2
University of Pennsylvania – EdX
Intellectual Property Law and Policy 1 and 2 are two free online criminal justice courses. The instructor is R. Polk Wagner, from the University of Pennsylvania. This intermediate-level online course is designed to extend over six weeks. The two-part course offers an overview on intellectual property law, including the theory as well as a brief primer on how patent law is supposed to work, with disclosure requirements, what makes it valid, understanding the scope and enforcement, as well as details about the tradeoffs.
From that individual, singular focus on intellectual property in Part 1 of the course, Wagner jumps off into the deep waters of trademark law and copyright in Part 2. He explores alternatives and what might be the future of patent law and Intellectual Property. Along the way, this course delves into IP cases, with a look at the implications for policy and law. The course is listed under Law study and coursework, but this is one of the most useful free courses that anyone and everyone should experience first-hand.
19. Psychology of Criminal Justice
University of Queensland – EdX
Psychology of Criminal Justice is one of the free criminal justice courses online. The instructors are Blake McKimmie, Mark Horswill, and Barbara Masser from the University of Queensland. This introductory online course is designed to range over eight weeks of study in the Humanities subject. The instructors approach the law and justice with a psychological viewpoint in mind. The class presents students with a fictional scenario, whereby students explore psychological ramifications and misconceptions related to law and the justice system.
This course could be valuable to students of every discipline as it fosters a better understanding and appreciation of the criminal justice system. The goal is to discuss and consider how law and justice can be improved in its administration. Key components of the course include the process of investigating a crime scene, interviewing the witnesses, identifying the suspect, questioning the suspect, preparing for trial, trying the suspect, and a conclusion. This free online course may just help to bring about a reevaluation of the criminal justice system and process of crime and punishment.
20. Crime, Justice, and Society
University of Sheffield
Crime, Justice, and Society is one of the free online criminal justice courses. Matthew Bacon is the lecturer, from the University of Sheffield. This online course is designed to range of 8 weeks. This course explores the criminal justice system as well as the role of the state to regulate crime, specifically focused on police, lawyers, former prisoners, and probation officers. While the focus is often on regulation and prosecution, this free online course also explores victimization and available support for victims. The course is designed to facilitate debate and learning around topics of policing, restorative justice, desistance, prisons and confinement, victims and victim support, as well as community sanctions and measures.
21. From Crime to Punishment: An Introduction to Criminal Justice
University of York
From Crime to Punishment: An Introduction to Criminal Justice is one of the free criminal justice courses online. Charlie Tye, from the University of York, is the instructor of this course, with a focus on crime in Wales and England. The course explores crime, with a look at the definition, extent, investigation, prosecution, defense, adjudication, and sentencing. How effective is the criminal justice system in the UK, and how does criminal justice intersect with the institutions of lawyers, police, and judges?
This online course encourages students to step inside the courtroom to experience the realities of criminal justice, live and in person. It is a great way to learn how the courts work, and also to gain insight into the courts and police. The course is designed to last over 4 weeks, with flexible deadlines. It is also an important introductory course for students in law and criminal justice.
22. Supreme Court and American Politics
University System of Maryland – EdX
Supreme Court and American Politics is one of the free online criminal justice courses. Lyle Denniston is a Supreme Court journalist and Visiting Professor at the University of Baltimore. This introductory online course is designed to last for 8 weeks in the Law subject area. The history of the United States Supreme Court is fraught with controversy, immersed in political life, from the first President to the current administration.
In its role as “the custodian of American Democracy,” the Supreme Court has impacted traditions, procedures, and independence. It has important sway and impact on legal representation and voting processes. In its position as the highest court in the US, it stands apart from American politics just as it is unavoidably immersed in and impacted by what happens in US law and order.
23. Hot Topics in Criminal Justice
Vanderbilt University – Coursera
Hot Topics in Criminal Justice is one of the free criminal justice courses online, with Christopher Slobogin as the instructor from Vanderbilt University. This beginner-level online course is designed to be completed in approximately 19 hours, with flexible deadlines. The United States makes up only 5% of the total population of the world, but it incarcerates 25% of the prisoners (totaling 2.4 million people).
The criminal justice system needs reform, not only in the policing power but also in the way the criminal justice system should work to separate the most dangerous and culpable. With so many outstanding issues related to law and punishment, incarceration, the death penalty, insanity, and neuroscience, the goal is to encourage reassessment and reevaluation of the criminal justice system with an eye toward improving it. The course includes six videos for each course section.
24. Property and Liability
Wesleyan University – Coursera
Property and Liability is one of the free online criminal justice courses. Richard Adelstein is the instructor from Wesleyan University. This free online course is designed to be completed in approximately 18 hours, with flexible deadlines. Professor Adelstein explores property, law, and proportional liability with videos, readings, and quizzes.
This introductory course offers an overview on legal history and law, with insight from liability and property. Professor Adelstein offers examples and his own expertise to present this introduction into Law and Economics. It’s comprehensive and easy to understand.
25. America’s Unwritten Constitution
Yale University – Coursera
America’s Unwritten Constitution is one of the free criminal justice courses online. Akhil Reed Amar, from Yale University, is the instructor. This free online course is designed to take approximately 18 hours to complete the videos and readings, with flexible deadlines. Professor Amar explores the basics of constitutional interpretation over 13 modules. To better understand the Constitution, it is important to first understand the context of the time, but then to be able to read between the lines to interpret exactly what the text is saying.
Professor Amar explores fundamental rights that are recognized today, even though they were never explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. An understanding of case law cannot be complete without an exploration of the Supreme Court decisions, from 1953 to 1969, where key decisions like Miranda v. Arizona, Brown v. Board of Education, and Griswold v. Connecticut influenced case law and the very substance of American society. Past decisions and case study inform the present, but they also help in a better understanding of the Constitution.
Beyond the Constitution, this course explores Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the Federalist papers. Professor Amar includes the 19th Amendment, which not only enfranchised women but had far greater ramifications for legislation both past and present. The course explores the impact of George Washington on the executive office as well as legal precedent, but also how the “gaps” have been filled to meet need-based scenarios in the context of the human dimension. The goal is to do the right thing, but government is made up of humans with hearts, minds, and consciences. With so much history, and a wealth of documentary materials involved, the future of the Constitution and law may look quite different than what is currently envisioned. That is to be expected, but that is not a bad thing.
Can I Get a Free Criminal Justice Degree Online?
While there are many free online criminal justice courses, finding a completely free, legitimate degree is harder. All online degrees carry some form of cost. However, the cost of earning your education can be defrayed by first choosing one of the more affordable options. Secondly, grants and scholarships are considered monetary gifts that are to be used to cover the cost of your education. They do not have to be paid back like most student loans so students don’t have to worry about dealing with a lot of debt once they graduate.
Students who go back to school after they have already started working in the criminal justice field may be able to enter into an education reimbursement plan with their current employer. Employers may choose to reimburse a student’s educational costs if the student agrees to continue to work for them after they graduate. The employer may choose to pay all or part of the student’s online criminal justice courses. Most employers demand that the student pass all of their classes with a specific GPA or higher.
Will a Free Online Criminal Justice Certificate Help My Career?
A free online criminal justice certificate can definitely get you started in the right direction if you want to pursue a degree in that field. Certificate programs are designed to provide students with an abundance of information that is both up to date as well as supplemental. It’s the ideal option for anyone who is already working a full-time job within the criminal justice field. Certificate programs are much shorter than traditional degree programs. These types of programs are also beneficial for students who need continuing education classes. This allows the student to keep their credentials as well as continue to learn about their particular field of interest.
Degree programs supply a lot of the information that a new hire would need if they had just taken on a new position. Certificate programs rely on the student already having a working knowledge of the criminal justice field. They provide new information that the student may have not had a chance to learn while on the job. By earning a certificate online, students can continue to work at their full-time job and go to school at the same time. Certificate programs also a more flexible schedule than most two- or four-year degree programs.
Can I Take Courses in Law for Free Online?
Although free online law classes are not necessarily “free”, you can find ways to pay for them so you don’t have to cover all of the costs yourself. If you find a free online law course, read the fine print and find out if there is something you need to do to keep the course cost-free. The best way to take a free online law course is to apply for a grant or scholarship and use that money to pay for your education. Even your employer can offer to cover all or at least a portion of your education costs.
If you are interested in learning how to study law online for free, the key is to find out what courses are available that are affordable and credible. While some of the lesser classes may be free due to auditing or as a “teaser” course, you will still have to pay for the more advanced law courses. Classes like forensics and lab courses cost money. This is where applying for scholarships and grants can really pay off. Even employer reimbursement programs are a possible option when trying to cover the cost of your education. If you are already working, employer reimbursement programs are an ideal option especially if you plan on staying with the company.