The vast majority of Americans are in favor of criminal justice reform. This indicates that colleges can and should be using their influence to make the justice system more fair and effective. Some colleges can demonstrate that they are doing this in a number of ways. This ranking highlights 30 American colleges that are especially dedicated to improving criminal justice.
Criminal justice is a broad topic, and it can be interpreted in a number of ways. However, this article focuses on colleges that specialize in:
- reforming criminal justice with an emphasis on preventing repeat offenses
- reducing the nonviolent prison population
- reducing crime through nondiscriminatory means
Additionally, criminal justice reform is a multifaceted process that advances slowly. Therefore, this ranking also considers the long-term efforts that colleges have had in criminal justice reform and the long-term commitments they are making for criminal justice in the future. These considerations ensure that the colleges featured in this article are truly committed to improving society through criminal justice amendments.
Any one of the 30 colleges ahead would be a strong choice for a student who wants to study within an institution that is proactively attempting to improve lives through reforming criminal justice. But it’s also possible that none of the colleges listed are right for you. If that’s the case, then this ranking can still be a vital resource. Each ranking contains a detailed summary of what the college is doing to improve criminal justice. These have been included for you to compare with your college options. If any college that you’re considering is treating criminal justice reform in a manner similar to the 30 colleges ahead, then that’s a strong indication that it’s a college worth attending.
The colleges in this article were initially identified through reviewing a range of sources that highlight that a college is conducting criminal justice reform-related activities, such as articles that discuss education’s potential to impact criminal justice systems and colleges that rank as the best colleges for studying criminal justice. These sources are as follows:
- Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Experts Highlight Higher Ed’s Impact on Criminal Justice Reform
- Insight Into Diversity, Law Schools Have Started a Criminal Justice Reform Movement
- Diverse Issues in Higher Education, A Year Later, Institutions Reflect on Systemic Changes Following the Murder of George Floyd
- The Best Schools, Top Prison College Programs [Guide for Inmates and Ex-Offenders]
- Niche, 2023 Best Colleges for Criminal Justice in America
- PrepScholar, The 9 Best Criminal Justice Schools
- University HQ, 40 Best Criminal Justice Schools, and Universities in the U.S
After identifying potential colleges from these sources, we then conducted further research before including them in this ranking. This was to ensure that the information in the source articles was accurate and to highlight further criminal justice efforts that the colleges were conducting.
The colleges are ranked with the following criteria:
- evidence of conducting a wide range of criminal justice reform activities
- evidence that the college has a long-term commitment to criminal justice reform
- evidence of innovation in criminal justice reform initiatives
- combined ranking on the methodology lists
The final ranking, from 30 to one, is as follows.
30. Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
The Innocence and Justice Clinic at Wake Forest University has two missions: to provide students with hands-on legal education opportunities and to highlight and rectify wrongful conviction claims in North Carolina. Among other things, it allows students to:
- review claims of innocence
- review criminal files
- interact with police investigators
Similarly, the Criminal Justice Program at the college allows students to both engage in intellectual discourse and acts as a resource for the broader community for criminal justice issues. Insight Into Diversity highlights Wake Forest University’s Criminal Justice Program and spoke to its director, Kami Chavis, JD.
29. Niagara University
Niagara Falls, New York
To improve the interactions between first responders, including police officers, and the public, Niagara University runs a First Responders Disability Awareness Training program, which holds training sessions across the US. In 2021, the college also completed a $185,000 Arnold Ventures and CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance-funded study into ways in which the college’s home county could increase probation success and protect public safety while doing so. University HQ considers Niagara University to be the eighth best criminal justice school in America.
28. University of Wisconsin-Platteville
The criminal justice education at the University of Wisconsin Platteville goes to great lengths to ensure that students are aware of systemic issues. One example is a 2021 learning opportunity where over 70 students met with inmates. The college also encourages first-year criminal justice-focused students to reside in a dedicated living and learning community. University HQ considers the University of Wisconsin-Platteville to be the 23rd best college for criminal justice in America. The Best Schools notes that it runs educational programs for incarcerated people.
27. Tiffin University
In 2022, Tiffin University created a summer camp designed to encourage high school students to pursue careers in forensic science and criminal investigation. The camp was so successful that it will return in the summer of 2023. The college also runs the Center for Justice and Social & Behavioral Research, which curates a range of public events and partners with the local community. University HQ considers Tiffin University to be the 38th best college for criminal justice in America. Niche names it the 69th best college for criminal justice.
26. Boston University
The White Hat Conference at Boston University held its third annual event in June 2022. It focused on using the capacities of higher education to improve cybercrime investigations and prosecutions. This event was a collaboration between the university’s Metropolitan College and its Center for Cybercrime Investigation & Cybersecurity. The conference also had a major focus on the illicit use of cryptocurrency. Additionally, in 2021, the director of the Center for Cybercrime Investigation & Cybersecurity won the American Society of Criminology’s Division of Cybercrime’s Outstanding Contribution Award for improving digital forensics capabilities among criminal justice practitioners. Niche considers Boston University to be the eighth best college for criminal justice in America.
25. Western Carolina University
Cullowhee, North Carolina
In September 2022, Western Carolina University announced that one of its professors, Jamie Vaske, had been selected to lead a $3 million five-year study with the aim of helping veterans who were facing criminal charges. The study is a partnership with American University, Veterans Affairs, and Michael Wilson Consulting. The college also runs a basic law enforcement training program that is a collaboration between the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department and the University Police Department. University HQ considers Western Carolina University to be the 25th best college for criminal justice in America. Niche names it the 63rd best criminal justice school.
24. Georgetown University
The criminal justice education at Georgetown University focuses on giving students the opportunity to participate in reform efforts. One example of this is the Criminal Justice Clinic, where, “students provide outstanding legal representation to defendants charged with misdemeanors while participating in a rich experimental and classroom learning program.” Additionally, the college also runs:
- Prisons and Justice Initiative
- Criminal Defense & Prisoner Advocacy Clinic
- Center for Juvenile Justice Reform
The college can also demonstrate that its education is having an impact on criminal justice, such as making it easier for sick and elderly prisoners in Washington DC to gain an early release during the pandemic. Diverse Issues in Higher Education highlights the experience of Georgetown University Associate Professor Shon Hopwood, who was once a prisoner and who is working to reform criminal justice.
23. Harvard University
One of the longest-running criminal justice reform efforts at Harvard University is the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management within the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. This program has been running since 1980. Currently, it is also running a range of additional programs, such as one focused on assessing whether certain individuals are aware that their criminal records have been automatically cleared and an examination of the effect of electronic monitoring on physical and emotional health. The college also runs the Criminal Justice Institute, which combines classroom instruction and hands-on experience for students as they conduct criminal defense work. Diverse Issues in Higher Education spoke to Harvard University doctoral candidate Clint Smith about the need for reform in the prosecutorial process.
22. West Virginia University
Morgantown, West Virginia
The Appalachian Justice Initiative at West Virginia University works to ensure that individuals in the Appalachian region are treated fairly by the American justice system. It does this by providing pro bono legal services to financially distressed individuals. In addition to this, the college also runs the West Virginia Innocence Project, which works to free innocent people from prison. The most recent success of this project came in 2021 when it proved that a person who had served 14 years in prison was innocent, resulting in their release. Numerous professors from the college also spoke at WV Criminal Law Reform Coalition’s Criminal Justice Reform Summit in 2021. Insight Into Diversity highlights the work of West Virginia University’s Innocence Project.
21. University of Florida
Five centers within the University of Florida’s law school focus on improving criminal justice. These include the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations and the Center for Government Responsibility, which is also the State of Florida’s oldest legal and public policy research institute, dating back to 1972. Over the last 50 years, The Center for Government Responsibility has conducted a wide range of legal activities across the world, including:
- training lawyers in Poland
- assisting judges in Brazil
- producing an Emmy-award-winning documentary
Niche considers the University of Florida to be the fifth best college for criminal justice in America.
20. University of Minnesota
In August 2022, the University of Minnesota’s Regents Professor and McKnight Presidential Professor of Law, Medicine and Policy, Susan Wolf, secured a $400,000 grant to build new tools and training methods to improve responsible conduct in complex research networks. The college’s law school also runs nine centers and institutes which have a focus on addressing real-world legal applications. These include the Human Rights Center and the Institute for Law and Rationality. Niche considers the University of Minnesota to be the 53rd best college for criminal justice in America. The Best Schools notes that the University of Minnesota runs educational programs for incarcerated people.
19. Radford University
The Center for Police Practice, Policy, and Research at Radford University conducts a wide range of work with the purpose of improving policing in the US. This includes, “implementing and evaluating new and innovative strategies, providing training and technical assistance and communicating research results and best practices.” In 2022 alone, this center has worked to improve:
- Salt Lake City, Utah Police Department
- Lynchburg, Virginia Police Department
- Boulder, Colorado Police Department
The center is also currently undertaking research projects, such as an $870,000 project that aims to implement advanced intelligence and analytical technology to improve responses to shooting incidents in Kent County, Delaware. University HQ considers Radford University to be the 26th best college for criminal justice in America. Niche names the college the 97th best for criminal justice.
18. University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland
The Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice maintains affiliations with 11 centers. This includes:
- Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy
- Maryland Crime Research and Innovation Center
- Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy
In early 2022, the college also gained $370,000 in funding from Arnold Ventures and the Abell Foundation to conduct research that will, “inform policymaking on the allocation of responsibilities between the police and other agencies in Baltimore City.” Prepscholar considers the University of Maryland to be one of the nine best criminal justice schools in America. Niche names it the 17th best college for criminal justice.
17. San Diego State University
San Diego, California
In 2022, San Diego State University Professor Paul Kaplan co-authored a book that examined the impact that true crime television shows had on society. The college’s Center for Transformative Justice also works to help society through, “student support programs, community outreach, and interdisciplinary conversations.” It also runs Project Rebound, an admissions and support program for students who have been impacted by the justice system. This program has been running since 1967, and since that time, it has helped hundreds of people gain degrees. The college’s Institute for Dialogue and Social Justice also runs an initiative focused on criminal and restorative justice through community engagement. Diverse Issues in Higher Education also highlights that San Diego State University has required all students studying criminal justice-related courses to study race relations since 2020. Niche considers the college to be the 31st best for criminal justice in America.
16. University of Mississippi
In 2021, the University of Mississippi gained $1 million in funding to study evidence-based policing reform solutions. Part of this funding has gone into the establishment of the Center for Evidence-Based Policing & Reform. The college’s School of Law also runs seven legal clinics which have a focus on criminal justice, including the Child Advocacy Clinic and the George C. Cochran Innocence Project. Niche considers the University of Mississippi to be the 50th best college for criminal justice in America. The Best Schools notes that the college runs educational programs for incarcerated people.
15. Rutgers University-Newark
Newark, New Jersey
The School of Criminal Justice within Rutgers University-Newark has existed since 1974. Since that time, its mission, in addition to providing high-quality education to students, has been to assist local and state agencies with the practice of criminal justice. Today, the school runs five centers that carry out this mission, including the following:
- Rutgers Center for Conservation Criminology
- Newark Public Safety Collaborative
These centers have been successful in gaining a wide range of funding for criminal justice-related projects, such as one that involves improving the reintegration of former prisoners into society and another that evaluates the usage of police patrols in high-risk areas. University HQ considers Rutgers University-Newark to be the 11th best college for criminal justice in America. Niche considers it to be the 61st best college for criminal justice.
14. University of Miami
Coral Gables, Florida
In September 2022, the University of Miami announced that an alumnus of the college had donated $3.45 million to improve the college’s criminal defense advocacy. However, even before this announcement, the college’s criminal justice work was strong. For example, in 2021, the college’s Innocence Clinic overturned the wrongful conviction of one of its clients. In addition to the Innocence Clinic, the college’s law school runs seven other criminal justice-focused clinics and practicums. It is also the home of:
- The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative
- The HOPE Public Interest Resource Cente
- The Class Action and Complex Litigation Forum
Niche considers the University of Miami to be the seventh best college for criminal justice in America.
13. Northwestern University
In 2006, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center became part of Northwestern University. This center is, “one of the premier civil rights organizations in the United States.” The center represents people throughout the USA who are subject to:
- police abuse
- punished for being in poverty
- being oppressed due to being part of marginalized communities
The college also runs the following:
- Children and Family Justice Center
- Bartlit Center for Trial Advocacy
- Center for International Human Rights
- Center on Negotiation and Mediation
- Center on Wrongful Convictions,
- Center of Wrongful Convictions of Youth
- Civil Litigation Center
- Complex Civil Litigation and Investor Protection Center
Diverse Issues In Higher Education highlights that, in 2020, Northwestern University donated $1.5 million to support racial equity activities in Chicago and Evanston.
12. University of Pennsylvania
In late 2021, the University of Pennsylvania published a review of state and federal claims of prosecutorial misconduct from 2000 to 2016, identifying a lack of systemic transparency and accountability in the Pennsylvania criminal justice system. This research came from the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice. This center relies on reforming the criminal justice system through an interdisciplinary, data-focused approach. The college also runs the Criminal Law Research Group, which focuses on work in the US and overseas, with examples being the Delaware Recodification Project and the Somali Criminal Codification Initiative. Centers with similar focuses at the college include the following:
- Center for Tax Law & Policy
- Center for Asian Law
- Institute for Law & Philosophy
- Criminal Defense Clinic
- Crime and Justice Policy Lab.
Niche considers the University of Pennsylvania to be the third best college for criminal justice.
11. Northeastern University
The School of Criminology & Criminal Justice at Northeastern University runs two research centers with the aim of advancing justice. These are the Institute on Race and Justice and the Institute of Security and Public Policy. Additionally, the school also runs the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study, which aims to prevent childhood crime; and the International Self-Report Delinquency Study, which focuses on victimization. In the summer of 2020, the college also founded the Criminal Justice Task Force. This runs a framework of subgroups that address, “policies and practices within the criminal justice system that disenfranchise the most vulnerable members of our society.” Specific areas of focus for this task force include:
- police reform
- bail reform
- restorative justice
- juvenile justice
- racial injustice, historical narrative
- a range of minority narratives
Niche considers Northeastern University to be the sixth-best college for criminal justice in America. Prepscholar considers it to be one of the nine best criminal justice schools.
10. Howard University
The Clinical Law Center at Howard University has a mission to, “develop the next generation of civil rights attorneys.” It does this by offering students a range of clinical experiences related to different aspects of criminal justice. For instance, one of these, the Reentry Clinic, allows student attorneys to provide representation for people facing barriers to re-integrating into society after incarceration. In recent years, the college has also sought to expand its criminal justice initiatives. One of these, the HBCU Forward Initiative, launched in February 2021, aims to elevate and support black volunteer tutors who help thousands of incarcerated people advance their education. In 2021, the college also hosted its first annual Social Justice Week. And in late 2020, the college also offered a free college credit criminal justice course for high school students. The college also runs the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, which advocates for racial justice law. Insight Into Diversity spoke to Howard University professor Justin Hansford JD on the importance of law schools in reforming criminal justice. Niche considers the college to be the 55th best for criminal justice.
9. University of California, Irvine
Every student who studies at the University of California, Irvine’s law school must complete a 6-unit course at one of its 11 core clinics, which sees the student act as a primary legal representative for a client. These clinics include:
- The Civil Rights Litigation Clinic
- The Domestic Violence Clinic
- The Immigrant Rights Clinic
In addition to the core clinics, the college runs an additional five elective clinics, which include the International Human Rights Clinic and the Reproductive Justice Clinic. Additionally, the college’s in-prison BA program gained an additional $1.8 million in funding in July 2022, from the California Government, which will allow more incarcerated people to earn degrees in sociology. Also, the college maintains eight research organizations focused on criminology, law, and society, including the Center for Evidence-Based Corrections and the Irvine Laboratory for the Study of Space and Crime. One of the college’s recent examples of success in criminal justice came in the form of securing compassionate release for twin brothers who had both served over 23 years in prison for drug offenses. Niche considers the University of California, Irvine to be the fourth best college for criminal justice in America. Prepscholar considers it to be one of the nine best criminal justice schools.
8. Sam Houston State University
Thanks to the George J. Beto Criminal Justice Center, Sam Houston State University has been able to house and partner with a range of, “prestigious training and research institutes dedicated to advancing the criminal justice field through professional development and investigation of key issues.” These include the Crime Victims Institute and the Institute for Homeland Security. In August 2022, the college also announced that it had earned a $50,000 grant to supervise a research project into gun violence. Prepscholar considers Sam Houston State University to be one of the nine best criminal justice schools in America. Niche names it the 42nd best college for criminal justice. The Best Schools notes that the college runs programs that educate incarcerated people.
7. University of South Florida
In 2007, Florida’s State Legislature decided to designate the University of South Florida’s Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute as a site for the Criminal Justice, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Technical Assistance Center. This center diverts individuals with mental health and substance issues from the justice system, provides services to those who are at risk of entering the justice system, and funds initiatives that increase public safety and avert increased spending on criminal and juvenile justice systems. And in 2021, the college opened the Center for Justice Research & Policy, with the goals of achieving police reform and increasing fairness in the justice system, thanks to a $1.2 million grant. Diverse Issues in Higher Education highlights the Center for Justice Research & Policy. Niche considers the college to be the ninth best for criminal justice.
6. Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan
Since 1993, Michigan State University has been the home of the Statistical Analysis Center, which advances, “knowledge about crime and justice issues in the state of Michigan while also informing policy and practice.” The college’s School of Criminal Justice also conducts a range of research. For example, in August 2022, a number of social scientists within the school partnered together to conduct research into the impact of specific neighborhoods on youth decision processes in regard to engaging in crime. In late 2021, a research team within the college also received $3.3 million in funding to identify ways to keep intimate partner violence survivors safe during the pretrial period. Prepscholar considers Michigan State University to be one of the nine best criminal justice schools in America. Niche considers it to be the 36th best criminal justice college.
5. CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice
New York City, New York
The John Jay College of Criminal Justice currently runs 12 research centers, which each focus on a different aspect of criminology. These include:
- National Network for Safe Communities
- Institute for Innovation in Prosecution
- Dispute Resolution Center
Additionally, the college has also established a range of affiliations with outside centers, including the Center on Policing Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Racial Democracy Crime and Justice Network at The Ohio State University. The college continues to gain funding for ever-expanding areas of criminal justice. For example, in 2022, Professor Judy-Lynne Peters, Ph.D. received a grant to support The Northeast Slavery Records Index. UniversityHQ considers the CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice to be the best criminal justice college in the US. Niche considers it to be the second-best criminal justice college. Prepscholar names it one of the nine best criminal justice schools.
4. Arizona State University
The School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University currently has nine separate centers and labs focused on different aspects of criminal justice reform. One example is the Center for Correctional Solutions, which works both inside prisons and in the community to work on incarceration solutions. Additionally, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law’s Academy for Justice strives to bridge the gap between academia and on-the-ground criminal justice. It is doing this with 18 projects, which include legal scholarship writing contests and a podcast that explains legal jargon. In 2021, the college also gained $250,000 to explore a statewide system for reviewing the police use of force. Insight Into Diversity notes that Arizona State University’s Academy for Justice is a strong force in allowing lawyers and alumni to strategize criminal justice reform efforts. Diverse Issues in Higher Education spoke to college professor Dr. Michael Scott regarding criminal justice reform. Niche considers the college to be the 33rd best for criminal justice.
3. Florida State University
The external research into criminal justice advocacy at Florida State University dates back to the late 1960s when the college began successfully gaining external funding from federal agencies. At this time, the college also established the Southeastern Corrections and Criminological Research Center. This center ended up employing 40 staff members and worked with a range of state departments of corrections. In the 1970s, the college also gained the Southeastern Criminal Justice Training Center. In the 1990s, the college developed the Juvenile Justice Educational Enhancement Program. Finally, the college’s current criminal justice center, The Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research, became a part of the college in 2004. This center manages 11 distinct research and policy institutes, which include:
- The Aging Adult Fraud Research & Policy Institute
- The Hate Crime Research & Policy Institute
- The Biosocial Criminology Research & Policy Institute
This center is successful in gaining funding for increased activities. For example, in late 2021, the National Institutes of Health granted its researchers almost $500,000 to study risk factors that contribute to firearm injury and homicide. The college also runs the Institute for Justice Research and Development, which in 2022 partnered with the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services to create a three-year initiative to support the reentry of incarcerated people into the community. Niche considers Florida State University to be the best college for criminal justice in America. Prepscholar names it one of the nine best criminal justice schools.
2. Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania
The Justice and Safety Institute at Pennsylvania State University has existed since 1971 to, “meet the professional development needs of law enforcement and public safety professionals.” The college also runs the Criminal Justice Research Center, which works to bridge the gap between research and criminal justice in practice. In September 2022, this center held a summit on reducing the stigma associated with substance use disorder. Earlier in 2022, this center also hosted the Second Annual Regional Human Trafficking Summit. The center also awards seed funding so that faculty can pursue external criminal justice-related research grants. In 2022, this funding sum increased from a maximum award of $7,500 to $20,000. Prepscholar considers Pennsylvania State University to be one of the nine best criminal justice schools in America. Niche names it the 11th best criminal justice school. University HQ states that it is the 31st best criminal justice school.
1. University of Cincinnati
Ever since 1996, the University of Cincinnati has been running the Center for Criminal Justice Research. It exists to support criminal justice agencies throughout the USA and has currently secured over $6 million in grant and contract funding. This center is also partnered with two other initiatives within the college that seek to promote criminal justice, The Corrections Institute and The Institute of Crime Science. The college’s law school also runs seven centers that give students the chance to make a difference within the justice system. These centers include:
- Jones Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice
- Weaver Institute for Law and Psychiatry
In addition to the centers, the law school also runs further clinics that give students real-world experience. These include the Domestic Violence and Civil Protection Order Clinic and the Indigent Defense Clinic. The college is also proactively expanding its criminal justice activity. For example, in late 2021, the college’s director of the Center of Police Research and Policy partnered with Google to create virtual reality software designed to improve policing. In 2022, the law school also received a $500,000 gift to establish a new fellowship.