Confessions of a Consulting Criminologist

Provided by one of our readers, the following article provides a very nice overview of the profession of criminology with a specialty in penology. In it, Robert describes the types of assignments he has worked, the path to becoming a criminologist, and the reasons he finds his work so satisfying.

by Robert E. Keldgord, M.S.

When folks hear that I'm a criminologist, the invariable response is, 'You're like the guys on CSI or one of the other TV shows!' My answer is always, 'No, I'm not that kind of criminologist'. The term 'criminologist' is a generic term like 'physician'. Just as physicians have their specialties, so do criminologists. Those guys on TV, and their real life counterparts, are 'Forensic Criminologists' or 'Criminalists'. They're the folks who do the ballistic tests, analyze body tissues, etc. and they do great work.

My specialty is commonly called 'corrections' or sometimes 'penology'. My specialty is probation, parole, jails, prisons and sometimes juvenile institutions. Over the years, under various auspice, I've done work for such clients as the Iowa State Legislature, Oregon State Board of Control, Michigan Dept. of Corrections, Utah State Dept. of Probation and Parole, Seattle-Kings County Jails, San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department, Contra Costa County(CA) Jails, California State Board of Corrections, plus the Universities of Arizona, Minnesota, and Texas and Sam Houston University (TX).

I've also done work for private research and consulting firms, and for professional organizations, such as the National Center on Juvenile Justice and the California Probation, Parole, and Corrections Association. Most of the work done for professional organizations is done for free, or as we call it, 'pro bono'.

I've also done consulting for about eight law firms in Alaska, Florida, Arizona, and California, usually serving as an 'expert witness' in civil cases. I tend not to take criminal cases, but have done so twice. A word to the wise about working with attorneys: The nature of their work makes it very difficult for a consulting criminologist. For example, one time I received a phone call from a law firm client asking that I cancel all appointments for Thursday and Friday of the next week, so that opposing counsel could depose me. I canceled all appointments for those two days and guess what? The opposing counsel never showed up! On another occasion, I was asked to reserve the last two weeks in September, as 'we will be going to trial'. I canceled some trips and obligations and saved the dates. However, on/about September 10, the law firm called to advise that the trial had been continued to December - when my wife and I were scheduled to be in South America! Needless to say, I do not work with law firms very often.

I do no advertising; all referrals are by 'word of mouth', although some of my colleagues do, in fact, advertise in professional journals, etc.

So, you think you'd like to try this 'gig'? Here's what you need to do: First of all, earn your bachelor's degree from some accredited college or university that offers a major in criminal justice, criminology, etc. This degree is absolutely essential! If at all possible, follow that degree with a master's degree in the same or related field. Most consultants with whom I'm familiar have a master's degree, although a few have only the bachelor's degree (but lots of experience), and some have a doctorate.

Next you'll need some experience. If at all possible, try to get an internship while in college. If the internship isn't possible, look for some part-time job in the field. One possible way to get experience is via the military. Shortly after receiving my bachelor's degree from the University of California-Berkeley, I spent a little over two years in the military, doing police work. Some folks who thought for years that they wanted ONLY to be a criminologist, soon find out, after about 6 months in the field, that they really wanted to be economists or accountants or teachers, etc.

You will need LOTS of experience in the field, and it helps if you can persuade some professional journal to publish some article about your work as a probation/parole officer, a prison officer, a jail officer, etc. Over the years, I've had some eighteen articles published.

What kind of assignments do I get? Sometimes, I'm asked to provide training, but more often I'm asked to evaluate a probation department, a jail, etc. and to make recommendations for improvement in their services.

What makes it worthwhile? First of all, if your efforts help probation/parole officers do a better job, or if you help a county improve its jail services, that's a great feeling! If you can help a law firm win a trial and you believe that the cause is just, that's also a great feeling! Another feature which makes the field worthwhile is the variety of assignments, such as those I've listed above.

I would note, however, now that I'm semi-retired and accept only cases which have a particular appeal to me (I turn down assignments almost every year), that some of the most worthwhile assignments have been those done for free--the so called pro bono assignments. For example, I once had the pleasure of working with a group of volunteers, all of whom were members of the Hamilton County, Ohio, chapter of the National Association for the Mentally Ill. These good folks were interested in having the local court establish a special division for cases involving the mentally ill.

Look! You'll never get rich, although part time consulting can be a nice supplement to income from some other source. You will, however, have the satisfaction of knowing that you have served you fellow man (woman)!

A final note: Between 1972 and 2000 I taught criminal justice classes at three major universities. In the beginning, my students were overwhelmingly men - about 80%. By 2000, my students were overwhelmingly women - about 80%. Let's hear it for the ladies! In the two probation/parole departments where I served as Chief, the outstanding officers were, most often, females!