Forensic Counselor

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 37 percent in state and federal prisons and 44 percent held in local jails have a history of mental health disorders. These individuals are generally not incarcerated for violent crimes, and many have not had the opportunity to stand trial because of their mental disorders. 

They are often incarcerated longer than their counterparts who don’t have a mental illness because of their inability to follow the rules. Many times their mental health conditions worsen in prison rather than improve. This particular subset of the population needs specialized mental health treatment services from professionals with the skill and training to deal with their unique circumstances. 

Forensic counselors are mental health counselors who have additional training and skill to work with individuals in the criminal justice system. They provide counseling services to inmates, people on probation, and those accused of crimes. Often, they can be called on to testify in court about the status of their client’s mental health or provide recommendations about sentencing or parole as required. 

Counseling services can be offered one-on-one or in a group setting. Sometimes, forensic counselors will provide counseling to family members as well. Forensic counselors’ ultimate goal is to help their clients integrate into society and reduce the risk of reoffending. 

Education is critical to becoming a forensic counselor. Most professionals in this field have earned a master’s in counseling with an emphasis in forensics. In place of a forensic counseling-specific program, students can earn a master’s in counseling and perform internships or obtain on-the-job training to gain the necessary skills to work in this field. 

Advanced degrees can also be obtained, such as a doctorate in forensic counseling or a doctorate in forensic psychology. Licensing for counselors and psychologists is mandatory in every state, so aspiring professionals in this field should check with their state’s licensing board to ensure they meet all the requirements. 

Keep reading to learn what steps are needed to enter this field, what typical job duties are, and how much forensic counselors earn.

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How to Become a Forensic Counselor

Forensic counselors must earn either a master’s in counseling or a doctorate in psychology. The steps below detail how to become a forensic counselor if pursuing a master’s in counseling. 

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)

Becoming a forensic counselor starts with completing high school or obtaining a GED since further education is necessary, and most bachelor’s programs require it. Students should focus on classes such as English, psychology, social sciences, and math. College preparatory classes such as advanced placement classes can help prepare students for the rigors of college-level courses.    

Step 2: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

Earning a bachelor’s degree is a necessary step in becoming a forensic counselor. Completing an undergraduate degree prepares students for master’s degree studies by providing them with the required base-level education. Typical undergraduate majors for students pursuing forensic counseling include psychology, anthropology, education, social work, and sociology. 

Step 3: Obtain a Master’s Degree (Two to Three Years)

To practice as a forensic counselor, aspiring professionals must earn a master’s degree in counseling as this is required for licensure in most states. Students should ensure the program they attend is accredited as this makes the path towards licensure easier and allows them to transfer their credits to another school should that be necessary. The primary accrediting body for counseling programs is the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.

Students can pursue a general master’s in counseling or focus on a forensics-specific program. In Newton, Massachusetts, William James College offers a forensic and correctional counseling master’s in clinical mental health counseling. Graduates of this program have met the requirements to become a Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) in Massachusetts. This forensics-focused program teaches students to work with families and individuals in criminal, legal, or correctional settings along with general counseling principles. This program can be completed in two years full-time or three years part-time. 

Westfield State University in Westfield, Massachusetts, also has a forensic mental health counseling master of arts degree. This program has a specific emphasis on preparing counselors to work with criminal offenders. This 60-semester-credit program’s required coursework includes psychopathology, psychological theories of criminal behavior, counseling diverse populations, and developmental psychology. Graduates of this program are prepared to pursue licensing as mental health counselors. 

Step 4: Apply for Initial State Licensure (Timeline Varies)

Upon completing a master’s in forensic counseling, graduates embark on the path toward state licensure. Licensing for mental health counselors is required in all 50 states. Most states require mental health counselors to apply for an intern, provisional, or assistant mental health counselor license while completing the necessary supervised practice hours. 

Requirements to apply for this initial license vary but typically include a completed application, an application fee, official transcripts, and a clear background check. 

Step 5: Complete Supervised Practice (Two to Three Years)

All states require that licensed mental health counselors complete several supervised work hours. Aspiring counselors must complete their hours under the supervision of a designated and licensed mental health counselor. The number of hours required varies based on the state and can be as low as 1,500 or as high as 4,000. These hours must also be in required categories such as direct client contact hours, group supervision, and individual supervision. 

In many states, candidates must submit their plans for supervision to the state licensing board for approval. The state licensing board must first approve any changes in supervision or workplace. 

Step 6: Pass State Licensing Exam (Timeline Varies)

Mental health counselors are required to pass a licensing exam. This can be part of the initial or final licensure step. The exam required varies by state, but the two most common ones are:

  • National Counselor Examination (NCE) from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)
  • National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)

In addition to an exam testing the candidates’ knowledge of counseling, many states require applicants also to pass a jurisprudence exam. This exam tests a candidate’s knowledge of the state law surrounding mental health counseling. 

Step 7: Apply for State Licensure (Timeline Varies)

Once testing, education, and supervised work hours have been completed, candidates may apply for state licensure. Most forensic counselors are licensed as licensed professional counselors (LPCs) or licensed mental health counselors (LMHC). Requirements vary by state, so candidates should check with their local board to ensure they have all the qualifications. For example, in Connecticut, the requirements to be an LPC are:

  • Complete a graduate degree from a CACREP-accredited program OR a regionally accredited 60-semester-hour graduate program that meets coursework requirements, has a 100-hour practicum, and has a 600-hour internship 
  • Submit all official transcripts 
  • Complete the application 
  • Complete 3,000 hours of supervised work experience in a minimum of two years
  • Pass the NCE exam 
  • Pay the $315 fee

Step 8: Earn Certification from the National Association of Forensic Counselors (Optional, Timeline Varies)

Many professionals in forensic counseling pursue certification from the National Association of Forensic Counselors (NAFC). This voluntary certification signals to employers, lawyers, courts, and clients that a counselor has both competency and skill in forensic counseling. To earn this credential, counselors must pass an exam, provide proof of education, be currently licensed, and pay a certification fee.

What Do Forensic Counselors Do?

Forensic counselors work in correctional facilities, halfway houses, mental health clinics, nonprofits, and government agencies. Job duties vary based on the specific job title, what population they work with, and place of employment. Typical day-to-day tasks can include:

  • Meeting one-on-one with inmates, criminal offenders, or individuals on probation to provide mental health counseling
  • Analyzing and writing reports on the mental health status of clients for correctional staff, probation supervisors, parole boards, or the court
  • Testifying in court 
  • Facilitating group mental health therapy sessions that may be court-mandated
  • Writing treatment plans to help clients meet their mental health goals
  • Maintaining detailed client records

How Much Do Forensic Counselors Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2021), forensic counselors who work as substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earn an average of $53,490. Wages vary based on job title, place of employment, education level, and years of work experience. The percentiles for wages are:

  • Average annual salary (mean): $53,490
  • 10th percentile: $30,870
  • 25th percentile: $38,520
  • 50th percentile (median): $48,520
  • 75th percentile: $61,660
  • 90th percentile: $77,980

Forensic Counselor Professional Associations & Resources

Top professional associations and resources for forensic counselors include:

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about counseling careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.