Interview with Michael Pittaro (Criminal Justice expert)

Professor Michael Pittaro has 26 years of criminal justice field and administrative experience working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings; predominantly within the Pennsylvania Department of corrections.

Professor Pittaro has authored more than a dozen undergraduate and graduate book and/or scholarly journal publications as well as the United States’ first and only criminal justice quick study reference guide (35,000 + copies sold to date). His first publication, Crimes of the Internet, an anthology of cybercrime research, has sold worldwide and led to the development of an undergraduate cybercrime course via Savant Learning.

Michael Pittaro Photo: American Public University

In addition to teaching and writing, Professor Pittaro also serves as a member on the International Editorial Advisory Board for the International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences and the International Journal of Cyber Criminology. In addition, he serves as a peer reviewer for the United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs and a program committee member for the South Asian Society of Criminology and Victimology.

First of all, hello and thank you for taking the time to talk to us!

Could you briefly tell us a bit about your area of expertise and the work you’ve been involved in?


Pittaro:  My background is in prison administration; however, I have always been intrigued with the various criminological explanations as to why some people engage in crime whereas others do not.  While working within the prison system, I became intrigued with sexual offenders in particular since they are a unique type of criminal offender group. Sex offending crosses all gender, racial, ethnic, religious, and social class boundaries. Since human trafficking is associated with sexual offending and victimization, I naturally gravitated toward this as one of my many research interests.


It cannot be emphasized enough that transnational human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world and the second largest. Some studies suggest that if not curtailed, it may become the number one criminal industry in the world.


I want my students to adopt a victim-centered approach by learning all that human trafficking entails and teach them how to look beyond the obvious when they approach a situation that could, in fact, be an incident involving human trafficking. I always emphasize the importance of prevention through education and awareness so that as a society we can reduce the percentage of those trafficked. For me, it starts in the classroom so that the next generation of criminal justice professionals can tackle this growing international crime.


Speaking of criminal justice, what advice would you give to someone wanting to develop a career in this field? What type of formal education should be followed, and what skills are employers typically looking for?


Pittaro: Ever since I could remember, I had a tremendous interest in criminal justice. I believe that those who are the most successful in this field tend to be individuals who exhibit a passion and commitment to not just addressing crime, but the social problems that directly and indirectly contribute to crime.  Contemporary crime is undeniably complex and so determination and the ability to think outside the box are qualities that we admire and respect within the criminal justice field.


While an associate degree in criminal justice can lead to some entry-level positions, I strongly encourage those who are interested in pursuing a career in criminal justice to obtain a bachelor’s degree, which is the foundation for most professional entry-level positions.


In addition to pursuing their education, I strongly recommend that students create and maintain a strong network of connections. I encourage my students to create a professional profile on LinkedIn and to join professional criminal justice groups.

I also encourage students to volunteer by serving on an advisory board and to join and participate in professional organizations that align with their career interests.  For example, a student who wants to pursue a career in law enforcement should consider becoming a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other similar organizations and, if time and money allow, attend an annual conference.


Lastly, I am fond of job shadowing. The best way to learn about a particular position is to shadow someone for a day or two who works in that position. In my experience, criminal justice professionals are willing to share their experiences with students and they can provide a realistic glimpse into the profession by illuminating both the pros and cons of the job.


Most, if not all, criminal justice employers would agree is that critical thinking is a highly sought after skill.  Trust your intuition, which is often the culmination of your education and experience.  For example, if the situation does not “feel” right, go with that feeling and start digging deeper.


In addition to critical thinking, employers want candidates who exhibit exceptional interpersonal communication skills – the ability to speak in front of others and to articulate your thoughts clearly and concisely. Criminal justice professionals wear many hats. One moment you are talking to a suspect, the next moment it is a victim, and then ordinary everyday citizens and your supervisor.  Writing skills are also highly sought out qualities within our profession because every incident is documented and permanently recorded and subject to scrutiny during investigations and criminal trials.


Lastly, ethics and professionalism go hand-in-hand.  We live in a world where brains over brawn is preferred.  The ability to de-escalate a potentially volatile situation through verbal directives is highly valued within our profession and will likely minimize the potential for a lawsuit.


How the working environment in criminal justice? You see all these things in the movie… but reality is often different.


Pittaro: Perception is everything.  Sadly, the media (television and the movies) have created what we refer to as the “CSI effect.”  Hollywood tends to glamorize and sensationalize our profession and exacerbate the amount of violence that one encounters. For example, on the television show “Law and Order,” the good guys win most of the time, but in reality the criminal trial can be long, tedious, and the prosecution doesn’t always get the desired verdict.


The profession requires a great deal of report writing and providing oral testimony.  The gun battles and car chases that occur on television do occur, but not nearly as often as depicted. Television and the movies also portray a lot of corruption; statistically speaking, most criminal justice professionals have a strong ethical foundation and most go above and beyond the call of duty.


Speaking of CSI movies, do you think they are doing a favor promoting investigators, or do they have a negative effect by distorting reality?


Pittaro:  Crime shows, movies, and books are intended to grab attention and maintain it. The emphasis is on the constant adrenaline-rushing drama is contrary to what real-life criminal justice professionals encounter.


I am a realist and I highlight the strengths and weaknesses of this profession, dismantle the myths that many students hold, and teach them to think and respond as scholar-practitioners with an open mind by embracing critical thinking and the ability to actively listen to and scrutinize all sides of a story.  It is important that students recognize their personal and professional biases and put them aside when they are on the job.


You’ve taught criminal justice both on campus and online. What is the difference between the two types of teaching?


Pittaro: I continue to teach both on-campus and online, but prefer teaching online.  Contrary to what many people think, online learning requires self-discipline and is often fast-paced so students must hone their time management skills. The flexibility of being able to complete your work anywhere in the world with Internet access and when it is most convenient for the student is definitely attractive.


As a single dad, I chose to pursue my doctorate degree online.  The flexibility afforded to a working adult, single parent, and/or active military student is very much appreciated and valued.  Online students tend to be non-traditional– they are often older, working full-time, caring for their families, and/or serving our country. On-campus universities tend to consist of traditional students fresh out of high school while online students have often “been there – done that” so they tend to be more proactive as opposed to reactive when it comes to completing their work.


You’ve written numerous popular books. What are the must-reads (that you have authored, and not only)? In other words, what are the books someone who wants to work in the field just has to read?


Pittaro: I believe that it is important for students go beyond textbooks to acquire knowledge. There are dozens of peer-reviewed scholarly journal databases for our field. I have authored a number of peer-reviewed journal articles and continue to serve on the editorial advisory board for the International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences.  Journals are intended to contribute to the science of the field; therefore, consulting academic journal databases would be preferred over textbooks.


Introductory textbooks often cover a wealth of information about a particular topic.  I personally enjoy all the university-level textbooks authored by Dr. Frank Schmalleger, who has become a friend and my mentor on many projects.  His books are well received by university students.


How do you feel the emergence of online education (both free and for profit) is affecting formal education?


Pittaro: Online education, for the most part, attracts non-traditional students.  For example, when I decided to go back for a doctorate degree, two universities offered Ph.D.s in criminal justice–Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. and Temple University in Philadelphia, Penn.  Both are prestigious universities for criminal justice, but were two hours from my home. More importantly, some of the courses started in mid-day, which would be impossible for someone like me, a working adult with children. I opted to pursue my degree online and have never regretted that decision. In addition to easier access, I feel that online universities tend to have more vision and tend to create and implement courses that most traditional universities do not offer.


Most online universities hire instructors who have real-life experience and have held high-level administrative positions within the field. This strengthens learning because these instructors can offer sound advice and suggestions so that students are equipped with advanced knowledge when they enter the profession.


As a personal curiosity, could you give me some information regarding the status of social media (Facebook, Twitter etc) as evidence in a legal trial? 


Pittaro: I am a big proponent of social media. Like everything, it can have a darker side. I advise my students that criminal justice employers do review the candidates’ social media accounts during the background investigation.


Pictures, in particular, are scrutinized by background investigators and are subject to interpretation. I tell my students to avoid controversial discussions and pictures and to clean up their social media accounts when they are looking for advancement in the profession.


Regarding the second part of the question, I can confirm that investigators are accessing social media as part of criminal and civil investigations and this evidence can be incredibly damaging to the suspect. For example, there was a recent story in which a young male robbed a bank and then posted a selfie on a bed with all the money around him. We have also witnessed videos of physical assaults, which can be quite effective in investigating crimes and securing a conviction.


What is something that you think most people don’t know about criminal justice? 


Pittaro: Most people do not realize that the criminal justice profession goes well beyond law enforcement, the courts, and corrections. A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice opens the door to opportunities at the local, state, and federal levels of government and in the private and non-profit sectors. Criminal justice is not just about enforcing the laws and protecting the public, but is also about preventing crime from occurring.


More importantly, everyone has a story. The overwhelming majority of offenders are influenced by biological, psychological, environmental, and sociological forces that have either pulled or pushed them into that lifestyle. No child has ever said that they wanted to grow up and become a prostitute, a robber, or an addict. I want my students to have empathy.  The safety and security of the community is paramount, but everyone has a story.


I share stories with my students, like the story of a prostitute who was incarcerated when I worked for the Department of Corrections.  After getting to know her, she told me that her stepfather had started sexually and physically assaulting her when she was only 11 years old.  Like most female victims of physical and sexual abuse, she turned to drugs and alcohol to escape and repress those memories. This young woman was a victim of abuse and if the stepfather had never been in her life, there is a chance (in my opinion) that she would have become an entirely different person. What makes this story even sadder is that she died at 26 years old of a drug overdose and was buried in the county cemetery with a small placard that included only a series of numbers, no name.


That is a story that I tell my students to emphasize that people like her felt that they had no way out and no other choice.  While the decision to engage in drug use was indeed a bad one, I believe we can all understand why she made that choice.


Is there anything else that you feel anyone interested in criminal justice should know? Feel free to add anything at all!


Pittaro:  Begin by researching the profession that interests you and do not base your knowledge of the position on what has been depicted on television or in the movies.  Lean on your professors for career advice and guidance.  Our job is not just to teach the subject matter, but also to help you to succeed and advance through the ranks.


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