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Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is comparatively a new branch in the field of psychology defined as psychology concerning the legal system. As both the legal system and criminal impulse are complex, forensic psychologists span across a wide set of activities, from analyzing crime scenes to administering treatment.

What Is Forensic Psychology?

Forensic psychology is defined as the study of clinical psychology in legal situations. It is a field that brings together the practice of psychology and the law while establishing a relationship between human psychology and the criminal justice system. Researchers 1 explains that it is that “branch of psychology that investigates the psychology of crime with particular reference to personality factors presented by the criminal.” Individuals who are a part of this field employ ‘psychological expertise’ as it applies to the justice system. With the purpose to provide an explanation for criminal acts and behavior, forensic psychologists apply psychological data, research, and theory. This practice helps in ascertaining whether the suspect is guilty or not or whether he/she should be convicted or not. It also plays an imperative part in punishing and preventing crimes.

Psychologists engaged in this course may be found working in jails, prisons, police departments, rehabilitation centers, law firms, schools, government agencies, or in private practice, to name a few. They may also work directly with attorneys, offenders, defendants, victims, families, pupils, or with patients within the state’s corrections or rehabilitation centers. Those who focus on the study of psychology and the law may work in universities, colleges, government agencies, or in other backgrounds, dealing with research and examination of the interplay of human behavior, criminology, and the legal system.

Understanding Forensic Psychology

The word ‘forensic’ originates from the Latin word ‘forensis,’ which refers to the forum, or the court system of Ancient Rome. “Forensic psychology is a subfield of psychology in which basic and applied psychological science or scientifically oriented professional practice is applied to the law to help resolve legal, contractual, or administrative matters,” explains a 2018 study 2 . It is a part of applied psychology broadly outlined as psychology concerning the legal system. Since both the legal system and criminal motivation are complicated subjects, forensic psychologists are found across a wide set of activities, from investigating crime scenes to administering treatment to imprisoned offenders. However, the most vital role of forensic psychologists is forensic therapy. In this case, a psychologist is contacted who may try to ascertain whether or not an alleged offender is suffering from a psychological disorder. Experts of this kind often testify in court for either the defense or the prosecution. After the conviction, forensic psychologists may also partake in the assessment and rehabilitation of offenders, deciding what type of treatment should be recommended, and often managing or performing the task as well.

According to research, the application of forensic psychology, and possibly, the most common duty of forensic psychologists, is the psychological assessment of individuals who are engaged in some way with the legal system. Therefore, while it is essential to have training in law and forensic psychology, the most important skills that a forensic psychologist must possess are solid clinical skills. They should be impeccable in clinical assessment, interviewing, report writing, strong verbal communication abilities, and case presentation, all of which build up the foundation of the practice of forensic psychology.

Such skills enable the forensic psychologists to carry out duties such as –

  • Threat assessment for schools
  • Child custody evaluations
  • Competency evaluations of criminal defendants and of the elderly
  • Counseling services to victims of crime
  • Death notification procedures
  • Screening and selection of law enforcement applicants
  • Assessment of post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Delivery and evaluation of intervention and treatment programs for juvenile and adult offenders.

History Of Forensic Psychology

While there are no specific dates that signify the establishment of this study, some of the first pieces of evidence associated with the criminally insane can be found within the original Roman law. According to a study 3 , the Roman law had reported that ‘insanity was a punishment in itself, and therefore, the law highly supported the use of leniency against the criminally insane’. A more recent history of forensic psychology had developed back in 1893 when J.McKeen Cattell of Columbia University handled the first psychological experiment on the psychology of testimony. Since then, a number of historical events in this field have occurred. However, one of the most recent events had occurred in 2001 when forensic psychology was acknowledged as a specialty by The American Psychological Association and it was reaffirmed by the APA in 2008. To better understand the history, we need to consider the following aspects:

1. First specific aspect

The first specific aspect of forensic psychology associates with psychologist William Moulton Marston, who was an American psychologist, inventor of the lie detector and the creator of the comic book character Wonder Woman. In 1917, Marston found “a significant association between systolic blood pressure and lying, which became the basis of the modern polygraph”. Later, in 1923, Marston “set the original standard for acceptance of expert testimony in federal courts” when he testified as a psychologist in the historic case of Frye v. United States 4 . Marston was considered as one of the first consultants of forensic psychology in the United States. In 1924, using simulated jury conditions with volunteers, Marston embarked on the first research of a serious nature into the jury system. In his book Emotions of Normal People, he outlined the DISC Theory. The main components of this theory were:

  • Dominance produces activity in an unfriendly environment
  • Inducement produces activity in a positive environment
  • Submission produces passivity in a favorable environment
  • Compliance produces passivity in an antagonistic environment

2. Second specific aspect

The second specific aspect of forensic psychology is associated with a psychologist, Albert Von Schrenck-Notzing, who was a German physician, psychiatrist, well-known psychic researcher and sexologist. In 1896, he claimed to be the first psychiatrist to suggest expert testimony in a trial in Munich, Germany. In this trial, Von Schrenck-Notzing used psychological research about the circumstances that can make testimony wrong, thus assisting the court in making its decision. His testimony dealt with pretrial publicity and the result it might have on a person’s later memories. Von Schrenck-Notzing supported his opinion using psychological research.

It must be noted that each of these events had played a major role in the evolving field of forensic psychology in different ways. The arrival of William Moulton Marston brought us the introduction of legal psychology at the university level along with the correlation between systolic blood pressure and lying. Von Schrenck-Notzing’s contributions led to greater involvement and acceptance of psychological testimony in trials where dangerous crimes have been committed and the facts of a trained psychologist can make a difference to both the prosecution and defense.

Historical Benchmarks In Forensic Psychology

These following benchmarks have been achieved in the field of forensic psychology:

1. 1843

Daniel M’Naughten is found not guilty by reason of insanity in the assassination attempt of the British prime minister; this later serves as the development of the M’Naughten Rule for determining insanity.

2. 1909-1913

A series of articles by Guy Whipple introduce psychologists in North America to the classic European experiments on eyewitness testimony.

3. 1917

William Marston develops the first modern polygraph. Louis Terman pioneers the use of psychological testing for personnel selection in U.S. law enforcement agencies.

4. 1921

In State v. Driver, a North American psychologist testifies in court as an expert witness for the first time; however, the testimony is rejected.

5. 1923

In Frye v. the United States, the court speaks to the issue of expert testimony, and when it should be admissible.

6. 1954

Social psychologists write a brief that makes its way into the footnotes of the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision, which helps validate psychology as a discipline.

7. 1968-1969

The American Psychology-Law Society is founded, followed by the publication of the American Psychology-Law Society journal, Law and Human Behavior.

8. 1980-1981

The American Psychological Association’s Division 41: Psychology and Law, is established; it merges with the American Psychology-Law Society four years later.

9. 2001

The American Psychological Association formally recognizes forensic psychology as a specialty discipline.

Job Roles Of Forensic Psychologists

If an individual is keen to learn about the science of human behavior and the law, then forensic psychology will interest him/her. The field has testified exceptional growth in recent years, given the fact that more and more students have applied to explore this branch of psychology. The common job roles associated with forensic psychology are:

  • Competency evaluations
  • Child custody evaluations
  • Trial consultants who help with jury selection, witness preparation, or legal strategies
  • Assessing the risk of reoffending
  • Sentencing recommendations
  • Testimony as an expert witness
  • Treatment of criminal offenders
  • Academic research on criminality
  • Consult with law enforcement
  • Administer psychological services to inmates and offenders
  • Design correctional programs

While this branch of psychology is defined as the junction of psychology and the law, however, since forensic psychologists can perform many roles, this definition can vary. In many cases, forensic psychologists also play the role of clinical psychologists, school psychologists, neurologists, or counselors who present their psychological expertise to provide testimony, report, or suggestions in legal or criminal cases.

What Are The Distinguishing Features Of Forensic Psychology?

Forensic psychology has differing features from clinical psychology. The duties of a forensic psychologist are somewhat limited in terms of scope and duration. The job or the duties of a forensic psychologist is very specific in each, individual case, such as determining whether a suspect is mentally competent to face charges. Unlike the typical clinical setting where clients are readily available to seek out assistance or evaluation, a forensic psychologist usually deals with individuals who are not there of their own free will. This can make evaluation, analysis, and treatment much more difficult since some clients resist the attempts at help.

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Education And Training For Forensic Psychology

While forensic psychology is not a general degree option, more schools are offering it as a specialty. If an individual is interested in becoming a forensic psychologist, he/she should take classes that focus on topics such as:

  • Criminal psychology
  • Drugs and psychopharmacology
  • Abnormal behavior
  • Social behavior
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Perception
  • Law
  • Criminal justice

If a school is offering coursework or a degree option in forensic psychology, one can expect to learn about topics that include the psychology of criminal behavior, deviant behavior, criminal risk assessment, mental health social policy, domestic violence, juvenile criminal justice, and adult offender treatment. The growing demand for the field is also leading to an expansion in the number of master’s level forensic psychology degrees. While such programs are popular and appealing, they have a disadvantage over clinical, doctoral-level training. Doctoral-level study in forensic psychology deals with topics including research methods, cognitive science, psychology, and the law, personality analysis, ethical and legal issues, assessment, and treatment. While there is no certification required to become a forensic psychologist, becoming a licensed psychologist has professional perks in terms of establishing credibility and expertise.

Importance Of Forensic Psychology

In recent years, forensic psychology has witnessed unmatched growth in becoming an established discipline. There are a number of textbooks that are being published catering to the subject of forensic psychology. Additionally, there are academic journals dedicated to the field, while mainstream psychology journals are printing more research from the forensic domain. Finally, a number of professional associations are expressing interest in forensic psychologists that have been developed to promote research and practice in the area.

It must be noted that forensic psychology plays a significant role in the criminal justice system. The study of human behavior fosters law implementation and enables the justice system to see how and why crimes occur and how pre-existing mental health conditions could contribute to a crime. While more and more studies are being conducted in this area, forensic psychologists are putting out an effort to help improve inmates with a history of continued offenses. The purpose is to break their behavioral pattern so that they no longer have to be imprisoned for their actions. Such psychologists also provide professional and specialized guidance to the court about whether a person is competent enough to stand trial. If the conviction requires mental health treatment, the forensic psychologist makes recommendations on that as well.

Forensic Psychology Is Worth Exploring

Forensic psychology is an interesting area of study for any psychologist, however, it does require an objective mind and some compassion. Even though this is a new branch within psychology, it is one that is growing in prominence in the global criminal justice system. Forensic psychology can be an exciting and challenging choice of career. Skills that one needs to pursue a career in this field are the ability to communicate well, research problems, and think critically.

References:
  1. Gbadebo-Goyea, E. A., Akpudo, H., Jackson, C. D., Wassef, T., Barker, N. C., Cunningham-Burley, R., Ali, S. A., Jabeen, S., & Bailey, R. K. (2012). Collaboration: The Paradigm of Practice Approach between the Forensic Psychiatrist and the Forensic Psychologist. Frontiers in psychiatry3, 89. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2012.00089 []
  2. Neal TMS. Forensic psychology and correctional psychology: Distinct but related subfields of psychological science and practice. Am Psychol. 2018 Jul-Aug;73(5):651-662. doi: 10.1037/amp0000227. Epub 2018 Feb 12. PMID: 29431456. []
  3. Crawford, M. A. (2014). (PDF) History of forensic psychology. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273132357_History_of_Forensic_Psychology []
  4. Weiss KJ, Watson C, Xuan Y. Frye’s Backstory: a tale of murder, a retracted confession, and scientific hubris. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2014;42(2):226-33. PMID: 24986350. []