An Overview of Forensic Psychology

What do forensic psychologists do?

Forensic psychology
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Forensic psychology is a field that combines the practice of psychology and the law. Those who work in this field utilize psychological expertise as it applies to the justice system. 

The American Board of Forensic Psychology describes this field as the application of psychology to issues that involve the law and legal system. Interest in forensic psychology has grown significantly in recent years. Increasing numbers of graduate programs offer dual degrees in psychology and law while others providing specialization in forensic psychology.

Some psychologists hold a specialist degree in forensic psychology, but most are licensed psychologists who hold either a PhD or PsyD. These professionals may work in both criminal and civil law areas.

The word 'forensic' originates from the Latin word 'forensis,' which means "the forum," or the court system of Ancient Rome.

History

While forensic psychology is considered a rather new specialty area within psychology, the field dates back to the earliest days in psychology's history. Philosophers and scientists have long sought to understand what makes people commit crimes, behave aggressively, or engage in antisocial behaviors.

Forensic psychology is a relatively new specialty area. In fact, forensic psychology was just officially recognized as a specialty area by the American Psychological Association in 2001. Despite this, the field of forensic psychology has roots that date back to Wilhelm Wundt's first psychology lab in Leipzig, German. Learn more about some of the major events and key figures in the history of forensic psychology.

Today, forensic psychologists are not only interested in understanding why such behaviors occur, but also in helping minimize and prevent such actions.

The field has experienced dramatic growth in recent years as more and more students become interested in this applied branch of psychology. Popular movies, television programs, and books have helped popularize the field, often depicting brilliant heroes who solve vicious crimes or track down killers using psychology.

While depictions of forensic psychology in popular media are certainly dramatic and attention-grabbing, these portrayals are not necessarily accurate. That said, forensic psychologists do play an important role in the criminal justice system. It can be an exciting career for students interested in applying psychological principles to the legal system.

What Do Forensic Psychologists Do?

If you enjoy learning about the science of human behavior and the law, then forensic psychology will probably interest you quite a bit. The field has witnessed dramatic growth in recent years, as more and more students become interested in this applied branch of psychology. However, forensic psychology is about much more than the glamorized views portrayed in television shows, movies, and books.

Common Job Roles

Some of the functions typically performed within forensic psychology include:

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

Forensic psychology is defined as the intersection of psychology and the law, but forensic psychologists can perform many roles so this definition can vary.

In many cases, people working in forensic psychology are not necessarily "forensic psychologists." These individuals might be clinical psychologists, school psychologists, neurologists, or counselors who lend their psychological expertise to provide testimony, analysis, or recommendations in legal or criminal cases.

For example, a clinical psychologist might provide mental health services such as assessment, diagnosis, and treatment to individuals who have come into contact with the criminal justice system. Clinicians might be asked to determine if a suspected criminal suffers from a mental illness, or may be asked to provide treatment to individuals suffering from substance abuse and addiction issues.

Another example is that of a school psychologist. While people in this profession typically work with children in school settings, a school psychologist working in forensic psychology might evaluate children in suspected abuse cases, help prepare children to give testimony in court, or offer testimony in child custody disputes.

What Distinguishes Forensic Psychology?

So what exactly makes forensic psychology different from another specialty area such as clinical psychology? Typically, the duties of a forensic psychologist are fairly limited in terms of scope and duration. A forensic psychologist is asked to perform a very specific duty in each individual case, such as determining if a suspect is mentally competent to face charges.

Unlike the typical clinical setting where a client as voluntarily sought out assistance or evaluation, a forensic psychologist usually deals with clients who are not there of their own free will. This can make assessment, diagnosis, and treatment much more difficult since some clients willfully resist attempts at help.

Education and Training

Forensic psychology is not a common degree option, yet more and more schools are offering it as a specialty. If you are interested in becoming a forensic psychologist, you should take courses that focus on topics such as:

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

If your school does offer coursework or a degree option in forensic psychology, you can expect to tackle topics that include deviant behavior, the psychology of criminal behavior, criminal risk assessment, domestic violence, mental health social policy, juvenile criminal justice, and adult offender treatment.

The growing popularity of the field has also led to an increased in the number of master's level forensic psychology degrees. Many experts suggest that such programs, while popular and appealing, have a disadvantage over clinical, doctoral-level training. 

Doctoral-level study in forensic psychology typically focuses on topics including research methods, personality analysis, cognitive science, psychology and the law, ethical and legal issues, assessment, and treatment.

While there is no certification requirement for forensic psychologists, becoming a licensed psychologist has professional advantages in terms of establishing credibility and expertise.

Careers in Forensic Psychology

While forensic psychology may not be all about solving crimes and getting inside the mind's of criminals, there are still plenty of challenges for forensic psychologists. There a number of different job options within the field of forensic psychology.

For example, some forensic psychologists work directly in the criminal justice system to assess, evaluate and treat individuals who have committed crimes or have been the victims of crimes. Other forensic psychologists investigate cases of alleged child abuse, work with child witnesses, evaluate individuals involved in child custody disputes, and assess mental competency.

If you are interested in a field such as forensic or criminal psychology, you might want to spend some time researching some of the exciting career options in forensic psychology The degree you choose to pursue may depend somewhat on what you want to do as a forensic psychologist, so figuring this out early on can be helpful in planning your educational path.

A Word From Verywell

Forensic psychology can be an exciting and challenging career choice. Skills that you might need if you choose to pursue a career in this field include the abilities to communicate well, research problems, and think critically.

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Article Sources

  • Davies, GM & Beech, AR (Eds). Forensic Psychology: Crime, Justice, Law Interventions. New York: John Wiley & Sons; 2018.
  • Fulero, SM & Wrightsman, LS. Forensic Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2009.