Psychology Jobs > Forensic Psychologist

A forensic psychologist is a psychologist who works within the legal profession or court system providing a variety of services. A forensic psychologist can work in either the criminal or civil law system or both.

Forensic psychology got its start in the late 1890s and early 1900s. J. McKeen Cattell was one of the first people to conducted research in an area related to forensic psychology. Cattell did some early research on testimonies given during court trials and found that there was a lot of inaccuracy in a witness's testimony. This work was built on by both Alfred Binet and William Stern. Stern found that strong emotions had a negative impact on a witness's ability to accurately recall an observed situation.

Binet's work on psychological testing was very important for the development of forensic psychology. Binet and another psychologist, Theodore Simon, developed an intelligence test for children and the concepts behind this psychometric test were used to develop other psychometric tests that could be used to assess intelligence in adults as well as an adult's competency to stand trial.

At the same time that this research was being conducted, psychologists in Europe were beginning to testify as expert witnesses in trials. In 1923, psychologist William Marston, the person who discovered that systolic blood pressure was related to lying, testified in a court case that established the precedent for using expert witnesses in court. The court found that as long as a procedure or assessment was generally accepted by other people in the same profession, then it could be used as evidence. This ruling allowed psychologists to be used as expert witnesses in court cases and really jumpstarted the field of Forensic Psychology.

Forensic psychology stagnated a bit until after World War II. During this time, psychologists were used as expert witnesses but medical specialists were thought to be more credible witnesses and were used more often. In 1940, the courts ruled that being an expert witness was dependent on a person's knowledge and not simply possessing a medical degree.

Soon after this ruling, psychologists were called upon to testify in different court cases. Most notably, in 1954 there was a case in which psychologists were called by both the defense and prosecuting attorneys. In 1962, psychologists were recognized as mental illness experts and forensic psychology has continued to develop over the years. In 2001, forensic psychology was officially recognized by the American Psychological Association as a legitimate sub-discipline within psychology.

What Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?

Forensic Psychologists don't just testify in court cases. Instead, they participate in a wide array of activities. For example, a forensic psychologist may be asked by the court or attorneys to conduct some type of assessment although the purpose behind the assessment will change depending on the circumstances.

Some of the assessments used may include intelligence tests such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-III as well as other tests like the Rorschach Ink Blot Test and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. These tests will be used to assess cognitive and intellectual abilities, neuropsychological screening, and the effects of trauma. The forensic psychologist will also use these tests to assess if a client in malingering (pretending the symptoms are worse than they really are) or is prone to violence.

One important thing to remember is that, unlike what you may see on popular TV shows, most forensic psychologists aren't involved in criminal profiling. Although some do criminal profiling, the majority of forensic psychologists work in other areas, such as those listed below.

Determining Competency: One common type of assessment that a forensic psychologist may need to perform is an assessment to determine a person's competency. A competency evaluation allows the forensic psychologist to determine if the person is competent to stand trial. Competency to stand trial means that a person understands what is happening around him and the reasons why he is in court. The person will also be able to participate in discussions with his lawyer and answer questions in court if necessary.

An example of a competency evaluation can be seen on death row where a forensic psychologist needs to assess a prisoner's understanding of why the prisoner was given the death penalty and what the sentence means. Other competency evaluations may be required to assess a person's competency to plead guilty as well as competency to waive the right to counsel.

People with developmental delays or young offenders are also usually assessed by forensic psychologists to determine their competency to participate in the legal process. If a person is found to be competent, then the trial or death sentence will continue. If a person facing trial is found to be incompetent, then the forensic psychologist will make recommendations regarding what needs to happen so that the person will regain competency.

Often, the person who is found to be incompetent to stand trial will be committed to a psychiatric hospital until the person has regained competency. In some cases, a person may never become competent to stand trial and may need to receive treatment or be in care for the rest of the person's life. For example, a defendant who is developmentally delayed or suffering from severe mental illness may never regain competency and need to remain in care.

It is important to note that this type of assessment is different than an evaluation of a person's mental state during the commission of a crime. A competency hearing looks at how the person is now, not how the person was during the time of the offense.

Sanity Evalutions: This type of assessments by a forensic psychologist looks at a person's mental state during the time the actual crime took place. A person could be deemed to be competent to stand trial but also deemed to have been clinically insane during the commission of the crime. A forensic psychologist will usually do this type of evaluation if there is concern that the defendant was undergoing some severe impairment to his or her mental state during the time the crime was committed.

An example of someone who may use the temporary insanity defense may be a person suffering from a mental illness such as schizophrenia but is now receiving treatment. The temporary insanity defense has been used for "crimes of passion" but this defense is not used that often anymore because juries have often come to the conclusion that a person still knows right from wrong even if the person is experiencing severe emotional distress. A person could experience severe emotional distress as a result of the death of a child or discovering a spouse has been having an affair.

A defense lawyer may attempt to have the defendant plead not guilty by reason of insanity, which would require an assessment by a forensic psychologist. Sanity evaluations may also be done in court cases where the defendant is found or pleads guilty but mentally ill. In this case, the person's sentence would start in a mental health facility and then once the mental illness has been dealt with, the defendant would continue serving the sentence in a correctional facility.

Assess Risk of Re-offending: A forensic psychologist may also conduct assessments on a prisoner asking to be paroled. The forensic psychologist will be required to make a judgement on the probability the person may commit another crime if released from prison. The forensic psychologist can also be required to set conditions of the parole to help ensure that the person does not re-offend. Conditions of parole refer to what the person needs to do or the rules that need to be followed in order to be given parole.

An assessment into the risk of re-offending may also be required during the sentencing process. If a forensic psychologist finds that the person responsible for a crime is unlikely to re-offend, then the sentence may be different than for a person who is very likely to re-offend.

This can be one of the toughest jobs for a forensic psychologist because of the very real consequences of being wrong. There is always the danger that a person who you assessed as being unlikely to re-offend may actually commit a number of crimes after being released. The job can also be difficult because of the very real concern that a client will lie to the forensic psychologist in order to gain parole or have a sentence reduced. Often, it is in the best interests of the client to lie or tell the forensic psychologist whatever the client thinks the forensic psychologist wants to hear.

Mitigating Circumstances: Even if a patient is deemed to be competent and sane, a defendant may want to use mitigating circumstances to help get a reduced sentence. Mitigating circumstances refers to a defendant's background and history which the defendant wants the judge to keep in mind when it comes to sentencing. A forensic psychologist gathers information about mitigating circumstances by looking into the family background of a defendant as well as looking into any significant events in the defendant's history.

For example, a history of abuse or witnessing a traumatic event and even a defendant's medical history can all be used in an attempt to moderate the sentence.

Neuropsychologist job
Child Custody Issues: When parents are going through the process of getting a divorce, a forensic psychologist may need to conduct an evaluation of the children to make recommendations regarding the child's best interests. This evaluation could include recommendations relating to visitation rights and even which parent the child should live with.
A forensic psychologist may also be asked by the courts to perform child custody mediation. The forensic psychologist will mediate discussions between the two disputing parents in an attempt to come to an agreement regarding custody and visitation rights.

Research, Training and Consultation: A forensic psychologist can also conduct research into various aspects of the legal system, such as eyewitness testimony, repressed memories and jury selection. Not only will a forensic psychologist do research into these areas but they may also consult and advise lawyers about these issues.

A forensic psychologist may also be involved in teaching forensic psychology at the university level. Likewise, forensic psychologists often train and advise police officers and other legal professionals on issues such as giving testimony or developing an understanding of the criminal mind.

Differences Between a Forensic Psychologist and a Clinical Psychologist

Although both forensic psychologist and a clinical psychologist may utilize the same skills, there are a number of important distinctions when it comes to how those skills are put to use.

Type of Work: A clinical psychologist often works with a much larger number of different situations and issues than a forensic psychologist. A forensic psychologist will mainly focus on just a few areas of psychology such as determining competency, sanity or child custody issues.

Type of Client: In many cases, clinical psychologists works with voluntary clients - people who seek out help and are motivated to make changes in their lives. Conversely, a forensic psychologist often works with much less willing clients. Often times, their clients were ordered by the court to be evaluated by or work with a Forensic Psychologist. Having a client who is resistant to being seen by a psychologist can make the forensic psychologist's work that much harder.

Forensic psychologists also need to worry about the possibility of their clients lying or attempting to portray their symptoms as being much worse than they are. If a criminal defendant is attempting to plead not guilty by reason of insanity or hoping to use mitigating circumstances to decrease a prison sentence, it can be in the defendant's best interests to either lie or exaggerate their symptoms and situation. The forensic psychologist needs to always be aware of this possibility so that the assessment will be valid.

Therapy Objectives: The therapy objectives being pursued by both a clinical psychologist and a forensic psychologist can be very different depending on the situation.

One difference in therapy objectives is that in a clinical psychology setting, the client usually has the opportunity to set the goals and help define the treatment. A forensic psychologist usually has the objectives set by the court or the lawyer and the client's wishes are not as important. The forensic psychologist needs to meet the court's objectives, not the client's objectives.

While a clinical psychologist may be more interested in a client's objectives and resolving behavioural or mental problems, a forensic psychologist is more focused on obtaining the truth about a specific situation. In other words, the Forensic Psychologist is not trying to treat the client's problematic behaviors or mental problems. For example, a forensic psychologist conducting an evaluation into a defendant's sanity will be more concerned about making a decision regarding sanity and not how the client's viewpoint affects the person's behaviour.

The relationship between a client and a forensic psychologist is also very different from the type of relationship that can be achieved in a clinical psychology setting. A forensic psychologist can not offer the same guarantees of confidentiality to a client and often does not work at developing a trusting relationship with a defendant. The forensic psychologist always needs to be aware of the possibility of deception as well as the fact that the forensic psychologist can not be on the defendant's side particularly when the assessment is ordered by the prosecution. The forensic psychologist is not an advocate for the defendant and does not "take the defendant's side" but instead needs to remain neutral and remain interested in only finding the truth.

Length of Assessment: The amount of time that a forensic psychologist can spend with a defendant is usually set by the court and not by the therapist and client. The forensic psychologist will only have a limited time to interact with the defendant as a result of court schedules and the schedules of other organizations such as the prison if the defendant is incarcerated.


How Do I Become a Forensic Psychologist?

The first step to becoming a forensic psychologist is to acquire the appropriate doctoral degree and then begin to specialize in forensic psychology. You will also be required to obtain the necessary licences from the state to practice psychology.

As forensic psychology becomes more popular, more universities are starting to develop programs focused on this aspect of psychology. It wasn't long ago that there were just a handful of forensic psychology graduate programs. Today, there are choices across the United States and many other countries.

Another option is to pursue a dual degree in both psychology and law although this can be both time consuming and expensive. Ideally, your doctoral thesis or dissertation should address some aspect of forensic psychology and look for an internship in a forensic psychology setting.

Forensic psychology is a relatively new field of study and you need to ensure that you understand the type of work and the people you will be involved with. Often you will be working with criminals or people who have been the victims of crime which a number of people can have difficulty with. You will also need to be able to deal with both adversarial clients as well as adversarial lawyers when it comes time for you to take the stand and testify about your assessment. Although, the work can be difficult, for the right person it can also be interesting and rewarding work. If you think you can handle all of these concerns, then becoming a forensic psychologist may be the right choice for you.