Forensic Psychology

Forensic PsychologyThe profession of psychology is finding increasing representation in the civil and criminal justice systems. The roles of psychologists are quite broad, and include such activities as the provision of assessment and treatment services, research, and serving as expert witnesses in court. Psychologists are engaged in virtually the full range of settings in the criminal justice system, including police, courts, pro­bation, jails, prisons, and parole, and they work with offenders, victims, and criminal justice personnel. On the civil side, psychologists are involved in areas such as civil commitment, civil competencies (e.g., competency to consent to treatment or research, and guardianship) and other civil issues (e.g., custody and access, and personal injury). Their background in assessment has enabled psychologists to contribute to the development of assessment methods designed to address questions of law, such as the insanity defense, compe­tency to stand trial, civil competency, risk to self or others, and child custody. This work has resulted in improved methods for assessing these and other legal and forensic issues. In a similar manner, psychologists may develop treatment models for forensic populations.

Defining Forensic Psychology

Defining forensic psychology is not a simple task. Some have used the term broadly to encompass any psychologist with an interest in legal issues. The Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists (Committee on Ethical Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists, 1991) de­fines forensic psychology to refer to “all forms of professional psychological conduct when acting, with definable foreknowledge, as a psychological expert on explicitly psycholegal issues, in direct assistance to courts, parties to legal proceedings, correctional and forensic mental health facilities, and administrative, judicial, and legislative agencies acting in an adjudicative capacity” (p. 657). This definition would include, for example, social psychologists whose research focuses on jury decision-making or eyewitness behavior. However, most psychologists define the area more narrowly, to refer to clinical psychologists who are engaged in clinical practice within the legal system. This article will focus on the research and practice in the clinical forensic area.

Professional Organizations and Scholarly Journals

As the field of psychology and law has developed, so too have professional organizations and scholarly journals. These include the American Psychology-Law Society (Division 41 of the American Psychological Association), the Law and Society Association, and the American Board of Forensic Psychology. Several journals have also been introduced in North America (e.g., Law and Human Behavior, Behavioral Sciences and the Law, Law and Society Review, and Psychology, Public Policy, and Law) and in Europe (e.g., Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health and Legal and Criminological Psychology). Several handbooks have also helped define and shape this growing field of expertise, notably the Handbook of Forensic Psychology (I. B. Weiner & A. K. Hess, 1998) and Psychological Evaluations for the Courts: A Handbook for Mental Health Professionals and Lawyers (G. B. Mel­ton, J. Petrila, N. J. Poythress, & C. Slobogin, 1997).

Training Requirements for Forensic Psychologists

Although most practicing psychologists are trained at the doctoral level, many do not have specific training in the application of psychology to legal issues. In the past decade, however, graduate-level training of psychologists to work in the legal arena has become more common. Programs include forensic specialty programs within clinical psychology programs, and psychology and law degree programs (including joint degree programs in which students obtain both a Ph.D. in psychology and a law degree). This increased emphasis on training in psychology and law is also represented in clinical internship settings. Most graduate clinical programs require students to complete a one-year internship prior to receiving the doctoral degree, and many internships now offer forensic training.

The training of psychologists continues, of course, beyond graduate school. For many psychologists working in the legal system, training may more commonly take place after graduate school, typically in continuing education programs, such as workshops or specialized training programs. While a workshop format is useful for providing the latest information to those already trained in the area, or introducing the area to those with little experience, it is important that the limits of what can be acquired via this format be made explicit. The goal of the continuing education format is not to replace more extensive and formal training, but to supplement it. Ideally, psychologists trained in graduate programs in law and psychology would subsequently take advantage of continuing education programs to update their knowledge or learn new skills.

The research and practice of forensic psychology has focused on assessment and intervention, so each of these areas will be highlighted briefly.

Forensic Assessment

Criminal forensic assessment focuses on such legal issues as competency, criminal responsibility, and risk assessment. Developments in two areas, risk assessment and competency to stand trial, illustrate just some of the exciting advances that are taking place in the area of forensic assessment.

Many concerns have been raised about whether psychologists (or other mental health professionals) can predict future violence. Current research shows that predictions of violence are significantly more accurate than chance, although there remain concerns about the still high number of incorrect predictions, especially errors in detaining individuals who would not actually be violent if released. The improved quality of predictions can be partly attributed to the development of actuarial measures, which are based on specific assessment data, usually static or historical in nature, that have been shown empirically to be predictive of future violence. They provide for consistency in clinical assessments and are more reliable and valid than unstructured clinical judgment approaches. Psychopathy, a psychological construct based on the groundbreaking work of Canadian psychologist Robert Hare, has emerged as one of the best single predictors of criminal recidivism and is highly useful in assisting forensic psychologists in predictions of future violence (1991). Psychopathy is a form of personality disorder characterized by symptoms that include: superficiality, grandiosity, deceitfulness, lack of remorse, lack of empathy, failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions, impulsivity, aggressivity, lack of long-term goals, irresponsibility, early-onset antisocial behavior, and antisocial behavior as an adult. The disorder is usually first evident in childhood and is relatively stable across the life-span. About 25% of incarcerated adult male offenders can be considered psychopaths. The Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, developed by Hare, is a rating scale for the assessment of psychopathy focusing on specific items that reflect the major symptoms of psychopathy. Items are scored on the basis of a review of case history information and an interview, where possible. The PCL-R forms a major component of many risk assessment measures.

Forensic Psychology Actuarial methods are often useful but have limits. They rely, for the most part, on static, historical variables, so they ignore potentially useful information about an individual’s current functioning and risk management strategies that may be employed following release. Some forensic psychologists use what Thomas Grisso, an American clinical psychologist, has referred to as a forensic assessment instrument (FAI, 1986). FAIs provide a general framework for conducting assessment; they have also been referred to as aides memoire or clinical guidelines. FAIs do not have the characteristics of a true psychological test, but they help to make assessment more uniform and systematic. Unlike actuarial measures, FAIs do not yield a score that is interpreted with reference to norms or cutoffs. Rather, they help the examiner collect relevant information in a consistent manner and follow the decision-making process required under law. The specific content of the assessment (e.g., the questions asked or information collected by the examiner) is tailored to the specific evaluation context, and FAIs typically assess both current clinical factors and risk management strategies in addition to historical factors.

Psychologists are often called upon to assess a defendant’s competency to stand trial. The determination that an individual is incompetent to stand trial requires the postponement of criminal proceedings on the grounds that such defendants are unable to participate in their defense on account of mental or physical disorder or retardation. Trial competency issues are raised substantially more often than the insanity defense, and between 25,000 and 39,000 competency evaluations are conducted in the United States annually. In the past decade, a considerable amount of research and clinical activity has generated a number of FAIs designed to assist evaluators in making decisions about competency, and these measures have led to more reliable and valid assessments of competency. These new assessments approaches are often based on a functional evaluation of a defendant’s ability, matched to the contextualized demands of the case. While an assessment of the mental status of a defendant is important, it is now generally recognized that it is not sufficient as a method of evaluating competency. Rather, the mental status information must be related to the specific demands of the case. Thus, a defendant may be psychotic and still be found competent to stand trial if the symptoms do not impair the defendant’s functional ability to consult with his or her attorney and otherwise rationally participate in the legal process.

In the civil arena, psychologists are often asked by divorce courts to provide evaluations of children involved in custody disputes. Obviously, this is a sensitive and demanding responsibility for clinicians. Allegations of child abuse or neglect are becoming more common in divorce cases, making these assessments even more complex. In this, as with other areas of forensic activity, specialized training beyond basic clinical training is essential. Other civil issues; include the assessment of the competence of civilly committed patients to consent to treatment or research as well as the assessment of per­sonal injury in civil action cases.

Psychological Intervention

Specialized treatment programs have been developed for specific forensic groups, including substance abusers, sex offenders, and defendants found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity. Psychologists are also involved in providing both individual and group therapy for mentally disordered inmates in jails and prisons. There is considerable controversy about the effectiveness of these interventions, but the conclusion reached in the 1970s that nothing worked is now being replaced with the view that at least some treatment approaches can be effective, especially those based on cognitive behavioral approaches. Perhaps the most promising work is being done in the area of prevention and early intervention, especially with adolescents. This approach has the potential for more long-term impact on adult criminality because it attempts to affect the lives of young people before criminal patterns become more established, through interventions with youths, families, the schools, and the community.

Other Areas of Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychologists are also active in other areas. For example, they provide consultations with police on topics such as police selection, hostage negotiation, police stress, police community relations, and training to deal with domestic violence situations. Many forensic psychologists are involved in clinical work with adolescents enmeshed in the legal system or in diversion programs providing alternatives to the juvenile justice system. When the circumstances of a person’s death are unclear, as in the case of a possible suicide, psychologists may conduct a psychological autopsy, in which a mental health professional attempts to assess the mental state of a deceased person at some point prior to his or her death. Criminal profiling, although popularized on television shows and in crime novels, is a relatively rare activity in forensic psychology, and the reliability and validity of profiling have not been established.

Future Directions

Forensic psychology has grown dramatically in the past three decades. Advances in the development of specialized forensic instruments have perhaps been the major contribution of the field to date. In the future, as the graduate programs produce forensic psychologists who are better trained for both research and practice, the impact of forensic psychologists on both civil and criminal issues should be substantial. One shortcoming of the field is that most of the contributions have been in applied areas but there have been negligible contributions to theory. The field will be strengthened if the next generation also makes theoretical contributions on such issues as aggression, criminality, and the development of sexual deviance. Another area in need of greater attention is the design of more effective prevention and intervention strategies, especially with young people.

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  2. Committee on Ethical Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists. (1991). Specialty guidelines for forensic psychologists. Law and Human Behavior, 15, 655-665.
  3. Grisso, T., & Appelbaum, P. S. (1998). Assessing competence to consent to treatment. New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Hare, R. (1991). The Hare Psychopathology Checklist-Revised. Toronto: Multi-Health Systems.
  5. Melton, G. B., Petrila, J. , Poythress, N. G., & Slobogin, C. (1997). Psychological evaluations for the courts: A handbook for mental health professionals and lawyers (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
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