Roles of Psychologists in the Legal System

There are several general roles for psychologists in the legal system, and many specific careers exist in psychology in the law (Bottoms et al., 2004). More generally, psychological researchers can impact the law in a variety of ways. Basic researchers, scientists who seek general or basic knowledge for its own sake, and applied researchers, scientists who study practical problems, can significantly influence the legal system. Although these basic and applied approaches appear to be different, they exist as two ends of the same continuum. Basic researchers inform the legal system by increasing the available knowledge on topics such as memory, human cognition, and social influence. Although research on the effects of different retention intervals on the recall of word lists does not appear to address issues in psychology and the law, such research contributes to the general body of knowledge related to memory.

Applied researchers approach specific problems in psychology and the law. For example, when critics argued that trained interrogators can analyze a suspect’s nonverbal behavior to determine whether a suspect is lying, Kassin and Fong (1999) acquired interrogator training materials, trained student observers to analyze behavior, and evaluated whether training caused observers to be more accurate. Although observers trained by Kassin and Fong (1999) were more confident and provided more reasons for their judgments, they were less accurate than untrained observers. Applied research topics abound in psychology and the law. Researchers have investigated the practical questions of whether sequential or simultaneous lineups lead to fewer errors (Steblay, Dysart, Fulero, & Lindsay, 2001), the effects of reading pretrial publicity before serving on a jury (Steblay, Besirevic, Fulero, & Jiminez-Lorente, 1999), and the potential impacts of expert testimony on jury decisions (Nietzel, McCarthy, & Kern, 1999).

Psychologists also evaluate the success of various legal interventions or reforms. A large and growing number of local districts use drug courts as an alternative to traditional criminal courts to help defendants receive addiction-treatment counseling and intensive supervision instead of incarceration. Of course, lawmakers wonder whether drug courts, with their emphasis on treatment and supervision, work better than incarceration. Psychologists have evaluated the effectiveness of drug courts and concluded that they do not eliminate recidivism but that defendants who work with drug courts are less likely to be arrested for later drug violations than are defendants sentenced in the traditional criminal legal system (Winick, 2003).

Psychologists also work in the legal system as advocates. For example, in 1954 psychologists joined other social scientists to advocate for desegregation in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education. More controversially, psychologists can act as trial consultants and work for one side in a court case. The Web site of the American Society of Trial Consultants (2007) lists several companies that engage in this work. The media spotlights consultants who engage in jury selection to help one side win a trial. Some researchers have argued that professional jury selection does not generate large advantages during trials (Fulero & Penrod, 1990), but these activities have continued to grow in the face of disagreement in the field. Trial consultants engage in other work as well. They may survey community members to determine whether a defendant can get a fair trial in a particular location. Work in this vein led to a change of venue for the trial of Timothy McVeigh—from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Denver, Colorado—to seat a jury that saw less pretrial publicity and less biased publicity regarding McVeigh before his trial (Studebaker & Penrod, 1991). Trial consultants may also prepare witnesses, assist lawyers in preparation for trial, and even run simulated trials with jury-eligible community members to evaluate the effectiveness of different trial strategies. Trial consultants and attorneys face similar ethical dilemmas. They must decide whether it is morally appropriate to work for the success of their clients. Despite controversy over the ethical implications of psychologists who work to affect legal outcomes, trial consulting businesses have continued to grow (American Society of Trial Consultants, 2007).

Read more about Psychology and Law:

Psychology and law (Main article)

Prominent Research Areas in Psychology and the Law