Social sciences like anthropology, psychology, psychiatry and social work are applied within the legal context and have been for decades, including the fields of forensic psychology, psychiatric, counseling and social work. The forensic psychologist career, in particular, overlaps with several others as it blends expert psychological and neuropsychological knowledge with the criminal justice system. This paper will describe the forensic psychology profession in detail and in comparison, to several other similar professions.
In the context of law enforcement, the forensic psychologist is useful for assessing, diagnosing and treating criminal defendants whose mental and psychological states likely influenced their crimes. The field and interest in it is rapidly growing, especially as a result of entertainment media. The forensic psychologist can and does wear many hats, depending on the capacity and setting in which they work. Using medical knowledge about emotions, behaviors and cognition, coupled with the rigidity of the criminal justice system, can create complexities for the forensic psychologist career that can also be incredibly rewarding.
Keywords: forensic counselor, forensic psychiatry, forensic psychologist, forensic psychology, forensic social work
The field of forensic psychology refers to the application of clinical and social science to biological research and experimentation within the legal arena. Within this field of study is the forensic psychologist career. Forensic psychologists represent the intersection between the justice system and psychology as those who assist and aid in family law and child custody matters, mental examinations of criminal defendants, civil law, violence risk assessment, etc. (Franklin, 2014). Forensic psychologists must have clinical psychology training, legal knowledge especially pertaining to mental health laws and case laws and excellent verbal and nonverbal communication skills. Forensic psychologists typically hold bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, which must be from an American Psychological Association-accredited institution. In the United States, a forensic psychologist must be licensed for practice by the American Board of Forensic Psychology. Forensic psychology is not only a career field, but a discipline that blends criminology, psychology and ethics.
The field of forensic psychology is rapidly growing, especially since it became an APA-approved specialty for education and practice. The expansion of the field is driven by the overall crime rate, although it is decreasing within the United States. No matter the rate, forensic psychologists serve an invaluable role in the criminal justice system. As long as there is crime that is subject to judicial scrutiny and that is driven by different mental and psychologist motivations, there is a need for forensic psychologists. Forensic psychologists serve in nonprofit, governmental agencies, college and universities and private practices. There is a number of ways that forensic psychologists come into the career field, including specialized graduate programs in law and psychology, as well as traditional psychology departments and colleges that have specific concentrations. Studying clinical psychology, experimental psychology and neuropsychology are also common college and university majors in which the forensic psychologist hopeful can build their career. Those pursuing a career in forensic psychology should take criminal justice and psychology classes, as well as courses centered around neuropsychology, biology and anatomy. It is anticipated in the next few years that research, field work and clinical practice will continue to boost the field’s growth within several parts of the private and public sectors.
Compared to forensic psychiatrists, forensic social workers and forensic counselors, each of them plays a significant psychological role in the justice system. Psychiatrists, even generally speaking, are licensed to provide medication and pharmacotherapy to criminals and criminal defendants. Forensic social workers go beyond psychiatry and psychology to understand and evaluate competency and personal responsibility. They diagnose, treat and recommend treatment to criminal justice populations, make assessments about mental status and screen law enforcement and criminal justice personnel. Finally, forensic counselors work directly with criminal offenders, analyze them and recommend treatments, much like a psychiatrist. A forensic psychologist, on the other hand, acts by clinically assessing and interviewing criminal defendants, writing reports and essentially taking stock of the mental health and state of criminal defendants as well as law enforcement personnel. Specifically, the forensic psychologist may asses the risk of threats in schools, child custody evaluations, screening and selection of law enforcement applications and delivering intervention and treatment programs for offenders (Ward, 2013). Forensic psychologists also serve in the expert witness capacity. Expert witnesses give testimony in criminal trials, using their psychological knowledge to be impartial, but to also ensure that justice is met in the most honest and ethical way possible. Expert witnesses are obliged to ethics that guide their behavior in and out of the courtroom, not compromising their confidentiality or objectivity when performing as a psychologist. Expert witnesses must balance their profession with the reality of the criminal justice system, which often neglects to consider the mental and psychological states and motivations of crimes and criminals. Each job applies knowledge of the human psyche to assess, profile and evaluate the human mind and how it works.
In the Frontiers of psychiatry journal, an article titled “Collaboration: the paradigm of practice…,” the differences between forensic psychiatry and forensic psychology and the respective professions are explored. Both can serve as expert witnesses and aid in legal-medical issues, but fundamental differences lie in educational background and training, as well as their methods of field work and study. Psychologists treat those with emotional and mental disorders with behavioral therapy and other methods of psychotherapy and psychiatrists, who, as mentioned, apply clinical skills and knowledge to law in the context of the biopsychosocial environment. As represented in this piece of scholarly literature, forensic psychologists and psychiatrists have significant similarities and differences in the context of their roles, responsibilities and the capacities in which they can serve in the law enforcement system. There is natural overlap with the forensic psychologist profession with others like social workers, psychiatrists and counselors.
Blending law and psychology is the cornerstone of the forensic psychologist career. Differing from forensic science, forensic psychologists assess the emotional and mental perspectives associated with crime and criminals, applying them to justice in hopes and in their best efforts that it is served. Driven by television and film police procedurals like “Law and Order, “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds,” and more, the interest in forensic psychology is growing as rapidly as the profession itself. The field is one of great stakes and requires tough skin and extreme mental fortitude, given the severity and circumstances of criminal cases across the spectrum of humanity. Objectivity, sensitivity and emotional intelligence are key to an easily frustrating, frightening, distressing and discouraging profession.
- Franklin, K., Ph.D. (2014, September 15). Forensic Psychology: Is It the Career for Me? Retrieved May 19, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/witness/201409/forensic-psychology-is-it-the-career-me
- Gbadebo-Goyea, E. A., Akpudo, H., Jackson, C. D., Wassef, T., Barker, N. C., Cunningham-Burley, R., … & Bailey, R. K. (2012). Collaboration: the paradigm of practice approach between the forensic psychiatrist and the forensic psychologist. Frontiers in psychiatry, 3, 89.
- Ward, J. T., Ph.D. (2013, September). What is forensic psychology? Retrieved May 19, 2018, from http://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/psn/2013/09/forensic-psychology.aspx