One of the things that make being a forensic psychologist both a joy and a challenge is its sex appeal. That’s right, forensic psychology is a sexy topic. Clinical forensic psychology is inherently appealing at some very basic level that gets students and the everyday person interested in the topic. However, with this sex appeal comes the challenge. People think they have a good sense of forensic psychology and the different things a forensic psychologist does. The problem is that this sense comes from many of the sensational aspects of forensic psychology that are frequently exaggerated or simply inaccurate. In this section, we will try to maintain this sex appeal while we define clinical forensic psychology, examine its difficult relation with the law, describe topics that are characteristic of forensic psychology and the job of a forensic psychologist, and describe the training and education necessary to be a forensic psychologist.
What is Clinical Forensic Psychology?
Just as the sex appeal inherent to forensic psychology makes it both a challenge and a blessing, the description of forensic psychology is very straightforward but also complex. At a very basic level, forensic psychology is the application of psychology to the legal system. However, there has been a great deal of debate about the breadth of topics that such a definition includes. Some believe that forensic psychology refers only to the clinical aspects of psychology, such as the assessment and treatment of mental illness. Others believe that forensic psychology should be interpreted more broadly and include nonclinical topics, such as eyewitness identification and jury decision making. Our focus will be on only the clinical aspects of forensic psychology, so our definition of forensic psychology is the application of the clinical practice of psychology to the legal system. You already may be saying to yourself, “For such a sexy topic, this definition does not seem very sexy to me.” So, why is forensic psychology so inherently interesting?
Sensational Aspects of Forensic Psychology
An excerpt that appeared in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia (n.d.) states, “Forensic psychologists are perhaps most commonly recognized for their involvement in the processing of a crime scene.” This excerpt is an excellent example of the misguided beliefs that frequently appear regarding forensic psychology and the critical evaluation that should take place when using an online “encyclopedia” that anyone with Internet access can contribute to in the modern age. The real problem with the above statement is that it is true. The public’s notion of forensic psychology does come from television shows and movies in which a psychologist is somehow involved in the “processing of a crime scene.” Movies like Silence of the Lambs and Kiss the Girls frequently depict forensic psychologists as super sleuths who get into the minds of serial killers with their psychological techniques and foil their murderous plans. There was even a television show on for several years, Profiler, in which a Dr. Samantha Waters played a “forensic psychologist” who was a psychic detective. The only problem with such a show is there is no empirical support in psychology for the existence of psychic powers, nor have forensic psychologists ever solved crimes by reading tea leaves or interpreting psychic visions. Shows like the multiple Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) television shows, though they involve actual forensic science, only further suggest to the public that forensic psychologists are out there catching the bad guys.
The Reality of Forensic Psychology
The reality of forensic psychology is much less sensational than the popular images, but just as interesting. Forensic psychologists rarely participate in any aspect of criminal investigation. Law enforcement officers are the most suitable professionals for capturing criminals. Torres, Boccaccini, and Miller (2006) surveyed forensic psychologists and found that less than 10 percent had ever engaged in crime scene investigation or criminal profiling. Criminal profiling was initially conceptualized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the 1970s. In order to aid in the investigation of serial murderers, the FBI formed the Behavioral Sciences Unit, interviewed serial killers, and eventually identified a list of characteristics, or a profile, of different types of serial killers. However, these efforts were investigative in nature and did not firmly rely on psychological expertise or psychological methods. Though the FBI now frequently consults with forensic psychologists and there have been some more recent efforts by psychologists to make crime scene investigation more scientific and based in psychology, criminal profiling remains a tool of law enforcement and of only limited psychological application (Hicks & Sales, 2006).
Instead of crime scene investigation, forensic psychologists usually become involved in the legal system once a crime has been committed or once legal action has begun. Remember, we previously described forensic psychology as the application of the clinical practice of psychology to the legal system. Clinical psychology focuses on the assessment of personality and the treatment of mental illness. A clinical psychologist may assess or evaluate whether a child is suffering from a learning disability or attention deficit disorder. A clinical psychologist may also treat or alleviate the emotional pain of someone who has been sexually assaulted or is suffering from depression. Clinical psychologists who specialize in forensic psychology act in similar ways involving issues that surround the legal system. A forensic psychologist may assess whether someone who has been in an automobile accident suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder. A forensic psychologist also may perform a custody evaluation and offer information to the court about the best custody arrangement between two parents.
The Difficult Application of Psychology to the Legal System
As we have noted, there are many opportunities for positive interaction between the fields of psychology and the law; however, this marriage of two disciplines does not come without some inherent conflict. Judges and attorneys are trained to look at human behavior in a way that is quite different from the perspective of psychologists. It is this difference that poses unique challenges for collaboration between the fields, though with an understanding of these differences, there is hope for a positive and appropriate partnership. Read more about Psychology Applied to the Legal System.
Important Issues In Forensic Psychology
In general, forensic psychologists attempt to assist the courts in making legal decisions by offering their psychological expertise in situations despite some of the inherent conflicts or difficulties between forensic psychology and the law. This expertise can be used in a variety of situations. Forensic psychologists may be involved in criminal or civil legal issues. They may be involved with adults or children. They may perform psychological evaluations or conduct therapy. Because all of the potential issues cannot be addressed in this single article, we have chosen to focus on five of the more popular issues involved in forensic psychology. Our discussion is not comprehensive or even representative of a cross section of forensic psychology, hence we would encourage you to consult a number of outstanding books on the topic (Goldstein, 2003, 2007; Melton, Petrila, Poythress, & Slobogin, 1997; Wiener & Hess, 2006). We have chosen to focus on psychopathy, risk assessment, sexual offenders, insanity and competency, and child custody evaluations. We will define each issue, describe the role of a forensic psychologist, and explore the empirical basis for the practice of forensic psychology in each area.
Psychopathy is a term that has been around for a long time, but it is only in the last 30 years that it has become a topic of so much interest in forensic psychology. In fact, one could argue that psychopathy is the focus of more current research in psychology than is almost any other topic. Nonetheless, there is still a great deal of confusion about the meaning of psychopathy, even among psychologists. Psychopathy is a psychological construct that describes a constellation of emotional, interpersonal, and behavioral traits that are related to antisocial behavior (Hemphill & Hart, 2003). Read more about Psychopathy.
Another topic related to psychopathy and central to forensic psychology is risk assessment. Risk assessment was more commonly referred to as violence prediction because the primary focus for forensic psychologists was predicting whether a particular person would become violent. However, risk assessment is not simply about making a forced choice about whether a particular individual is going to become violent or not. It is about identifying the factors that are likely to increase the risk for violence, the factors that are likely to reduce the risk for violence, the immediacy of the violence, the severity of any likely violence, and the ways in which the violence can be managed. Read more about Risk Assessment.
Sex offenders are increasingly the focus of risk assessment and a variety of other legislative and clinical attempts at reducing sexual violence. A sexual offender is an individual who has committed a sexual act that involves the use of force or a threat against a nonconsenting person. Sexual offenses can include a wide range of sexual acts against a wide range of victims. Increasingly, sexual offenders are the focus of a great deal of public attention and legislative reform. It is difficult to turn on the television news or search any national news source on the Web for an extended time without coming across a story about sex offenders. Read more about Sexual Offenders.
Insanity and Competency
As discussed previously, forensic psychology is the interaction between the clinical practice of psychology and the law. Insanity and competency are two legal issues that examine specific mental health aspects of clinical practice within the legal context. Courts utilize forensic psychologists as experts to assist in arriving at legal decisions for both, but the focus is on addressing the legal question before the court, not in answering a psychological question. Though insanity and competency both focus on mental health aspects of the law, the issues involved are very dissimilar and often confused. Insanity focuses on a person’s mental state at the time of a crime, and competence focuses on a person’s mental state at the present moment. Read more about Insanity and Competency.
Child Custody Evaluations
The role of a clinical forensic psychologist is not limited to criminal cases. They are often asked to serve in less sexy, civil matters. One such example is in the role of a mental health professional in a child custody evaluation. With the divorce rate in the United States hovering at about 50 percent, the demand for child custody and parental fitness evaluations are also on the rise. When separated or divorcing parents fight over custody of their child, the court system may be forced to resolve the dispute. In recent years, there has been a steady growth in the use of forensic psychologists to aid the courts in settling these disputes (M. J. Ackerman & M. Ackerman, 1997). Read more about Child Custody Evaluations.
Education and Training for Forensic Psychology
Many students ask how they can become a forensic psychologist or work in some of the areas already mentioned. The answer to that question is as varied as the different tasks that a forensic psychologist may undertake. The one thing that is clear is that becoming a forensic psychologist involves going to graduate school, and working in these areas typically means obtaining a PhD or PsyD in psychology (Huss, 2001). Although obtaining a terminal master’s degree may allow you to conduct therapy and even conduct psychological evaluations in some states, in order to practice independently in many forensic contexts you need to obtain a doctorate degree in forensic psychology. However, there are numerous ways to become a practicing forensic psychologist. Read more about Clinical Forensic Psychology Education.
In this section, we attempted to clear up some misconceptions about the role of a forensic psychologist, as well as shed some light on the challenges, applications, and training necessary to pursue this career. The reality of forensic psychology, though much different than that portrayed in popular movies and television programs, is still sensational and has a great deal of sex appeal. The field of clinical forensic psychology is an ideal way for individuals to work both within the field of psychology and in the legal arena. However, with this interdisciplinary approach comes a particular set of challenges. Though certainly not limited to the issues discussed in this research paper, there are five topics relevant to forensic psychology: psychopathy, risk assessment, sexual offenders, insanity and competency, and civil matters, such as child custody evaluations. A clinical forensic psychologist may specialize in any combination of these topics. A student who wishes to pursue a career as a practicing forensic psychologist should plan to attend a graduate program, though the path one chooses to take may vary depending on individual interests and abilities.
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