History of Cognitive Assessment

During the years in which Munsterberg was proselytizing about psychology’s usefulness in the courtroom, particularly involving expert testimony, another American psychologist was more quietly making inroads into a different forensic area, one specifically related to juvenile courts. As we noted earlier, consultation with these courts was common, but it was chiefly in the area of assessment. In 1909, clinical psychologist Grace M. Fernald worked with psychiatrist William Healy to establish the first clinic designed for youthful offenders, the Juvenile Psychopathic Institute. It was initially developed to serve the newly established Juvenile Court of Chicago by offering diagnoses of “problem” children. Fernald, who received her doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1907, was probably the first clinical psychologist to work under the supervision of a psychiatrist (Napoli, 1981) as well as one of the earliest psychologists to specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of children and adolescents who appeared before the juvenile courts. The institute, which extended its services rapidly to include treatment and research as well as diagnosis, became a public agency in 1914, the Institute for Juvenile Research. Arguably, it also provided the earliest formal internships in forensic psychology in the country (Resnick, 1997).

History of Cognitive AssessmentFernald and Healy used the relatively new Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale to assess delinquents, but they soon realized the importance of obtaining “performance” measures as well. This prompted them to develop the Healy-Fernald series of 23 performance tests, which they began using in 1911. The two eventually went their separate ways. Fernald became a specialist in intellectual disability and intelligence and testing and taught psychology at the University of California-Los Angeles for 27 years, until her retirement in 1948. Healy, along with psychologist Augusta Bronner, went on to establish the Judge Baker Clinic in Boston in 1917. During the first third of the 20th century, most psychologists providing regular services to the courts were psychometrists associated with clinics. The term forensic psychology had not been minted, and legal psychologists were in the halls of academe or consulting sporadically with judges and lawyers. Thus, it seems that much of the forensic work of psychologists during this period consisted of cognitive and personality assessments of individuals, both juveniles and adults, who were to come before the courts. The drudgery of day-to-day testing (often under the watchful eyes of a physician or psychiatrist) made applied psychology unappealing as a profession. Often, however, it was where female psychologists were most accepted. In the 1930s, for example, fewer than one-third of all American psychologists were women, but women made up over 60% of all applied psychologists (Napoli, 1981).

In one of the first published accounts of the work of these early psychometrists, E. I. Keller (1918) described some of the challenges they faced. He noted that in December 1916, a psychopathic laboratory was established at the New York City Police Department for the express purpose of examining persons detained before trial. The staff included psychiatrists, neurologists, social workers, and psychologists, whose task was to conduct hasty pretrial evaluations. (Because these psychologists worked out of the police department but conducted evaluations for the courts, they could be considered both legal and police psychologists.) According to Keller, who was a consulting psychologist at the clinic, detainees arrived for testing at 9 a.m. “The disadvantage is the lack of time, for all prisoners [sic] must be examined in time to get them to court by noon or earlier, and many courts are situated in distant parts of the city” (p. 85). Staff members had little time in which to conduct the evaluation and prepare a report that would help the court in its decision making.

The work of Henry H. Goddard during this time must—in hindsight—be regarded with embarrassment. A student of noted psychologist G. Stanley Hall, Goddard paved the way for the massive intelligence testing of immigrants and residents of mental institutions, prisons, and juvenile training schools. His followers consulted with the juvenile courts and dutifully administered these tests to the children of the poor who arrived at their door. Goddard’s warning that “feeble-minded” individuals should not be allowed to roam about freely in society because of their innate proclivity toward antisocial behavior contributed significantly to the incarceration of individuals during their reproductive periods and the sterilization of residents in both juvenile and adult facilities (Kelves, 1984).

Psychologists continued to work in court clinics during the second third of the 20th century, performing a variety of tasks related to the assessment process. In addition, as we described earlier, they gradually became more involved in providing expert testimony, not only on the results of their assessments but also on research that was relevant to legal issues. Other psychologists continued to offer services to inmates and staff of jails and prisons, an endeavor that apparently began early in the 20th century. It is to this second aspect of forensic psychology that we now turn.

Return to overview of the History of Forensic Psychology.