In line with general psychological approaches across fields, psychologists who study psychology and the law emphasize the behavior, cognition, emotions, and experiences of individuals involved in the legal system. Of course, all individuals within reach of the United States legal system are involved to some degree. The involvement appears evident for police officers, lawyers, judges, defendants, corrections officers, trial consultants, and others who work in or are assessed by the legal system. Some relationships within the legal system are less evident. All voters in the United States are participants in the legal system in that they can influence laws by vote, petition, or protest, and because voters, like other residents, can break or obey the law. Nonvoting citizens (e.g., individuals who are under the age of 18 or individuals who have lost the right to vote through dishonorable military discharge or other causes) have access to constitutional rights and due process under criminal law and have access to the civil legal system. Noncitizen residents of the United States may not be guaranteed these rights, but they live under United States laws. Even some noncitizen nonresidents are directly involved in the legal system as they petition for citizenship or in other ways. For example, as of the spring of 2007, some individuals are being denied the right to access legally the United States court system to challenge their indefinite incarceration at the Guantanamo Bay holding facility. Additionally, laws regulate corporations as well as people. Although so many individuals and corporations are involved, this research paper focuses largely on the behavior, cognitions, emotions, and interactions of central actors in the legal system.
This research paper focuses on the psychological study of individuals in the legal system, but other psychologists also work within the legal system, and psychology and the law in this research paper is distinct from forensic psychology. Forensic psychologists—psychologists who work within the system to address specific legal questions about specific defendants (Nicholson, 1999)—answer applied questions about individuals in legal settings. These activities include but are not limited to assessing (a) whether an individual is competent to be tried, (b) whether a juvenile should be tried as an adult, (c) the degree to which a victim is psychologically injured by a crime or other act, and (d) what treatments could be appropriate for a specific offender.
Laws regulate human behavior across many contexts. For example, the law dictates and supports the speed at which people drive, the age at which they can vote, their safety in their homes, and their expectations not to risk injury from products they buy. The law protects citizens from violence and theft. When conflict arises between members of society, they turn to the law to resolve these issues. In all of these cases, the law defines and prescribes acceptable behavior among individuals and corporations.
Despite the immense power the law and its representatives hold in society, the law, like United States culture, must continuously change in several ways. The law must update to incorporate new technologies and research data. For example, in the 1970s, courts did not have to debate the role of DNA evidence in criminal investigations or paternity suits. The law must also change to reflect changing social values. In 1999, Rosa Parks received the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, the highest award bestowed by the United States Congress, for her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. At the time of her civil disobedience, however, she was arrested and earned a criminal record for her actions. Today, United States law has changed, and her actions would no longer be illegal.
The legal system in the United States is divided into two distinct functions, criminal and civil law. When a crime occurs, the state or federal government investigates the crime and charges, prosecutes, and, if the jury or judge convicts the defendant, punishes the defendant. In civil law, an individual or corporation has caused harm to another individual, and the injured party (the plaintiff) may sue the individual or organization that caused the alleged injury (the defendant) to redress the harm caused by the defendant. As the O. J. Simpson case demonstrated, these systems remain independent, such that criminal charges and civil damages may be involved in the same event. Simpson was found not guilty in criminal court, but he was found liable in civil court for causing the wrongful death of his former wife and Ron Goldman. The topics described in this research paper center largely on psychological topics within criminal law, but many research areas such as pretrial publicity and jury decision making play important roles across both branches of the court system.
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