Forensic psychology is a field that deals with both psychology and the law. The field has experienced dramatic growth in recent years as more and more students become interested in this applied branch of psychology. Popular movies, television programs and books have help popularize the field, often depicting brilliant heroes who solve vicious crimes or track down killers using psychology.
While depictions of forensic psychology in popular media are certainly dramatic and attention-grabbing, these portrayals are not necessarily accurate. Forensic psychologists definitely play an important role in the criminal justice system, however, and this can be an exciting career for students interested in applying psychological principles to the legal system.
What Is Forensic Psychology?
Typically, forensic psychology is defined as the intersection of psychology and the law, but forensic psychologists can perform many roles so this definition can vary. In many cases, people working within forensic psychology are not necessarily "forensic psychologists." These individuals might be clinical psychologists, school psychologists, neurologists or counselors who lend their psychological expertise to provide testimony, analysis or recommendations in legal or criminal cases.
For example, a clinical psychologist might provide mental health services such as assessment, diagnosis and treatment to individuals who have come into contact with the criminal justice system. Clinicians might be asked to determine if a suspected criminal suffers from a mental illness, or may be asked to provide treatment to individuals suffering from substance abuse and addiction issues.
Another example is that of a school psychologist. While people in this profession typically work with children in school settings, a school psychologist working in forensic psychology might evaluate children in suspected abuse cases, help prepare children to give testimony in court or offer testimony in child custody disputes.Some of the functions typically performed within forensic psychology include:
- Competency evaluations
- Sentencing recommendations
- Evaluations of the risk of reoffending
- Testimony as an expert witness
- Child custody evaluations
How Does Forensic Psychology Differ From Other Areas?
So what exactly makes forensic psychology different from another specialty area such as clinical psychology? Typically, the duties of a forensic psychologist are fairly limited in terms of scope and duration. A forensic psychologist is asked to perform a very specific duty in each individual case, such as determining if a suspect is mentally competent to face charges.
Unlike the typical clinical setting where a client as voluntarily sought out assistance or evaluation, a forensic psychologist usually deals with clients who are not there of their own free will. This can make assessment, diagnosis and treatment much more difficult, since some clients willfully resist attempts at help.
Should You Become a Forensic Psychologist? - Take this brief quiz to learn if a career in forensic psychology is right for you.
American Board of Forensic Psychology. (2009) Forensic psychology. Found online at http://www.abfp.com/brochure.asp
Huss, M.T. (2001) What is forensic psychology? It’s not silence of the lambs! Eye on Psi Chi 5(3), 25-27.