What Is Forensic Psychology?

I get this question a lot and it’s usually followed by, “Oh, like CSI!”

Many people confuse the field of Forensic Psychology with Forensic Science. Let me be the first to tell you…they are not the same!

For those of you considering a career in Forensic Psychology, it is important to know the differences. Broadly, Forensic Psychology deals with the application of psychological science to aspects of the legal system. More specifically, we help the court to understand various psychological matters (such as, mental illness, a person’s ability to give consent, is an individual equipped to be an effective parent) and their role within a particular legal case.

Forensic Psychology can be applied to civil and criminal proceedings (which tends to be the most popular realm), involve special populations (like juveniles or sex offenders), and allows psychologists to serve as expert witnesses in court. Forensic psychologists can be found in private practice, working in psychiatric hospitals or correctional facilities, on college campuses or even within business corporations. One of the best things about this field is that there are a vast amount of sectors and populations within which a person can work. You can never get bored!

As a Forensic Psychologist you will mostly conduct psychological and/or forensic-oriented assessments for court and provide treatment in the form of therapy (individual or group).

Civil Proceedings: In civil court (unlike criminal court), claims are usually brought upon by an individual person, group of people, or corporation against another person or group of people. (Think: Judge Judy). In civil courts forensic psychologists are useful for personal injury or child custody evaluations to name a few. In personal injury cases, the psychologist may be retained to evaluate the person who has been harmed (usually physically – like in an auto accident) and claims a mental health injury (i.e.suffering from PTSD or depression after being hit by a truck).

In a child custody evaluation (which can get pretty dramatic and messy!) the psychologist may be retained to evaluate one or both parents to determine who is the “better” fit to raise the child or children. In this example, the role of the forensic psychologist is to help the court to have a better understanding of the individual as a whole and any psychological problems that may be present. And, if there are psychological problems present, will they be a hinderance to raising the child or children in question.

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Criminal Proceedings: In criminal court, claims are usually brought upon by the state or the federal government and usually end with the defendant serving time in jail or prison (Think: Adnan Syed v. The State of Maryland). In criminal court, forensic psychologists are usually retained (by either defense or prosecution) to evaluate defendants. The two most popular evaluations are Competency to Stand Trial (CST) evals and Criminal Responsibility (Insanity) evals.

To put it simply, for each type of evaluation, there are certain state “rules” that must be considered when evaluating the person and each state differs on the types of “rules” that defendants must meet in order to qualify. CST evaluations help the court to determine if a defendant has an ability to aid in their own defense and consult with their lawyer. Someone who suffers from a serious psychological disability may have trouble answering certain questions about their case or may be unable to hold a conversation with their attorney. If this is true, the person must be psychiatrically treated and stable before they can proceed in court.

In insanity evaluations, the court is trying to determine if an individual was of “sound mind and body” when they committed a particular crime or if they were suffering from a serious mental disorder at the time that the crime was committed. Just like civil proceedings, the role of the psychologist is to help the court to understand the defendant and any psychological issues that may be at play.

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Forensic psychology also deals with special populations such as juvenile offenders and sex offenders. In addition, some forensic psychologists are trained to conduct specialized evaluations such as threat assessments and Fitness for Duty evaluations.

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This is just a small taste of the field of Forensic Psychology. There are many other roles and opportunities available. I’ll be exploring other aspects of the field in future posts!

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