Forensic psychology is the intersection between psychology and the
justice system. It involves understanding fundamental legal
principles, particularly with regard to expert witness testimony and
the specific content area of concern (e.g., competence to stand trial,
child custody and visitation, or workplace discrimination), as well as
relevant jurisdictional considerations (e.g., in the United States,
the definition of insanity in criminal trials differs from state to
state) in order to be able to interact appropriately with judges,
attorneys, and other legal professionals. An important aspect of
forensic psychology is the ability to testify in court as an expert
witness, reformulating psychological findings into the legal language
of the courtroom, providing information to legal personnel in a way
that can be understood. Further, in order to be a credible witness,
the forensic psychologist must understand the philosophy, rules, and
standards of the judicial system. Primarily, they must understand the
adversarial system. There are also rules about hearsay evidence and
most importantly, the exclusionary rule. Lack of a firm grasp of these
procedures will result in the forensic psychologist losing credibility
in the courtroom. A forensic psychologist can be trained in
clinical, social, organizational, or any other branch of
Generally, a forensic psychologist is designated as an expert in a
specific field of study. The number of areas of expertise in which a
forensic psychologist qualifies as an expert increases with experience
and reputation. Forensic neuropsychologists are generally asked to
appear as expert witnesses in court to discuss cases that involve
issues with the brain or brain damage. They may also deal with issues
of whether a person is legally competent to stand trial.
Questions asked by the court of a forensic psychologist are generally
not questions regarding psychology but are legal questions and the
response must be in language the court understands. For example, a
forensic psychologist is frequently appointed by the court to assess a
defendant's competence to stand trial. The court also frequently
appoints a forensic psychologist to assess the state of mind of the
defendant at the time of the offense. This is referred to as an
evaluation of the defendant's sanity or insanity (which relates to
criminal responsibility) at the time of the offense. These are not
primarily psychological questions but rather legal ones. Thus, a
forensic psychologist must be able to translate psychological
information into a legal framework.
Forensic psychologists may be called on to provide sentencing
recommendations, treatment recommendations, or any other information
the judge requests, such as information regarding mitigating factors,
assessment of future risk, and evaluation of witness credibility.
Forensic psychology also involves training and evaluating police or
other law enforcement personnel, providing law enforcement with
criminal profiles, and in other ways working with police departments.
Forensic psychologists may work with any party and in criminal or
family law. In the United States, they may also help with jury
1 Training and education
2 Professional opportunities
2.1 Academic researcher
2.2 Consultant to law enforcement
2.3 Correctional psychologist
2.5 Expert witness
2.6 Treatment provider
2.7 Trial consultant
3 Distinction between forensic and therapeutic evaluation
4.2 Competency evaluations
4.3 Sanity evaluations
4.4 Other evaluations
4.5 Ethical implications
5 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
Training and education
Forensic psychologists may hold a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in clinical
psychology, counseling psychology, social psychology, organizational
psychology, or experimental psychology. In order for a psychologist to
practice as a forensic psychologist in the United States, it is
preferable but not necessary that the individual be a state licensed
psychologist and receive certification as a Diplomate in Forensic
Psychology by the American Board of Forensic
Psychology (although the
latter is less important to judges). Ideally, the psychologist would
have some years of postdoctoral experience in forensic psychology and
have training and supervision in forensic psychology. However,
practices vary from state to state and from jurisdiction to
jurisdiction. In the United States legal system, the ultimate
authority is the judge and the judge may select whomever he or she
sees fit to qualify as an expert.
In other countries, training and practitioner requirements vary. In
the United Kingdom, for example, a person must obtain the Graduate
Basis for Registration with the British Psychological
Society—normally through an undergraduate degree. This would be
followed by Stages 1 (academic) and 2 (supervised practice) of the
Diploma in Forensic
Psychology (which would normally take 3 years
full-time and 4 years part-time). Assessment occurs via examination,
research, supervised practice, and the submission of a portfolio
showing expertise across a range of criminological and legal
applications of psychology. Once qualified as a "Chartered"
psychologist (with a specialism in forensic psychology), a
practitioner must engage in Continued Professional Development and
demonstrate how much, of what kind, each year, in order to renew
his/her practising certificate.
There are numerous professional positions and employment possibilities
for forensic psychologists. They can be practiced at several different
Academic forensic psychologists engage in teaching, researching,
training, and supervision of students, and other education-related
activities. These professionals usually have an advanced degree in
Psychology (most likely a PhD). While their main focus is research, it
is not unusual for them to take on any of the other positions of
forensic psychologists. These professionals may be employed at various
settings, which include colleges and universities, research
institutes, government or private agencies, and mental health
Forensic psychology research pertains to psychology and
the law, whether it be criminal or civil. Researchers test
hypotheses empirically and apply the research on issues related to
psychology and the law. They may also conduct research on mental
health law and policy evaluation. Some famous psychologists in the
field include Saul Kassin, very widely known for studying false
confessions, and Elizabeth Loftus, known for her research on
eyewitness memory. She has provided expert witness testimony for many
Consultant to law enforcement
Forensic psychologists also assist with law enforcement. They work in
collaboration with the police force or other law enforcement agencies.
Law enforcement psychologists are responsible for assisting law
enforcement personnel. They are frequently trained to help with crisis
intervention, including post-trauma and suicide. Other duties of law
enforcement psychologists include development of police training
programs, stress management, personnel management, and referral of
departmental personnel as well as their families for specialized
treatment and counseling. Of course, ethical issues may arise, such
as the question of who the client is (the police officer referred or
the department, in regards to confidentiality).
Correctional psychologists work with inmates and offenders in
correctional settings. They serve both the role of an evaluator and a
treatment provider to those who have been imprisoned or on parole or
probation. Correctional psychologists may also take on the role of
researcher or expert witness and frequently perform a wide range of
These forensic psychologists take on the role of evaluating parties in
criminal or civil cases on mental health issues related to their case.
For criminal cases, they may be called on to evaluate issues
including, but not limited to, defendants' competence to stand trial,
their mental state at the time of the offense (insanity), and their
risk for future violent acts. For civil cases, they may be called
on to evaluate issues including, but not limited to, an individual’s
psychological state after an accident or the families of custody
cases. Any assessment made by an evaluator is not considered a
counseling session, and therefore whatever is said or done is not
confidential. It is the obligation of the evaluator to inform the
parties that everything in the session will be open to scrutiny in a
forensic report or expert testimony. Evaluators work closely with
expert witnesses (discussed below) as many are called into court to
testify with what they have come to conclude from their evaluations.
They have a variety of employment settings, such as forensic and state
psychiatric hospitals, mental health centers, and private practice.
Evaluators usually have had training as clinical psychologists.
Unlike fact witnesses, who are limited to testifying about what they
know or have observed, expert witnesses have the ability to express
opinion because, as their name suggests, they are presumed to be
"experts" in a certain topic. They possess specialized knowledge about
the topic. Expert witnesses are called upon to testify on matters of
mental health (clinical expertise) or other areas of expertise such as
social, experimental, cognitive, or developmental. The role of
being an expert witness is not primary and it is usually performed in
conjunction with another role such as that of researcher, academic,
evaluator, or clinical psychologist. Clinical forensic psychologists
evaluate a defendant and are then called upon as expert witnesses to
testify on the mental state of the defendant.
In the past, expert witnesses primarily served the court rather than
the litigants. Nowadays, that very rarely happens and most expert
witness recruitment is done by trial attorneys. But regardless of who
calls in the expert, it is the judge who determines the acceptability
of the expert witness.
All ethical expert witnesses must be able to resolve the issue of
relating to the case and being an advocate. They must decide between
loyalty to their field of expertise or to the outcome of the case.
Treatment providers are forensic psychologists who administer
psychological intervention or treatment to individuals in both
criminal and civil cases who require or request these services. In
criminal proceedings, treatment providers may be asked to provide
psychological interventions to individuals who require treatment for
the restoration of competency, after having been determined by the
courts as incompetent to stand trial. They may be asked to provide
treatment for the mental illness of those deemed insane at the
crime. They may also be called to administer treatment to minimize
the likelihood of future acts of violence for individuals who are at a
high risk of committing a violent offense. As for civil
proceedings, treatment providers may have to treat families going
through divorce and/or custody cases. They may also provide treatment
to individuals who have suffered psychological injuries due to some
kind of trauma. Treatment providers and evaluators work in the same
types of settings: forensic and state psychiatric hospitals, mental
health centers, and private practice. Not surprisingly, their work may
greatly overlap. And although not ethically encouraged, the same
forensic psychologist may take on both the role of treatment provider
and evaluator for the same client.
Forensic psychologists often are involved in trial consulting and are
part of legal psychology. A trial consultant, a jury consultant, or a
litigation consultant, are social scientists who work with legal
professionals such as trial attorneys to aid in case preparation,
which includes selection of jury, development of case strategy, and
witness preparation. They rely heavily on research. Trial
consultants may also attend seminars directed at the improvement of
jury selection and trial presentation skills. Becoming a trial
consultant does not necessarily require a doctoral degree or even a
bachelor's degree. All that is really needed is some level of
Trial consultants are faced with many ethical issues. They are not
only social scientists; they may be entrepreneurs as well, marketing
their business and keeping fixed costs. This is a challenge to their
ethical responsibilities as applied researchers who need to be
following guidelines of ethical research. Trial consultants are
hired by attorneys and conflicts may arise when each party has a
different viewpoint on a certain issue, such as which prospective
jurors should be excused, whether the jurors’ preferences are
appropriate for the case or not, etc. They must always keep in mind
that they are employees of the attorneys and are not able to make the
ultimate decisions regarding the case.
Distinction between forensic and therapeutic evaluation
A forensic psychologist's interactions with and ethical
responsibilities to the client differ widely from those of a
psychologist dealing with a client in a clinical setting.
Scope. Rather than the broad set of issues a psychologist addresses in
a clinical setting, a forensic psychologist addresses a narrowly
defined set of events or interactions of a nonclinical nature.
Importance of client's perspective. A clinician places primary
importance on understanding the client's unique point of view, while
the forensic psychologist is interested in accuracy, and the client's
viewpoint is secondary.
Voluntariness. Usually in a clinical setting a psychologist is dealing
with a voluntary client. A forensic psychologist evaluates clients by
order of a judge or at the behest of an attorney.
Autonomy. Voluntary clients have more latitude and autonomy regarding
the assessment's objectives. Any assessment usually takes their
concerns into account. The objectives of a forensic examination are
confined by the applicable statutes or common law elements that
pertain to the legal issue in question.
Threats to validity. While the client and therapist are working toward
a common goal, although unconscious distortion may occur, in the
forensic context there is a substantially greater likelihood of
intentional and conscious distortion.
Relationship and dynamics. Therapeutic interactions work toward
developing a trusting, empathic therapeutic alliance, a forensic
psychologist may not ethically nurture the client or act in a
"helping" role, as the forensic evaluator has divided loyalties and
there are substantial limits on confidentiality he can guarantee the
client. A forensic evaluator must always be aware of manipulation in
the adversary context of a legal setting. These concerns mandate an
emotional distance that is unlike a therapeutic interaction.
Pace and setting. Unlike therapeutic interactions which may be guided
by many factors, the forensic setting with its court schedules,
limited resources, and other external factors, place great time
constraints on the evaluation without opportunities for reevaluation.
The forensic examiner focuses on the importance of accuracy and the
finality of legal dispositions.
The forensic psychologist views the client or defendant from a
different point of view than does a traditional clinical psychologist.
Seeing the situation from the client's point of view or "empathizing"
is not the forensic psychologist's task. Traditional psychological
tests and interview procedure are not sufficient when applied to the
forensic situation. In forensic evaluations, it is important to assess
the consistency of factual information across multiple sources.
Forensic evaluators must be able to provide the source on which any
information is based. Treating psychologists do not routinely assess
response bias or performance validity, whereas forensic psychologist
usually do. Forensic media psychology is a sub-specialty in forensic
psychology that analyzes behavior related to social media,
intellectual property, entertainment, including film, television,
etc., medical education and other areas where media is used in
Forensic psychologists perform a wide range of tasks within the
criminal justice system.
An important and pressing question in any type of forensic assessment
is the issue of malingering and deception. In some criminal cases,
the court views malingering or feigning illness as obstruction of
justice and sentences the defendant accordingly.
Main article: Competency evaluation (law)
If there is a question of the accused's competency to stand trial, a
forensic psychologist is appointed by the court to examine and assess
the individual. The individual may be in custody or may have been
released on bail. Based on the forensic assessment, a recommendation
is made to the court whether or not the defendant is competent to
proceed to trial. If the defendant is considered incompetent to
proceed, the report or testimony will include recommendations for the
interim period during which an attempt at restoring the individual's
competency to understand the court and legal proceedings, as well as
participate appropriately in their defense will be made. Often,
this is an issue of committed, on the advice of a forensic
psychologist, to a psychiatric treatment facility until such time as
the individual is deemed competent.
As a result of Ford v. Wainwright, a case by a
Florida inmate on death
row that was brought before the Supreme Court of the United States,
forensic psychologists are appointed to assess the competency of an
inmate to be executed in death penalty cases.
The forensic psychologist may also be appointed by the court to
evaluate the defendant's state of mind at the time of the offense.
These are defendants who the judge, prosecutor, or public defender
believe, through personal interaction with the defendant or through
reading the police report, may have been significantly impaired at the
time of the offense.
Forensic psychologists are frequently asked to make an assessment of
an individual's dangerousness or risk of re-offending. They may
provide information and recommendations necessary for sentencing
purposes, grants of probation, and the formulation of conditions of
parole, which often involves an assessment of the offender's ability
to be rehabilitated. They are also asked questions of witness
credibility and malingering. Occasionally, they may also provide
criminal profiles to law enforcement.
Due to the Supreme Court decision upholding involuntary commitment
laws for predatory sex offenders in Kansas v. Hendricks, it is likely
that forensic psychologists will become involved in making
recommendations in individual cases of end-of-sentence civil
A forensic psychologist generally practices within the confines of the
courtroom, incarceration facilities, and other legal setting. It is
important to remember that the forensic psychologist is equally likely
to be testifying for the prosecution as for the defense attorney. A
forensic psychologist does not take a side, as do the psychologists
described below. The ethical standards for a forensic psychologist
differ from those of a clinical psychologist or other practicing
psychologist because the forensic psychologist is not an advocate for
the client and nothing the client says is guaranteed to be kept
confidential. This makes evaluation of the client difficult, as the
forensic psychologist needs and wants to obtain all information while
it is often not in the client's best interest to provide it. The
client has no control over how that information is used. Despite
the signing of a waiver of confidentiality, most clients do not
realize the nature of the evaluative situation. Furthermore, the
interview techniques differ from those typical of a clinical
psychologist and require an understanding of the criminal mind and
criminal and violent behavior. For example, even indicating to a
defendant being interviewed that an effort will be made to get the
defendant professional help may be grounds for excluding the expert's
In addition, the forensic psychologist deals with a range of clients
unlike those of the average practicing psychologist. Because the
client base is by and large criminal, the forensic psychologist is
immersed in an abnormal world. As such, the population evaluated
by the forensic psychologist is heavily weighted with specific
The typical grounds for malpractice suits also apply to the forensic
psychologist, such as wrongful commitment, inadequate informed
consent, duty and breach of duty, and standards of care issues. Some
situations are more clear cut for the forensic psychologist. The duty
to warn, which is mandated by many states, is generally not a problem
because the client or defendant has already signed a release of
information, unless the victim is not clearly identified and the issue
of the identifiability of the victim arises. However, in general the
forensic psychologist is less likely to encounter malpractice suits
than a clinical psychologist. The forensic psychologist does have some
additional professional liability issues. As mentioned above,
confidentiality in a forensic setting is more complicated than in a
clinical setting as the client or defendant is apt to misinterpret the
limits of confidentiality despite being warned and signing a
Competency evaluation (law)
List of United States Supreme Court cases involving mental health
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American Academy of Forensic
Psychology Board-certified forensic
experts, continuing education.
American Board of Forensic
Psychology Board certification and other
All About Forensic
Psychology Comprehensive Guide To Forensic
Psychology - Law Society
European Association of
Psychology and Law
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Psychology and Law Student Society Resources
and Fact sheets on Forensic Psychology
Psychology Advice about Forensic
Psychology from the
British Psychological Society .
Landmark Cases in Forensic Law
List of Forensic Landmark Cases Chronologically
Open Access Journal of Forensic Psychology
Quality of Practice in Forensic Psychology
Psychology career information, by Dr. Patricia Zapf
Psychology Salary Salary, Jobs, Degree and career
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resources, including steps to becoming a forensic psychologist and
lists of top forensic psychology schools.
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