27 May
2012

Basic Overview of the

Forensic Psychology Career Field

Kelly Burton

Walden University

Abstract

This paper covers the career field of Forensic Psychology in it’s many specialities.  The areas of Criminal, Juvenile, Civil, Investigative, Correctional, and Police are covered briefly.  Court cases that are pivotal to the specific areas are cited along with brief histories and some dilemmas that the forensic psychologist may encounter working in these various areas.  The area of forensic psychology is quite new compared to the long history of psychological studies, however it is an expanding area that is worth considering in one’s search for a specialty in the psychology field. 

Basic Overview of the

Forensic Psychology Career Field

Forensic psychology at it’s core is the interaction of the law with psychology.  While many are familiar with the criminal aspects of forensic psychology from the news and television shows showing people being declared not guilty by reason of insanity, most are not aware of how far reaching the forensics career field actually is.  Any time there are people involved with the law, there is a need for a psychologist to be used as a buffer.  Law enforcement covers a wide range of areas such as criminal, juvenile, civil, investigative, correctional, all which can benefit from the insight of a trained psychologist.  Additionally the police themselves have a need for psychologists in dealing with the public and for for counseling of their own when needed.

The field of forensic psychology is vast however, there are six core areas, Criminal, Juvenile, Civil, Investigative, Correctional, and Police that will be covered in this article.  Because of the diversity of the career field it would be impossible for any one to be able to work in all areas of forensic psychology.  Selection to a specific core area of the career field is recommend and then continued research in the area of selection will be a life long process.

The optimal way to work in forensic psychology would be to obtain a law degree, then a PhD in clinical psychology, and a degree in the core area of forensics that you would like to pursue. However this is not practical so having a solid working background in psychology along with at least a graduate level degree is the bare minimum you will need to work in this career field.

While holding at least a graduate degree in psychology is required it was not long ago that this was not enough of a credential for the courts. Not until 1962 in the D.C. Court of appeals case, Jenkins vs United States, were psychologists allowed to be experts in the field of psychology.  Prior to this case all ‘experts’ had to have a medical degree to be considered an expert in psychological matters for the court.  Almost 40 years later in 2001, forensic psychology is approved as a specialty of psychology by the American Psychological association.  (Goldstein, 2003).

Areas of Forensic Psychology

Criminal

The best known area of forensic psychology among most people is the area of criminal psychology.  The verdict of “Not guilty by reason of insanity”, is often seen in the news, television and the movies.  However the role of psychology goes much deeper in the modern court room, you can play two basic roles, prosecutor or defense. Competency to stand trial plays a large part in the duties of a forensic psychologist in the legal arena.  In order for a person to stand trail they must be aware of the crime they are being charged with, the basic operations of the court, and the ability to interact with their lawyer on working on their defense.  If the findings of the psychologist prove that the persons mental state will prevent them in being an active participant in their court proceedings they are found not competent to stand trail (Nietzel & Moss, 1972).  This started in 1899 with the appeals court case of Youtsey v. United States  (Stafford 2003, p360)Prior to 1960 there was no standard for the definition of competency in the court room. The U.S. Supreme Court declared in the Dusky v. United States the official definition of competency in 1960 and furthered elaborated in 1961 with the Wieter v. Settle, basically stating that a person’s current state and understanding of the proceedings will be used to judge the competency (Stafford 2003, p360).

Some problems that can arise during the competency phase must be addressed by the psychologist during the proceedings.  Members, prior to giving their consent for evaluation by the psychologist must be made aware that the psychologist actually works for the court in this capacity and that they are not there to treat the client.  This ownership can lead to ethical problems if the psychologist worked with the accused in a professional manner in the past.  In cases such as these the psychologist should make it known to the court and then refer the case to another psychologist.  The prosecuting side of the trial will probably hire their own psychologist to refute the findings of the defense and this can lead to an competitive volley instead of truly working to determine the mental fitness of the person standing trial.

Another area of concern is malingering of suspects, those that are purposely faking mental  illness in order to avoid prosecution and punishment for their crimes.  A study of malingering in 2006 found that the rates were between 10 and 25 percent of the cases that were reviewed (Boccaccini, Murrie, & Duncan, 2006). The psychologist hired by the court might not be aware of all the proper signs showing that a person is not forthcoming with information in order to fit the criteria of an illness.  The psychologist could also be too focused on getting a favorable report for the court to see that the person is malingering.  In order to avoid this, a series of testing measures that can be cross referenced should be utilized in order to obtain a true result.

For individuals who are not competent to stand trial they are sent for treatment until they are made well enough to stand trial. For those that will not ever reach a level of competency to stand trial they will need to be committed to a facility for treatment.

Our laws are only good for those that understand them and can appreciate the implications of breaking them. This is one of the main drives in the determining a person’s mental state prior to court proceeding, otherwise the results would be cruel and unusual.   These procedures also insure the mentally ill are given the treatment that is humane and protects the prison population.  Those that fall through the cracks in the system can end up incarcerated and untreated, resulting in cruel and unusual punishment and a possible a safety risk for prisoners and corrections personnel alike.

Juvenile

In the beginning courts dealing with children issues were not acting as a punitive organization, rather, they doing what was best for the child.  Early proceedings were not really considered court matters and therefore standard of the law were not applied. Early psychologists dealing with juveniles in the court were there for determining delinquency and what were the root causes of the delinquency.  Psychologist were utilized in finding out of the root cause for the delinquency,  was is based in behavior or a mental illness (Grisso, 2003, p316).              This system of chaos lasted until 1966, when the supreme court in Kent v. United States ruled that juveniles were entitled to certain right.  In 1967 the rules were further clarified with supreme court case In re Gault, which guaranteed juveniles the same constitutional rights as adults in court proceeding.  No longer were the courts utilized as a social agency to help children. (Grisso, 2003, p318).  As the crimes of the juvenile progressed to more aggressive and adult like the role of the psychologist expanded from just delinquency into determining competency to stand trial and transfers to adult court system.

There is debate if juveniles should be tested for competency the same as adults using the Dusky standard, or should they be given different standards to do their difference age and level of cognitive development, pathology, or level of development (Ryba, Cooper & Zapf, 2003, p500).  Psychologists in determining a juveniles ability to stand trial must rely on a series of tests that are designed to test the subjects mental abilities and their level of understand of the court proceedings.

Because the rules of the juvenile court have changed and they are more in line with adult court proceedings, there are cases when juveniles who commit violent crimes are referred to an adult court for prosecution and confinement in adult prisons and jails recent changes in the rules have made it easier to send juveniles to adult court (Brannen et al., 2006)

Forensic psychologists are utilized to weigh in on the decision to send a juvenile to adult court.  Based on certain factors, recommendation can be made to the court if the juvenile is better suited to be judged in adult court.

The downfall in this area is the subject of who the psychologist works for, ultimately it is for the court, however depending on the side that hires you,  can impact how the results of the examination is tailored.  The prosecution wants to send the youth to the adult court for a stricter punishment sentence, the defense wants to keep the youth in the juvenile courts and work towards rehabilitation.  The best course of action of course is to work the situation to the benefit of the juvenile and work towards rehabilitation of someone who has their whole live in front of them.

Civil

The court rooms of today handle more than just criminal cases, anytime there is a dispute a person can take it in front of a court of law for a decision.  For other aspects of the law there is the civil court system handling, traffic tickets, code violations, and other types of actions that are non criminal. Two areas that the forensic psychologist would deal with in the civil courts is enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and child custody hearings.

President Bush started the ADA program with it’s implementation in 1992 (Foote, 2003, p279).  Most people think of physical disabilities when considering ADA, however this policy covers mental disabilities as well.  A forensic psychologist helps the employer in assessing employees in different ways and making recommendations how to provide the proper work environment. Guidelines from the APA (2011), list some areas for psychologist in this area as: Employment, Access to public services, Access to public and private transportation, Telecommunication services.

Additionally the psychologist can be utilized for employee counseling and for evaluations prior to returning from work.  Because mental illness is not always evident in a person, the guidelines of the ADA can get tricky.  The psychologist can help the employer determine if the employees behavior is a result of the mental illness and covered under the ADA or just a character flaw in the person and not covered.  Areas of concern for the psychologist is this capacity is ensuring roles they were hired for are not in conflict with patients rights or in conflict of the law.  Therefore it would be optimal for those organizations that offer counseling services to utilize another psychologist to make return to work determinations and other assessments that could affect employment of the employee.  Failure to separate the duties could cause problems as to where the psychologists loyalties reside, with those that hired them or with the clients that need help with their mental fitness.

In conjunction with police psychology the ADA is utilized to support police departments continually  assessing their officers to determine if they are fit for duty (FFD).  Police due to their unique job duties can incur mental disabilities that can effect their ability to do their jobs. Officers determined to have problems will be tested to see if they are in need of mental health services and if needed a fit for duty determination (FFDD) can be made by the psychologist.  The ADA protects police departments and their need to ensure the public safety of civilians and other police officers in their use of counseling and FFDD proceedings.  Those that are found not fit for duty due to their mental disability are protected under ADA and after completing counseling can return to duty, those that are not FFD can be released to find other types of employment better suited to their personality (Gary L. Fischler et al, 2011).

Child custody falls under the civil courts and another area that forensic psychologist have a role in. In the early nineteenth century when there was a divorce, common law dictated that children were considered chattel and ownership was retained by the father.  Later the “tender years” was followed where the mother was deemed the best one to raise the children. Till the late 1960s the tender years doctrine was follow but was replaced with “best interest of the children” and is the standard we use today (Otto, Buffington-Vollum & Edens, 2003, p181).  The APA published guidelines in 1994 for child custody but were of little use, the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) offered up guidelines that were somewhat better than the APA and the American academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) provided the latest set of guidelines used today in child custody evaluations (Otto, Buffington-Vollum & Edens, 2003, p184).

The psychologist in this proceeding will conduct an evaluation of each parent and then the children and write a recommendation for the court as to which living arrangement would be in the best interest of the child. Like other areas of forensic psychology a problem exists as to who the psychologist works for and how their opinion could be swayed by who is paying them.  In the case of child custody, the court may hire the the psychologist, the husband, or the wife, regardless of who the psychologist is working for, the results should always be the same.  As long as the needs of the children are kept in mind, there should be no problems with a psychologist evaluating and making the sound recommendation to the court for custody.

While there are many more areas in civil court that a forensic psychologist can cover this article briefly covered two, ADA and child custody.  Both of these fields could be full time work for any psychologist. As the civil laws are different in each states it would be a life long endeavor to become proficient in psychology and civil law.

Investigative

The field of investigative psychology is relatively new going back only as far as 1985 with the research studies of David Cantor from England (Bartol & Bartol, 2012). This field covers a multitude of areas such as criminal profiling, psychological autopsies, polygraphs, and hypnosis (Bartol & Bartol 2012).

One of the most recognizable fields in investigative psychology is criminal profiling, made popular in television and movies.  Often depicting the psychologist as having some type of connection to the criminal and able to predict their behavior.  However the truth of the matter is that this field is mostly speculative and not yet based in science.  A study conducted among psychologists found that less than 25% believed that criminal profiling was based on any valid science (Torres, Boccaccini & Miller, 2006).  The lack of any valid science behind experts opinion has been a concern of the court for a long time, as time progressed the courts have come up with various rules to include expert testimony.

Using expert opinion in the courts goes as far back as 1908, Hugo Munsterberg was working towards getting the courts to recognize expert psychologist in the court room with his book “On the witness stand” (Ewing, 2003, p55).  In 1923, Frye v. United States furthered the cause for expert testimony setting the precedent that in order for expert testimony to be admissible it has to be based in scientific methods and theories (P 59).  Today the court system utilizes the Daubert standard, resulting from the United States Supreme Court decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc, stating that the presiding judge has the final decision on expert testimony being admitted as evidence (Tellus 2003).  The judge not being an expert psychology must rely on the arguments from the lawyers in the case.

Psychologists in criminal profiling are often utilized to testify in court cases as to their expert opinion.  Individuals that give their expert opinion must always base the opinion on solid facts and not merely an assumption or on past cases.  There is some ethical concern that some psychologists who work in profiling to make a living will be biased in their assumptions and present their as fact instead of best guess assumptions in order to make themselves more successful.

Some controversy in this area of work is that a lot of the work is conducted by law enforcement instead of psychologists,  only about three percent of profiling is conducted by psychologists according to recent study (Torres, Boccaccini & Miller, 2006), not based in science, and theories utilized are normally best guess speculation.  Early efforts of criminal profiling done by FBI personnel resulted in the organized verses disorganized crime scene theory (Winerman, 2004).  The work of the FBI  in crime scene organization was later authenticated by David Cantor, who analyzed past crime scene data and provided hard data to back up the assertions of the FBI profilers, and that in fact there are patterns of organization in crime scenes relating to the type of criminal (Winerman 2004).

One exciting area of investigative forensic psychology is the psychology autopsy.  The ability to piece together what a person’s frame of mind was before they died can have benefits for the remaining relatives. In a 2007 case, a man’s wife was drunk in a moving vehicle, opened the door to the truck and fell out while the truck was moving and died from the injuries.  The surviving husband was denied payout on the life insurance due to the insurance company deeming the death a suicide.  The husband in the case counter sued and used a psychologist to perform a psychological autopsy to show that the wife was normal and that normal people do not commit suicide on a whim (CT Law Tribune, 2007).  The ability to examine one’s life at the end and determine what their mental state can be subject to interpretation, however there are cases when the results can be substantiated with existing researched data.  Such was the case in the 2007 case, the psychologist was able to comprise a 40 page document that was backed by researched data (CT Law Tribune, 2007).  Ability to succeed in this field would require a strong background in clinical and research capabilities in the psychology field.

Polygraphs and hypnosis are utilized in investigative psychology but still deemed as experimental (Bartol & Bartol, 2012), yet their results can be beneficial in court proceedings as informational.   As we continue to develop the this field perhaps methods in hypnosis and polygraph usage can be backed in empirical data.

The investigative field will continue to need researchers to collect and analyze data in order to make this area of forensics an empirically based field of science.

Correctional

Psychologist in the correctional system enjoy a vast range of responsibilities, a few of them are, initial screening and risk assessment of prisoners entering into the system, treatment of prisoners during their stay and pre-exit screening prior to their release from the system (Bartol & Bartol, 2012).

The initial screening of prisoners from the psychologists view is conducted to determine the mental status of the individual and their level of threat they pose to the prison population. However mental status is not the only reason for the screening, it is also used to determine the amount of correctional control need to house the inmates and has little to do with determining any level of treatment of the prisoners (Nietzel & Moss, 1972).

Additionally initial screening is conducted in order to look for inmates that might be suicidal.  Suicide is often the single highest cause of death in prisons and jails (N. Konrad et al, 2007).  The intake process is most crucial in the prevention of suicide in correctional facilities, as a large portion of inmate suicide happens in the early periods of confinement (N. Konrad et al, 2007).  The prevention of suicide is an area that must be addressed, as all individuals that are in confinement are not convicted criminals, some are being held because they could not make bail and are awaiting their trial ( Bartol & Bartol, 2012).  Some U.S. detention facilities such as Guantanamo bay, members are held for years without any trial or due process.  According to a BBC article “Mass Guantanamo suicide protest” over 550 prisoners are held there with 23 of them attempting suicide as a form of protest in 2003, also in 2003, 350 self harm attempts or suicidal gestures and in 2004 there were 110 attempts (BBC 2005).

When looking at treatment of prisoners one must ask the question Are prisons here for rehabilitation or punishment?.  According to a 2010 report titled “REHABILITATING CRIMINAL JUSTICE POLICY AND PRACTICE” by D. A. Andrews and James Bonta, it is better to work on the rehabilitation of prisoners than the punishment of them.  Andrews and Bonata point out that the last 30 years of getting tough on crime has not resulted in less crime or less repeat offenders, and that working on the education and mental fitness of prisoners would result in a better use of time and money.  Under the idea of rehabilitation a psychologists role in the prison would be to work on correcting negative behaviors and replacing them with behaviors that would benefit the prisoner and society.

During treatment of prisoners, psychologist have ethical matters to consider, under APA guidelines, psychologist have a responsibility of maintaing the privacy of client’s information, however in the prison setting these guidelines are altered by law and all information is no longer covered under these rules.  Prisoners that reveal criminal information must be told that they are not protected under the standard doctor client privilege and that the information would be turned over to the authorities.  This limit on confidentiality could hamper treatment and place the psychologist in a moral crossroad of should they do what is in the best interest of their client or conform to the law (APA 2010).

Prisoners rights are always a topic of controversy.  Some believe that prisoners are there for punishment and should not have any rights, while others believe that in rehabilitation and rebuilding of the criminal.  Regardless of which prison theory one believes in, there are basic human rights that must be afforded to all people.  Food, shelter, and medical attention are the basic needs for all people regardless if they are free or imprisoned.  While prisoners are expected to lose some privileges some take it to extreme, expecting things that are luxuries as basic rights.  Recently in a online article a prisoner complained that they were not allowed to get an XBox 360 in their cell (Chalk 2011). This does not fall under basic rights and the prison was justified in denying the request for the gaming console.

Throughout their prison stay inmates are under the care of psychologists in one way or another.  Whether it is the intake interview, on going counseling during their stay or the exiting risk assessment, it is the exiting risk assessment that can be the most important.  Prisoners fall into various levels of threat to the general public, from those that are no threat to those that are a grave threat to society, during intake this threat is normally determined and the prisoner is housed according to their threat level.  However there is concern that the same care is not taking during the exiting of a prison.  According to an article in the Federal Sentencing Reporter,  failure to properly assess the risk of prisoners will result in releasing prisoners before they are ready to reintegrate with society and will likely be repeat offenders (Austin, 2004).  The risk assessment can be conducted with a battery or tests, interview, or expert opinion given to the patrol board prior to release.

Police

Police work and psychology go hand in hand as the need to understand societies most extreme personalities is aided by a forensic psychologist working with law enforcement.  The roles of the psychologist in this field of work are vast, working in assessments of police for hire, counseling of officers during their career, working with special teams like hostage negotiators, and swat.

Police are the first leg in the legal process having the responsibility of determining from those that break the law are actually apprehended for their crimes.  This burden of weighing human behavior and deciding who gets held accountable can weigh on them greatly (Howard, 1974).  Only those that are mentally fit are capable of weighing behavior and determining the appropriate level of correction. It is this standard that requires that all police are throughly screened before being hired.  The psychologists role in this matter is to work on a series of procedures and tests that can accurately gauge who can handle the duties of being a police officer.

Police during their entire career need education on dealing with people of all levels of mental fitness.  Areas of eye witnesses and confession have been research areas for psychologists in order to aid police work.

Psychologists teach police about lineup bias that can affect the outcome of a witnesses testimony, where the officer either knowingly or unknowingly interjects bias into the lineup in order to get the person to pick the person they think did the crime.  Weapon focus where the victim’s point of reference is affect by the presence of a weapon at the crime so their memory of the actual person of the crime is diminished.  And cross-race identification where individuals that are trying to identify a person that is not the same race will have a hard time making distinctions (Egeth 1993).

The ability to elate a confession from a suspected criminal also comes with a series of rules that the psychologist educates the police on.   Police are taught techniques to look for signs during interrogations of the person telling the truth or not.  Some say that this technique can a reliable method with accurate results as high as 85% (Kasin 2005).  However this is not true, as human behavior is fluid among all people and there is no standard that can be accurately utilized in detecting a persons statements as true or false (Kasin 2005).  There is also the phenomena of people who will confess to crimes they did not commit.  Often times people will falsely confess to a crime, get convicted and serve time even if they recant their testimony later (Kasin 2005).  These areas are taught to police by psychologists in order to aid them to find better ways to get results from witnesses and criminals alike.

Hostage negotiations are divided into three groups, hostage takings, barricade situations and suicide attempts (Wind 1995).  The role of the psychologist in this area is to train the police to be able to understand the mental thought processes of these types of people in these hostage situations (Wind 1995).  The psychologists can educate the police on certain personality disorders that the person might be suffering from and to use non lethal tactics to resolve these situations.  When negotiations fail police will result to force sometimes in the from of using a sniper to disable the the threat.

The nature of police work can be taxing on the individual’s mental fitness, for this reason psychologists should be employed by law enforcement for counseling purposes.  However there should be a separation of duties for psychologists in dealing with police departments.  Because of their close working proximity with law enforcement, those that are involved with the day to day operations should not be the ones who provide the counseling.  Counseling of patients requires a level of confidentiality and trust, those that work with the member on a daily basis would not be able to offer this basic need during counseling.

Conclusion

The laws of our land are vast but behind every infraction of a law there is a person, who must be given a fair trial. In order to give a person a fair trial there must be a system of measure for their mental health.  Only those that are found to be be fit can appreciate the implications of the law and how they can learn from their mistakes.  Those that are not well, need rehabilitation as well but of the psychological nature.  Any time there is law and person in the same sentence there is a need for a forensic psychologist, someone to be a buffer between the person and the system of law.  It is for this reason, forensic psychology was created and covers such a wide range of psychological services. Because this field is new, there is large potential for growth in the field and your career.  A life time of achievement and benefit to mankind is awaiting the few who choose to make forensic psychology a career.

 

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