The fast growth of popularity of the forensic psychology in our country is dictated both by the increasing interest from the side of undergraduate and graduate students and the increase of demand for the clinical psychologists in the U.S legal system.
However, the media descriptions of the abilities of forensic psychology are often inaccurate, as the journalists exaggerate and misinterpret its findings. Both the ordinary citizens, and the students, who consider the possibility of choosing forensic psychology as a career may be disappointed when their illusions about forensic psychology, created by the media, are broken, but it is important for the people to be informed about the real abilities this science offers.
Nowadays an image of psychologist who tracks down a serial murderer or rapist is one of the most popular, the one that is described in numerous books, movies and TV shows. It makes people believe that psychological knowledge will surely help to cope with any dangerous criminal that managed to fool the ordinary policeman and detectives. People often presume that a psychologist can penetrate to the thoughts of the criminals just by reviewing the books he read, the clothes he wore, and talking to his parents.
The collocation “psychological sketch” is putting profanes into trance, and most people are sure that with the help of the psychologist the detective’s work is becoming a life of ease. This belief promotes trust towards the police, but when a person faces the crime or its consequences directly, the myth about the omnipotence of the forensic psychologist is blown.
Unfortunately, the job of the forensic psychologist is not as easy and effective as it is described in the media. The psychologists who work in this area don’t penetrate the thoughts of the criminal, and they are usually unable to predict the next move of the criminal, as if they were somehow mentally linked. Forensic psychology is a science, it’s not like magic, when all of the needed information is suddenly materialized in the specialist’s head, it’s rather hard work combined with throughout knowledge of human motivations, range of reactions, and the consistent patterns of human psychic.
What is Forensic Psychology?
Not all of the people know exactly who a forensic psychologist is, and what are the origins of the word “forensic”. It’s well-known nowadays that this word comes from the Latin word “forum”, a place in Roman-city stated where all of the citizens gathered for to carry on the trials. At those times, the trials mostly went in the form of the debates. Thus forensic psychology is the branch of science that incorporates psychology and the legal process and deals with their intersection.
The debate about the definition of the term “forensic psychology” still continues among the professionals. One of the views on this term is that forensic psychology describes any intersection between psychology and law (Wrightsman, 2001), while the other scientists use the specific meaning of this term, which is the clinical practice of psychology in legal contexts (e.g., Melton, Huss, & Tomkins, 1999). One of the definitions of forensic psychology, given by the American Board of Forensic Psychology and the American Psychology-Law Society, is:
“the professional practice by psychologists within the areas of clinical psychology, counseling psychology, neuropsychology, and school psychology, when they are engaged regularly as experts and represent themselves as such, in an activity primarily intended to provide professional psychological expertise to the judicial system.” (p. 6)
On the contrary, the Wikipedia defines forensic psychology as a “the application of psychological principles and knowledge to various legal activities involving child custody disputes, child abuse of an emotional, physical and sexual nature, assessing one’s personal capacity to manage one’s affairs, matters of competency to stand trial, criminal responsibility & personal injury and advising judges in matters relating to sentencing regarding various mitiagants and the actuarial assessment of future risk.”
What do forensic psychologists do?
There are a number of spheres a forensic psychologist could be employed in. Forensic psychology is linked deeply to the clinical psychology, a sphere of psychological science, which works with the individuals who experience some mental health problems, like various disorders (Attention Deficit Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Mood Disorders etc) and mental illnesses (like schizophrenia, depression etc). Clinical and forensic psychology encounter often, when the individual who is engaged in the civil, criminal, administrative law case is suspected to suffer from some of the problems which lie within the competency of the clinical psychologists and psychiatrists.
Forensic psychologists are often employed in the civil cases, when the jury needs consultation about the psychological state of the person who wrote a testament, signed an agreement or committed some other civil act. The forensic psychologist’s assessment is also often needed in criminal cases, when it’s needed to define the sanity of the defendant, witness or the victim of the crime, to give the conclusions about the psychological state a person was in when committing a crime. It’s also that forensic psychologists often work with the sex offenders defining whether they suffer from some sexual disorder, and whether they need treatment after the sentence.
In the criminal cases the forensic psychologists is usually hired by the defendant’s attorney, for to evaluate, whether the client is sane, and whether he can take the responsibility for his actions. The psychologist has to study thoroughly the circumstances of the crime, the medical and criminal record of the patient, define whether the patient suffers from some of the mental disorders, and whether the surroundings of the defendant noticed some inadequacies in his behavior. The psychologist who is employed in the case can also give some personality and intelligence tests to his patient. Sometimes the forensic psychologist is asked to testify at the trial, pretrial hearings, or at the sentencing.
The moral dillema exists for those forensic psychologists, who work in the field of the criminal law for whether to let some of the cruel murderers “get away” only with placement to the mental wards. Of course, it’s obvious for some people that the criminals, who are mentally ill, are unable to take the responsibility for their actions, as they just didn’t know that there actions are wrong. Nevertheless, the society usually condemns the psychologists and psychiatrist who try to prove that the person who committed such a crime shouldn’t be put into jail, as people are just afraid, and, what is also, important, want to take a revenge for the person murdered.
On the contrary, Park Dietz, one of the most prominent American forensic psychiatrists and psychologists, states that “With rare exceptions, people are responsible for what they do. Killers seldom meet the legal standard for insanity, which is quite different from the way most people use the word every day. Killers may be disturbed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t tell right from wrong or are compelled to maim or murder.” (Toufexis, 1999).
Thus it’s obvious that a forensic psychologist has to study the case thoroughly for to reach several goals:
- Not to let the criminals with severe mental disorder get into the prison were he would represent a threat to the stuff and to other prisoners
- Not to let the criminal who is relatively healthy escape the appropriate penalty by proving insanity
- Satisfy the society’s urge to punish the person who slaughtered one or more of its members
The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology (2001) states that “the most common type of civil case in which a psychologist may be consulted are lawsuits to recover damages for injuries resulting from car accidents.” For to define the degree of damage caused by the car accident, the psychologist has to evaluate the changes in the behavior, emotional state, and thought process of the person who suffered there, for to define the size of compensation the injured person has to receive.
Forensic psychologists are also often employed in the child custody cases. When it is needed to define who of the parents is able to take care about the child, the forensic psychologist has to review the psychological and emotional condition of the child itself, of its parents, and of other relevant family members. It involves group and individual consultations with the members of the family, visits to the place where a family dwells, and maintaining the confidential relationship with the child for to know its opinion on the issue, and the reasons that formed this opinion. (Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2001)
The prisons, community mental health centers, and law enforcements also sometimes hire forensic psychologists for them to train their officers in handling domestic violence, communicating with people who are going to commit suicide, with the terrorists, with the representatives of specific social and religious ideologies, and with people who have mental health problems. Forensic psychologists give the policeman basic knowledge on those issues for to ensure that they can handle with the unforeseen situation when there is no specialist available.
Generally, the forensic psychologists look for an answer on the question which is “Why people commit all of those terrible things?”. The general psychology provides some answers on this questions, but they are too few and vague. In addition forensic psychologists try to find the technique that will allow rehabilitating the criminals, and prevent their emergence in the society.
People who work in this field design the programs for treating junior delinquents, sex offenders, murderers etc, for discourage them from getting back to their behaviors after leaving the prison. Being a forensic psychologist often means protecting the society from the most dangerous of its members, and vice versa.
It’s obvious that the state cannot allow to sentence all of the murderers and sex offenders to the life imprisonment, as first, it’s not righteous in many cases, and second, as there is simply not enough resources for to do it. Thus most of the sex offenders and some of the murderers are released after some years. It’s well known that the fact of staying in a penitentiary facility itself rarely provokes changes in motivations and desires of the criminal. Without proper treatment most criminals return to their behaviors when they are released. The task of the forensic psychologist is not to let it happen.
There is a variety of places where a forensic psychologist can be employed, except of the police station and the detective’s department, as it is usually shown in the movies and TV shows. A forensic psychologist can find a work place in community mental health center, state hospital, juvenile detention facilities, in prison, college or university etc. His functions are also various, from defining the sanity of the participants of the law case, to developing a program for the rehabilitation of sex offenders.
So, as you see, forensic psychology is not just sitting and drawing schemes, and exploring the criminals’ personal belongings. A forensic psychologist can be employed in various fields of science and practice; the qualifications needed for to become a forensic psychologist are very high. The students who are going to choose forensic psychology as a career should remember that they’ll have to acquire a decent knowledge base in law issues, and a comprehensive education in criminology, psychology and psychiatry.
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References American Board of Forensic Psychology, & American Psychology-Law Society. (1995). Petition for the recognition of a specialty in professional psychology. Retrieved December 16, 2005, from URL http://www.unl.edu/ap-ls/petition.PDF Wrightsman, L. S. (2001). Forensic psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Melton, G. B., Huss, M. T., & Tomkins, A. J. (1999). Training in forensic psychology and the law. In A. K. Hess & I. B. Weiner (Eds.), Handbook of forensic psychology (2nd ed., pp. 700-720). New York: Wiley. Forensic psychology. (2005). Wikipedia. Retrieved December 16, 2005 from URL http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forensic_psychology Gale Group. (2001). Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2nd ed Toufexis, A. (1999). Dancing with Devils - forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz tracks America’s serial killers, bombers and mass murderers. Psychology Today