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Since the debut of network television shows like Law & Order, CSI, the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs and the O.J. Simpson trial, American's have found such words as "forensic, profiler, and DNA" to be part of their everyday vocabulary. This has so captured American's attention that two twenty-four hour cable networks have been developed, True TV (formerly known as Court TV) and ID (known as Investigation Discovery). Programs such as Forensic Files, the FBI Files, and The New Detectives have had such a profound effect on the general public that verdict that have been passed down by juries in court cases have been affected by these programs. Juries now expect something dealing with forensics or DNA to be presented by the prosecutor, especially in cases that are high profile murder cases.
Not only has television shows and the media been supplying the public with inside knowledge of how the criminal investigation process goes but it has also been a little misleading. When thinking of the criminal investigation process, many will confuse those that practice forensic psychology with criminal profilers. This confusion can be laid at the door of the before mentioned programs and their inability to distinguish between a psychologist and a profiler for their viewers. In quite a few episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the on hand psychologist will give a profile of the perpetrator to detectives. But according to a recent study only about 10% of forensic psychologist and 17% of psychiatrists have ever engaged in criminal profiling (Torres, Boccaccini, & Miller, as cited in Huss, 2008).
So, if criminal profiling is not the primary job of a forensic psychologist, than what is the purpose of forensic psychology? What is forensic psychology? What are the requirements to become a forensic psychologist and how does this position benefit the criminal justice system?
There is much debate in the psychological community when it comes to forensic psychology; the reason for this debate is that forensic psychology is an umbrella term for all aspects of psychology when applying it to the law and the legal justice system. According to the American Psychological Association (2010),
Forensic psychologists apply psychological principles to legal issues. Their expertise is often essential in court. They can, for example, help a judge decide which parent should have custody of a child or evaluate a defendant's mental competence to stand trial. Forensic psychologists also conduct research on jury behavior or eyewitness testimony. Some forensic psychologists are trained in both psychology and the law.
But the first sentence of this definition is to narrow of an interpretation and it puts more of a focus on the clinical psychological aspects of forensic psychology and ignores the other disciplines that are involved. According to Huss (2008), "Some of the other disciplines involved with forensic psychology are: cognitive psychology which is used for witness identification, physiological psychology is used during polygraphs; social psychology is used during jury selection, and developmental psychology for a child's testimony in court" (p. 5).
The rest of the definition gives to broad of an impression leaving a person to believe that regardless of what discipline you belong too, you can consider yourself a forensic psychologist if you assist the legal system. Since any psychologist can testify in court at any time or can do assessment and testing on an individual on behave of the court system, then would they also be considered a forensic psychology when looking at the definition supplied by APA? For example, if a psychologist who has been practicing for 20 years, has only evaluated a client on two separate occasions as whether or not they could stand trial, by this definition he would then be considered a forensic psychologist because of this evaluation. With this as an example, would it not be better to define forensic psychology as: a psychologist whose primary focus is to apply psychological principles to legal issues?
With all the debate surrounding forensic psychology it comes as a surprise that this discipline has a long history in the psychological community. Hugo Munsterberg was the first psychologist to apply psychology to the law with the publication of his book, On the Witness Stand in 1908. During the early 1900's William Stern studied eyewitness identification by applying psychological principles and the law. Also, during the early 1900's Lightner Witmer began teaching courses on psychology of crime. In 1909, William Healy established the Chicago Juvenile Psychopathic Institute for treatment and assessment of juvenile delinquents.
But it wasn't until 1962 in the Jenkins v. United States case that psychology was recognized for the contributions that it could make toward the legal system. This lead way to the creation of the American Psychology-Law Society, Division 41 of the American Psychology Association in 1969, and the establishment of the American Board of Forensic Psychology in 1978 for credentialing of psychologists specializing in forensic psychology. Since the 1970's and the 1980's there have been several forensic related journals published dealing with psychology and the law.
Some of the legal areas that forensic psychology deals with are: risk assessment at the time of sentencing, insanity and criminal responsibility, competency to stand trial, treatment of sexual offenders, and juvenile transfer to adult court. But forensic psychology does not only focus on the criminal aspects of the law (acts against society) but forensic psychology can also be used in civil law suits (wrongs against an individual, usually concerning private rights). Some of the civil law that forensic psychology can play a role in are: child custody cases, civil commitment, personal injury, worker's compensation, and competency to make medical decisions.
The practices of forensic psychology are the same that is used in clinical psychology (assessment, treatment, and consultation). But for forensic psychologist assessments play a dual role, not only are they used to diagnose an individual but they must clarify and identify the legal question and show that forensic psychology can assist in the specific situation that must meet the Daubert standard. The Daubert standard (Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. 1993) is the preliminary assessment that federal and some state courts use for expert scientific testimony. According to Jackson (2007), the standards that are used to determine whether the methodology is valid are:
(1) is the theory on which the opinion based on falsifiable or testable; (2) Has the methodology been subjected to peer review; (3) is there an acceptable error rate; (4) is there a technical manual or other guide to control use of the instrument; and (5) is there general acceptance of the theory and procedures (pg. 485).
There is no one assessment test that forensic psychologist use when during an evaluation. In the survey What Tests Are Acceptable for Use in Forensic Evaluations? A Survey of Experts (2003), Lally surveyed forensic psychologist to see which psychological test were in their opinion were acceptable for use in the 6 areas of forensic practice. When doing an assessment of the mental state at the time of the offense, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2) and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-III (WAIS-III) was recommended. When doing testing for risk for future violence, the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) was recommended. When testing for risk for future sexual violence, the PCL-R was recommended. When testing for competency to stand trial, the WAIS-III and the MacArthur Competence Assessment Tool-Criminal Adjudication (MacCAT-CA) was recommended. When testing for competency to waive Miranda rights, the WAIS-III and the Grisso instruments were recommended. When testing for malingering, the Structured Interview of Reported Symptoms (SIRS) and the MMPI-2 were recommended (Lally, 2003).
Treatment in forensic psychology is not as straight forward as it would be in normal situation i.e. client comes in for assessment and treatment which is all voluntary. With forensic psychology treatment can be court ordered, a part of a probation release, or can be to assist legal consul during trial (Trull, 2004). Consultation usually used to assist attorneys and the courts in understanding the client's behavior or in picking out the jury during a trial.
There are many routes a person can take to becoming a forensic psychologist. A person can do a joint degree program (a program where a person can obtain a degree in law and psychology), a graduate program in psychology that specializes in forensic training, or a general program in clinical or counseling psychology. But for those who are interested in a career in psychology and the law, they are not limited to just forensic psychology. Some other specialties in this field are: Clinical-forensic psychologists, Developmental psychologists, Social psychologists, Cognitive psychologists, and Community psychologists (American Psychology-Law Society, 2010). Each of these fields have can play a role in the legal system.
Forensic psychology has proven to be a great asset to the legal system. But psychology and the law are not disciplines that live in harmony. Where psychology makes decisions based on empirical data, the legal system makes its decisions based on facts. Whereas the courts will see an individual as a cold blooded murder that should be locked up for the rest of their lives, the forensic psychologist will see the individual as someone who has been in need of psychological treatment. The inner works of a person's mind is not something that can be seen, touched, or heard by others. But forensic psychologist can are able to explain to the courts a person's behavior.