Psychologists In Forensic Settings Undertake Challenging Tasks Criminology Essay

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This essay aims to look at three different tasks that a forensic psychologist may carry out and the challenges they face in doing so. The first task will be risk assessments of sex offenders due for release or parole from prison or a secure unit. Specifically looking at The Level of Service Inventory-Revised, which is a fifty four point interview used by many psychologists to assess the chances of a sex offender reoffending once they get released. It will also look at Phallometry, an intrusive interview technique used to assess offender recidivism. It is measured by penile tumescence changes and is seen to be very effective. The second task will be offender profiling used as evidence in court. The psychologist gathers information together from the crime scene, police and witnesses to build a picture of the character who committed the crime. All of this evidence is then put forward to the court. The third task this essay will look at is psychological autopsies. These are used when a person either goes missing for no apparent reason, or dies unexpectedly in circumstances such as possible suicide. Psychologists conduct interviews with close family and friends to try and work out the victim's frame of mind at the time of the incident. They would look at the scene of the death, or last established known place of the victim to try and work out what has happened.

Risk assessments are used when an offender is due to be released from either prison or secure unit. Forensic psychologists gather information to weigh up the chances of the offender reoffending.

When assessing sex offenders, risk assessments are very important to determine whether the offender will continue abusing after release. As well as this, risk assessments are used to see whether the offender will be at risk from the public, in the area that they live in. There can be a lot of hostility in the community when people realise they will be living near a convicted sex offender. So the offender needs to be protected from the public as well as the public being protected from the offender.

The Level of Service Inventory-Revised (Andrews & Bonata, 1995) is a risk and need tool originally devised by Andrews in 1982. It looks at the assessment of the risk of reoffending and the treatment and needs of the offender. It consists of fifty four items answered with a "Yes-No" or a rating from 0 to 3, and provides information on the offenders; Criminal history, education/employment, finances, family/marital, accommodation, leisure/recreation, companions, alcohol/drug problems, emotional/personal, and attitude/orientations. The assessment is in the form of an interview and identifies specific area of the offender's risks and needs. The total score is translated into bands which then can be looked at to determine the offender's chances of future offending. The higher the score, the more likely they are to reoffend. Hollin & Palmer (2003) described the LSI-R as "an effective and efficient assessment instrument for needs-risk assessment with offenders", while Gendreau, Little & Goggin (1996) conclude their review by saying that the LSI-R "...appears to be the current measure of choice. (p.590)

The Level of Service Inventory-Revised has had much praise for its effectiveness in helping offenders. While looking for research on this, it was not possible to find any studies that didn't say it was good. Therefore it seems to be a good measure for the reduction of recidivism.

Phallometry measures changes in penis size and sexual arousal when presented with stimuli in a controlled environment. This is used for sex offenders to monitor their interest and sexual preferences and whether they are likely to reoffend. Freund (1965) was first to demonstrate pioneering research which showed that many child molesters preferred children to adults for sexual partners. They were shown photos of people of various ages and sex, and results came from penile tumescence response. Quinsey and Chaplin (1988b) found that aural stimuli also worked well in phallometric testing. Penile tumescence changes were measured while offenders listened to descriptions of consenting and non consenting sex with an adult or child.

Quinsey and Bergersen (1976) on four occasions showed slides to five non sex offenders. The first and fourth sets of phallometric testing, the participants were given normal instructions. On the second and third set, the participants were asked to appear to like either male or female children and not women. They were told that they would receive more money for doing this.

The results showed that two out of five of the participants significantly altered their responses according to what they were asked to do. Two other participants had also changed their responses but it was not enough to reach statistical significance.

Research shows that phallometric testing is a good way to assess whether a sexual offender is ready to be released. However there are ethical implications. The testing is quite personal and can violate an offender's dignity. The aim of the testing is to help control the feelings and urges of the offender, not to actually cure them. Even though the phallometric testing has been proved numerous times by psychologists to be a valuable assessment for offenders, it has also shown that it can be beaten. Offenders, if they wanted to, could lie in order to be released into the public, and possibly reoffend. Other measures could be used alongside the phallometric testing, such as psychometric test and interviews. Observations can be made once the offender is released into the community. Ensuring they have a good support network around them will make the transition back into the community easier.

Forensic psychologists are frequently used in court settings. For example. The prosecution use forensic psychologists for determining the state of mind of offenders, and can stand as an expert witness. The defence use forensic psychologists to help get a psychological assessment so the offender can claim diminished responsibility for a crime he or she is being charged with.

Forensic psychologists use offender profiling to gather information from a crime scene to determine who the offender is. The psychologist has to use their knowledge and experience to build up a character. Profiling represents an indirect way of conducting assessments, which typically involves intuition, psychodynamic ideas and a limited repertoire of behaviour from which to extrapolate. (Gudjonsson & Copson, 1997)

Evidence produced by the forensic psychologist is usually introduced in the court by the Prosecution, but in certain circumstances can be introduced by the Defence if there are co-accused defendants. (Ormerod, 1996) Ormerod goes on to say that the offender profilers can only give a general indication of the type of person who is likely to have committed the offence, not indicating any one individual who happens to fit the profile.

There is always the danger that an offender profiler will become biased and perceive him/herself as part of the Prosecution. The Canadian courts have recognised this and have suggested that they be cross examined by the Defence to ascertain any possible bias that has crept into their work.

Offender profiling seems to be a good way of presenting information to the courts. However the police don't always like admitting to the help of offender profilers as their results don't give a definitive answer to who the offender is. It must be ensured that the psychologist used is an accredited one as they can influence the jury because of their status. Empirical work suggests that typical jurors form impressions of experts stereotypically based on the occupation of the experts, and superficially on the personal characteristics of the experts. (Shuman, Champagne & Whittaker, 1996)

The psychological autopsy can help to look at the thoughts and feelings of a person prior to them dying or disappearing. The psychological autopsy is well established in the USA and has been shown to have a statistically significant impact on the determination of death, especially in the equivocal cases. (Jobes, Berman, & Josselson, 1986) The validity of diagnoses obtained through psychological autopsies has been confirmed by Brent, Perper, Moritz et al (1993).

One of the first things a forensic psychologist would do would be to gather evidence from the death scene, or where the victim was last seen. Then they would interview the victim's family and close friends to establish their state of mind in the hours, days or weeks previous to the occurrence and a reconstruction of events would be set up to jog the memories of any potential witnesses. The psychologist would go to the victim's house to gain information on the character of the person. What type of books did they read? What music did they listen to? What possessions did they own? Do any of these give an insight as to how they were feeling at the time? The computer if they owned one would be taken away to be examined to check recent emails and any websites that might hold vital clues.

Not a lot of research has been done on psychological autopsies so it was hard to find relevant information. They do however seem to put the families of the victim at ease to know what actually happened. The psychological autopsies would have to be carried out by a psychologist who can deal with people who are in crisis. They can't always give a definite answer to what has happened. Ethically the family and friends seem to be reassured with the work done by the psychologist and counselling is generally offered.


The roles of forensic psychologists are varied and underestimated a lot of the time. This essay has covered the roles of risk assessment, offender profiling to give evidence in court and psychological autopsies. All of these roles have their place in society and are used for the good of people.

Phallometric testing is a good way to determine whether a sex offender is likely to reoffend if they are to be released. As long as the offender is willing to co-operate and be honest then it is a good basis to look at the chance of recidivism.

. The Level of Service Inventory-Revised is a positive tool to have to assess the chances of recidivism in sex offenders. Ethically there is nothing wrong, and it can easily be carried out. Many psychologists use it and it can be easily compared and scored.

Psychological autopsies are very good for looking into what has happened to someone who has gone missing or died unnaturally. It is seen more in the press nowadays in a lot of missing person cases and is getting more recognition. Psychological autopsies are good for putting the victims family's minds at ease about what happened to their loved one and why.