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Forensic psychology is a term fairly recently adopted by the British Psychological Society to inaugurate its Division of Legal and Criminological Psychology. It is concerned with the use of psychology within the legal processes and for understanding and reducing criminal behaviours. The purpose of this essay is to look at how forensic psychology is used and some of the circumstances in which they are deployed. The three specific areas this essay will be addressing are; offender profiling, an area which is on the increase in this country. Also being looked at is the risk assessment of offenders, a hugely important task within the prison and probation services. The final point that will be addressed is the rehabilitation of offenders, an important and somewhat controversial role. This essay will be looking at what each of these tasks involve, some positive and negative factors about some of the methods used within the tasks, and why they are needed and any possible improvements that could be made.
Traditionally trait-based offender profiling is used to help predict possible/likely socio-demographic characteristics of an offender using various information gathered from a crime scene, which is then compared to known information about offenders of similar crimes and the psychologists education and training, to give a likely profile of the person police should be looking for. The FBI issue a handbook on offender profiling called 'Crime Classification Manual', this states that a crime scene is presumed to reflect the behaviour and personality of an offender in much the same way as furnishings of a home lend some idea as to the character of the homeowner (Alison, 2005). There are two major assumptions which are relied upon heavily when inferring one set of characteristics to similar crime scene evidence, the first is that behavioural consistencies exist between same type criminals and that individuals are likely to commit similar crimes. The second assumption, which is referred to as 'homology problem' (Mokros & Alison, 2002) relies on the assumption that the degree of similarity in offence behaviour of any two criminals from a particular crime category will indeed match the degree of similarity in their character. These assumptions create hurdles for traditional profiling as making such generalised assumptions about the characteristics of individuals without taking into account their environmental factors, which remain unknown to the psychologist, albeit presumed following their experience and training, does mean mistakes are made, thus making the evidence for nomothetic, deterministic and non-situationist traditional trait based profiling fragile. Having said this, it is reported by Witkin that in 1996 the FBI had 12 full time profilers on their payroll who as a group were involved in around 1000 cases per year, (Alison, 2006, pp6). Profiling also takes into consideration the types of victims targeted, area of crimes committed to help establish the likely geographical position of the offender, these factors along with the ones above mentioned all assist the psychologist put together a likely offender profile, helping the police to somewhat narrow their investigation, which no doubt helps save state money and more people becoming victims of the offender. Psychological profiling is obviously a much used and respected role of a forensic psychologist particularly in America but is becoming more used here in Britain. Despite having it's downfalls it does undoubtedly play a positive role within the criminal investigation procedure, however as with any predictor of behaviour or characteristics there is scope for mistakes to be made, as although individuals who commit same category crimes do possess similarities they are at the end of the day individuals with their own set of characteristics and unique environmental factors all of which influence a person's behaviour.
Risk assessment uses information about offenders and their circumstances to help predict their future behaviour. It is however not certain that the conclusion given by the psychologist via risk assessment is actually how the offender will behave, this could therefore in turn have an impact on society, creating real and unwelcome consequences; additional victims and the distress this causes, and the financial cost of investigation and justice. On the reverse of this an offenders' parole could be rejected based on the risk assessment recommendation; when the offender wouldn't have reoffended thus infringing upon their human rights and wasting public money keeping the person imprisoned. There are many ways of determining a persons' level of risk but they generally fall into two categories: clinical and actuarial risk assessments. Clinical assessment involves the observation of the offender's behaviour and the collection of background information on an offender by professionals, which the clinician then utilises and together with their experience and training they formulate a prediction of risk. Actuarial risk assessment is very different as it uses statistical algorithms to generate risk scores from specifically gathered information on the offender. These scores are then categorised into low, medium and high risk bands or are used to estimate the likelihood of reoffending. The algorithms used within actuarial prediction are usually determined through large cohort longitudinal research projects assessing factors associated with risky behaviour or events relevant to that particular class of offender. Both of these methods use a similar range of data which include the number of previous convictions, age and gender, these are referred to as historic factors as they are not subject to change. Also drawn upon are dynamic factors such as employment status, peer relationships, levels of impulsivity and general attitude to crime. These two methods of risk assessment have been the centre to a longstanding debate within the field of psychology. Dingwell along with other advocates of the clinical method argue that the generalisation of information from a group to an individual is in itself problematic. Grubin and Wingate along with others claim that the actuarial method oversimplifies the complexity of factors involved in an offenders' decision to reoffend. Both sides of this argument have valid points but having looked at both methods fairly closely it would seem that the actuarial method is a more accurate objective procedure than the somewhat impressionistic, subjective clinical approach. However both methods have their positive points and are both useful in their own right an offenders ability to be honest is also an important factor to be considered and it would therefore be a more beneficial approach if several different approaches were employed when conducting a forensic psychology risk assessment, as this allows for more opportunity of lap over questions thus allowing the true feelings and intensions of the offender to be identified and a more accurate conclusion to be reached.
The rehabilitation of offenders has to be one the most important aspects of the prison system. Retribution, incapacitation and deterrence are in themselves seen as promoters of offender rehabilitation. If the individual recognises society's perception of their actions, along with the nastiness of losing their freedom, independence and free will, it will encourage the offender to desist from criminal actions and thus reform their character. Rehabilitation of offenders within prisons takes many forms including various types of psychotherapy, such as; counselling, employment training, victim awareness through corrective education, and various programs designed specifically to reduce offending behaviours. All these procedures are structured to potentially reduce the risk of reoffending as well as; assisting in reducing the level of alienation that most offenders experience and lessen the shame attached to the court and sentencing process, and just as importantly helping the offender deal with any previous life experiences that they find distressing which may have directly contributed to their criminal behaviour. All of these aspects help the offender to gain the skills required to rejoin the community as a more useful member of society, and are all factors taken into consideration when assessing the level of risk an offender poses. Some of the types of psychotherapy methods used are; behavioural interventions which focuses on the individuals problem behaviours, which are identified by both the offender and their psychologist. A reward system is then used to remunerate the modification of the unsuitable behaviours, much like is employed when teaching a child the correct way to behave. This positive intervention is used in conjunction with many others including interpersonal skills training, which is to help the offender learn how to behave correctly towards others and consider how their actions make others feel. This is conducted in small groups, where each offender identifies situations which they handle in a negative way i.e. giving in to peer pressure, or situations they are just unsure how to act in, suitable ways of managing these thorny situations are then discussed and put into practice using role play within the group and feedback is then given to establish how they coped and any improvements/alterations needed to be made to the program. Structured individual counselling is a widely used method of counselling deployed both inside and outside prisons. Despite its name it is in fact a fairly unstructured format, in which the psychologist (counsellor) takes a humanistic (person-centred), non-directive approach, thus allowing the client to take the lead and therefore feel less pressured and more in control which creates less anxiety within the client making the process more successful. It is apparent that there are many different tools needed in rehabilitating offenders, all of which have their place and which ones are useful varies from individual to individual. However undoubtedly the most important factors in rehabilitating any offender is the individuals acceptance that what they did was wrong and their want and willingness to change how they think and behave, without these factors being present, even with the best professional help they will continue through their life offending.
It is clear that a forensic psychologist does play an important and invaluable role within many areas of criminal investigation, prison service and the probation system, however it is also apparent that there is not a set clear cut answer to any of the challenges they face within these roles. A consideration that has been raised within each of the areas looked at within this essay, is that although different offenders of the same type crimes do share a certain amount of characteristics making profiling, risk assessment and rehabilitation somewhat easier and indeed possible, people no matter what role they take within society, are individuals and this therefore makes having one set structure in either catching a criminal, assessing the risk an offender posses, or the rehabilitation of an offender is subject to that particular individual and cannot always be the same procedure for everyone. This therefore makes the role of a forensic psychologist a challenging and hugely important one that requires both specific education and training to be able to conduct successfully and the importance of this and the roles they take should not be under estimated.