Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Art of Forensic Psychology


Peter Woodcock murdered three children in Canada during the late 1950s.  Declared insane, he went into treatment at a psychiatric facility and after many years he appeared to have become a model citizen.  Yet three decades after his crimes, he was granted privileges that gave him more freedom.  He used them to commit another murder.  Woodcock became the poster boy in a documentary, The Mask of Sanity, about how therapeutic intervention with psychopaths not only did not produce a cure but made them worse.  In the documentary, Woodcock affirmed this.

Clinicians may play any of a number of roles in the correctional system, including:

  • classification of prisoners for programs
  • assessment and treatment of mental illness
  • crisis intervention
  • consulting on program design
  • screening of staff

How offenders get classified is determined by psychological assessment tests, clinical interviews, structured questionnaires, and information about how well any given treatment works.  Some offenders get singled out from the general population for special treatment, including repeat offenders, the mentally ill, sexual offenders, substance abusers, and youthful offenders.

Inmates are psychologically processed as they come into a jail or prison, and based on the testing results, are assigned to a facility or unit.  Those at risk of suicide are placed under a twenty-four-hour watch.  In prisons, inmates usually go to a reception center for what may turn into a series of assessments.  Their records are reviewed, and they are interviewed and screened for emotional issues.  Depending on their needs and risk factors, treatment goals are set. They may require anger management, addiction counseling, education, or vocational training. They may also need medication. 

Clinicians aim to reduce risk in high-risk individuals, identify factors that contributed to their crimes, and focus on prosocial skills development for future release.  Prison itself will not correct the criminal tendencies.  In fact, studies have shown that prisons tend to be criminogenic.  Clinicians who work with potentially violent inmates must take precautions, such as ascertaining the location of security personnel, using calming influences, and assessing the need to transfer offenders away from certain influences.

Those offenders who can be placed in alternative programs outside prisons, such as supervisory halfway houses, may have a better chance to readjust to normal life.  They may be able to work, attend school, visit with family, and get job training.  Some offenders remain in their own homes under house arrest, with an electronic monitoring device.  All such programs involved continued counseling and program participation.

While most people think of forensic psychologists as participants in criminal proceedings or profiling, they engage in quite a bit of work on the civil side of legal issues as well.

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