Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Art of Forensic Psychology

Diverse Arenas

  • A man stabs his wife to death while sleepwalking 
  • A girl claims she was held captive inside a box for seven years 
  • A violent juvenile coming up for release needs a risk evaluation
  • A man admits to crimes he did not commit
  • A mother stones her children to death on God's command
  • An employee demands emotional damages for being harassed at work

These are the types of cases into which a forensic psychologist (or psychiatrist) may be called, for purposes that range from assessment to testimony to treatment.  This discipline involves psychology in the law, by the law, and of the law. Wherever the legal system and psychology intersect, you have forensic psychology.

Such professionals use their expertise with human behavior, motivation, and psychopathology to provide psychological services for the courts, and may also consult in criminal investigations.  They may be asked to appraise behaviors such as malingering (faking symptoms of an illness), confessing to a crime, or acting suicidal. While most such practitioners are clinicians with a specialization in forensic issues, this applied discipline also involves those who engage in research relevant to legal issues.  These subjects include assessing threats, determining the fitness of a parent for guardianship, and testing eyewitness accuracy.  Yet there are even more roles for a forensic psychologist to play.  They may assist a forensic artist, help attorneys select jury members, or assist coroners to resolve ambiguous death determinations.  For more detailed information, a list of useful texts can be found in the bibliography. 

Some forensic psychologists work for police departments to screen for fitness for duty or the need for trauma counseling.  Many work in prisons or psychiatric hospitals, and quite a few are in private practice.  To be effective, they must be familiar with the way law enforcement and the criminal justice system work.  Whether it's to evaluate whether a killer knew right from wrong, assess trauma to a child, or profile a crime scene, psychologists are an integral part of those teams devoted to learning the truth and serving justice.

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