What is Forensic Psychology?

The word forensic comes from the Latin word forensis, which means of the forum, referring to the courts of ancient Rome.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines forensic psychology as the application of clinical psychology to the legal arena (encompasses legal institutions and the people who come in contact with the law).

The APA first recognized forensic psychology as a specialization in 2001. Because this field of study is relatively new, its definition continues to evolve.

The APA emphasizes the application of clinical skills, such as assessment, treatment, and evaluation, to forensic settings.

However, on a broader scale, forensic psychology also involves the application of research and experimentation in other areas of psychology (such as cognitive psychology and social psychology) to the legal arena.

Clinical, Applied and Research-Based Forensic Psychology

University of California professor Craig Haney (1980) suggested three, primary ways in which psychology and the law can relate to each other:

  • Psychology in the Law: The use of psychology in the legal system as that system operates
  • Psychology and the Law: The use of psychology to examine the operation of the legal system
  • Psychology of the Law: The use of psychology to examine the law itself

Psychology in the Law: Clinical Forensic Psychology

Psychology in the law takes a body of psychological knowledge and applies it to the legal system. Clinical (applied) forensic psychology serves as the foundation for a wide array of forensic psychology endeavors, from child custody and competency evaluations to the counseling of victims of crime and the delivery and evaluation of intervention/treatment programs for juvenile and adult offenders.

The applied field of forensic psychology offers a number of opportunities for the practitioner, all of which stem from the psychological assessment. As such, forensic psychologists may work in many different legal environments, writing reports, giving testimony, providing direct treatment, or working with therapeutic communities.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), forensic psychologists must possess specialized knowledge in three areas:

  • Clinical: Includes a number of topics, such as diagnosis, treatment, testing, intervention measurements, ethics, etc.
  • Forensic: Includes tools and techniques for assessing symptoms and capacities related to legal questions
  • Legal: Includes knowledge of the legal system, the law, and the process of obtaining relevant legal information

Forensic psychologists must also possess the ability to address psychological problems and questions that relate to the course of legal proceedings, which are often part of even larger legal problems and questions addressed by the courts. Legal proceedings addressed by forensic psychologists include:

  • Civil: Any type of civil litigation, such as workers compensation, child custody hearings, personal injury lawsuits, etc.
  • Criminal: Any type of criminal and delinquency proceedings; insanity defense, competency to stand trial, waiver of juveniles on adult courts, etc.

The APA also recognizes that forensic psychologists provide their services to two, distinct populations:

  • Clinical Forensic Population: Comprised of individuals with mental or emotional disorders
  • Legal Population: Comprised of courts, attorneys, and other administrative bodies

Psychology and the Law: Research in Forensic Psychology

Psychology and the law views psychology as a discipline that is separate from the law. It involves examining and analyzing various components of the law and the legal system from a psychological perspective.

Forensic psychologists in this area may work for universities, colleges, government agencies, or in other settings where they research and examine the relationship between criminology, human behavior, and the legal system.

Forensic psychologists working in research or academic settings often choose to focus their research on a topic related to psychology and the law, such as:

  • Criminal profiling
  • Crime trends
  • Effective mental health treatment for offenders
  • Effective mental health treatment for substance abusers
  • Techniques for jury selection
  • The impact of parental custody, parental visitation, etc.

Psychology of the Law: The Study of the Law

Psychology of the law involves the use of psychology to study the law itself. Although this area is not often considered a core topic in forensic psychology, there is growing interest in this area.

The Evolution of Forensic Psychology

Although the concept of forensic psychology has been around since the late nineteenth century, it didn’t earn an APA-recognized title until 2001.

Some of the earliest research was in the area of eyewitness testimony and suggestibility, which took place in Europe and North America. Although not formally called forensic psychology at that time, James McKeen Cattell at Columbia University was conducting experiments on the psychology of testimony as far back as 1893. He would later earn credit as being the first in North America to conduct experiments in this area.

Other notable moments that have undoubtedly shaped the field of forensic psychology include:

1843: Daniel M’Naughten is found not guilty by reason of insanity in the assassination attempt of the British prime minister; this later serves as the development of the M’Naughten Rule for determining insanity.

1909-1913: A series of articles by Guy Whipple introduce psychologists in North America to the classic European experiments on eyewitness testimony.

1917: William Marston develops the first modern polygraph. Louis Terman pioneers the use of psychological testing for personnel selection in U.S. law enforcement agencies.

1921: In State v. Driver, a North American psychologist testifies in court as an expert witness for the first time; however, the testimony is rejected.

1923: In Frye v. United States, the court speaks to the issue of expert testimony and when it should be admissible.

1954: Social psychologists write a brief that makes its way into the footnotes of the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision, which helps validate psychology as a discipline.

1968-1969: The American Psychology-Law Society is founded, followed by the publication of the American Psychology Law Society journal, Law and Human Behavior.

1980-1981: The American Psychological Association’s Division 41: Psychology and Law, is established; it merges with the American Psychology-Law Society four years later.

2001: The American Psychological Association formally recognizes forensic psychology as a specialty discipline.

In recent years, forensic psychology has made great strides to becoming an established discipline. Many textbooks have published on the subject of forensic psychology, particularly in the United States. Further, a large number of academic journals are dedicated to the field, while mainstream psychology journals are publishing more research from the forensic domain. Finally, a number of professional associations representing the interests of forensic psychologists have been developed to promote research and practice in the area.

One of the largest of these associations in North America is the American Psychology-Law Society. Others include:

Becoming a Forensic Psychologist

Forensic psychologists possess a wide variety of education, training, and work experiences. Forensic psychologists in research may hold a master’s degree in psychology or forensic psychology, while clinical psychologists must possess a doctoral degree in a field of psychology, as well as a state license to practice.

Many psychologists in this field also possess a Juris Doctor.

Although each state has its own unique requirements for earning a state license to practice as a clinical psychologist, all require the successful completion of an approved doctoral program, pre- and post-doctoral training, and passing scores on board examinations.

Most states recognize American Psychology Association (APA)-accredited doctoral programs for licensure.

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