Interest in the criminal mind has soared in recent years thanks to true crime podcasts and television shows that draw people to the field of forensic psychology.

Forensic psychology is a board-certified specialty from the American Board of Professional Psychology. Many people believe that people in this field work only with criminals, but the role of a forensic psychologist goes far beyond that and is deeply ingrained in the justice system.

The Legal System

Forensic psychology is a broad term. People practicing in this field apply psychology to the legal system in many ways. Forensic psychologists are highly educated and must have a doctorate to qualify for certification. They focus on combining science and criminal investigation to provide guidance that is scientifically sound and admissible in court.

criminal investigation evidence concept


General Responsibilities

Forensic psychologists fill a variety of roles. This might include performing child custody and competency evaluations and threat assessments. They also screen law enforcement candidates, assess victims of crimes for post-traumatic stress disorder, and provide treatment and intervention for adult and juvenile offenders.


Criminal Profiling

Criminal profiling is an important part of forensic psychology, and it is a complex and difficult task. Many things motivate criminal behavior, from drug use to emotion to mental illness. To get inside the mind of a criminal, forensic psychologists use crime scene evidence, interviews with witnesses and victims, and knowledge of human behavior to come up with a profile of who may have committed a crime.


Mental Illness

Another job that falls under forensic psychology is determining whether a criminal is insane in the legal sense. In the American court system, someone who is not of their right mind cannot be held responsible for a crime they commit. The legal definition of insanity varies from state to state, but a common theme is whether or not the person knew what they were doing. Forensic psychologists are tasked with determining the mental state of the criminal, both while they were doing the crime and during the trial.


Expert Witness

People with experience in forensic psychology are also called upon to act as expert witnesses and provide general science-based testimony in court cases. When acting as expert witnesses, forensic psychologists have not directly evaluated individuals involved in a crime. Instead, they testify more generally to the science of trauma, dissociation, and grooming behavior and how experiencing traumatic events affects someone's ability to testify or tell their story.


Legal Consultants

Another role in forensic psychology is that of legal consultant. Legal consultants work with lawyers but not to provide expert testimony. In this capacity, a forensic psychologist works with the attorneys on the legal team to help build their client's case. They may help the team understand the implications of trauma on the defendant's behavior or why they may have acted the way they did.

While following a strong code of ethics is important in any area of forensic psychology, those who choose to act as legal consultants must be careful to adhere to the ethics and standards of practice in the field.


Forensic Psychopatholgy

Forensic psychology and forensic psychopathy are related, but they have different objectives. Forensic psychologists have a broad scope of practice and can determine whether someone is mentally sound and can stand trial. Forensic psychopathologists focus exclusively on ensuring the accurate diagnosis of mental disorders and how these disorders affect someone's ability to reason and be held responsible for a crime they committed.


Forensic Psychology vs Criminal Psychology

Forensic psychology and criminal psychology overlap, and the terms are often used interchangeably, but they are two distinct fields. Forensic psychology covers a range of disciplines related to the legal system, but criminal psychology focuses only on criminal behavior.

Criminal psychologists research why crimes occur, evaluate the probability of crimes occurring, and help investigate crime scenes.


Necessary Skills

In addition to completing years of schooling culminating in a doctorate, those wishing to practice forensic psychology require specific skills. Forensic psychologists must know how to perform in-depth research, including statistics, and have extensive critical thinking skills and legal knowledge about mental health laws, criminal laws, and courtroom procedures. Knowledge of cultural and social issues is required, as is the ability to stay calm in stressful situations.


A New Field

Forensic psychology is a newer discipline and is continuing to grow. Some practicing clinical psychologists find a passion for forensic psychology and transition to the field later in their careers. Younger people are initially attracted to the field as a result of the pop culture and media fascination with the criminal mind.


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