From Sherlock Holmes serials to television shows like CSI and Law and Order, popular culture reflects a fascination with the criminal mind. This interest goes beyond entertainment for those in the law enforcement, legal and judicial communities for whom the mental processes of prisoners, clients and defendants are central to executing justice. The overlap of law and psychology comprises the field of forensic psychology. These professionals fill a growing need in the justice system. As long as statutes are violated and litigation is initiated, opportunities will abound for forensic psychologists.
About Forensic Psychologists
Anyone involved in the legal system can consult a forensic psychologist: police officers; judges at every level of government; prosecutors and public defenders; plaintiffs and defendants; and attorneys in private practice. Training includes a doctoral-level degree program in clinical, developmental or social psychology. Some forensic psychologists also hold law degrees. Where they find employment depends on how they apply their given specialties. Research-oriented professionals may spend their days creating psychological profiles whereas clinical psychologists will engage a client to determine which profile fits best.
Rehabilitating Convicted Persons
Clinical psychologists working in a forensic capacity often attend to the mental health of inmates at correctional facilities or of those whose probations are contingent on psychotherapy. Issues like trauma, anger management and addiction are common among such populations, and the psychologist may address them in individual and group settings. Prison psychologists consult with wardens, parole boards and correctional officers with regard to the mental health of convicts in their care. Those employed by the court system likewise consult with probation officers, judges and defense counsel to apprise them of the psychological state of parolees. The advice of physicians is also sought with regard to medication.
Assisting Law Enforcement
Other forensic psychologists work for police departments and federal enforcement agencies to assist officers in solving crimes and apprehending perpetrators. They help to identify patterns of behavior for suspects in order to predict their movements and reactions. In addition, they assist detectives in the preparation of interrogations so that information based on false confession or suspect manipulation is filtered out. In this way, they protect their agency when it is time to go to trial. Psychologists on the staff of police departments often counsel individual officers and employees following a shooting or other traumatic event common to the profession.
Advising Attorneys and Courts
While government agencies secure the services of many forensic psychologists, attorneys in private practice frequently seek them out for various tasks. In domestic relations, for example, lawyers may want to screen litigants with regard to fitness for child custody or propensity for violent behavior. Contractual disputes can sometimes hinge on the mental competency of one or more of the involved parties, requiring psychological screening. Additionally, trial attorneys hire forensic psychologists for expert witness testimony. Psychologists who provide attorney services are frequently in private practice or on the faculty of a university.
The intersection of law and psychology is an expanding junction. Behavior disorders and histories are increasingly relevant. Psychologists who make forensics their specialty are sure to have many career paths from which to choose.