A Day in the Life of a Forensic Psychologist
Forensic Psychologists are psychologists who practice in courtrooms, prisons, and other legal settings. They have a keen knowledge of criminal law. In law school their fields of study are clinical psychology, sociology, and criminal justice. They study the nuances of the criminal mind, and study violent behavior because one of their main responsibilities is testifying in court. When doing this they must be able to reformat the legal and medical jargon to something that can be understood by normal people.
Some of the duties of a forensic psychologist include meeting with legal teams to break down the medical terms so they can understand and apply it to their clients. Knowledge of the criminal justice system gives them the ability to discuss with judges and legal personnel.
Credibility is needed in order to fulfill their purpose in court so they must also understand not only criminal law, but the rules and standards of the judicial system. They need to understand hearsay evidence and when evidence can be excluded. These expert witnesses usually start out in one jurisdiction and as they gain experience, and as their reputation strengthen in other areas, this will increase. Some states have certification processes, for example, Michigan, has a certification for Consulting Forensic Examiners. At the very least you will need to have a Master’s or PhD in this field. Some students achieve this by earning an online psychology degree. The payscale is shown in the graph below.
Forensic Psychologists and the Legal System
Competency recommendations in court are given by a Forensic Psychologist. They take the medical information and combine it with the legal aspect of the case. Judges will ask them to make sentence and treatment recommendations, assess future risks, and assess other witness’ credibility. Law enforcement personnel use Forensic Psychologists to do criminal profiling.
When a Forensic Psychologist is assessing a person, they are coming from a different direction than a clinical psychologist. A clinical psychologist empathizes with their client. So does a child psychologist. The interaction is guarded by doctor/patient confidentiality. This is not the case with a Forensic Psychologist. The information they gather is not subject to this doctor/patient confidentiality. clients are a wide range of people and because of the criminal nature, they are in an abnormal world, and there are more personality disorders to deal with.
It is much different than a clinical psychologist. The person they are dealing with may be unwilling and hostile. They may be exaggerating or faking symptoms. They may not be cooperative in what information they disclose because they have no control over how the information may be used.
If the psychologist suspects the witness is lying, they should try to observe them in different settings to get a more accurate picture. A notable occurrence of a false confession by John Mark Karr is the JonBenet Ramsey murder. Karr, while in Bangkok, confessed via email to the crime. The US spent a considerable amount of money bringing Karr back from Bangkok for questioning, and after interviews and tests were concluded, charges were dropped. In 2009 DNA showed 22 cases of people wrongly convicted. Approximately 25% had given false confessions.
In working with witnesses, a Forensic Psychologist will test using psychological and mental status exams. They will study background information such as reports of prior criminal activity, or psychological evaluations with helpful information. They will interview family members, other witnesses, police, and experts to reach conclusions regarding the behavior of the accused when the crime was committed.
They will look at his exposure to violence, traumatic events, and general family history. They will determine if he was mentally or physically abused. As a Forensic Psychologist, the facts you collect will aid in determining the future danger to the public if a sentence is modified.
Criminal Profiling & Forensic Psychologists
Criminal Profiling is not at all like the TV shows. A criminal profiler must have a deep understanding of the criminal mind. They are able to use the evidence from the crime scene and come up with a general profile for the perpetrator. Profilers spend hours and hours talking to a lot of accused persons in order to get a sense of what makes them tick. In the 1970’s John Douglas, a noted profiler, was among the first to start interviewing. Up until that time, recommendations for probation, parole, and treatment, were given and sometimes the psychologist didn’t even know what the person was guilty of.
The only interviewing done in some cases was with the accused, which could hardly be counted on for truth. Only by interviewing and seeing evidence can the profiler walk in their shoes and visualize what was happening at the time of the crime.
Also in the 1970’s, a man named Alvin Ford was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. While in prison, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, rightfully so. The governor still did not overturn his death sentence. This went to the US Supreme Court who determined that we are a civilized nation and should not be executing the insane. At the time, if Forensic Psychologists had the ability to interview others, delve into previous mental evaluations, and general state of mind, it may not have ever gone this far.
In jury selection Forensic Psychologists can analyze a potential juror, investigate, and get an understanding behind behavior or responses.
Forensic Psychology isn’t for Everybody
As you can see, this is no career for lightweights! Some Forensic Psychologists work as consultants and are called upon for expert testimony. They may also have a private practice to counsel offenders mandated to therapy. Some will assist in mediation of custody disputes for someone whose parental rights have been taken away.
This career will lead you to various paths that lead to very interesting and rewarding work. You’ll be working with a diverse array of people and situations. You can help to make a difference in someone’s life. You can be assured that your research will benefit society as well. There are downsides to the career. That’s why, when deciding on how to become a psychologist, students should think long and hard about the stress that comes with a career in forensic psychology.
Continuing Education is a must. There is a risk for injury when dealing with criminals. If you like to work independently you should know this is a team job! You risk burnout from the amount of stress involved and often the psychologist salary will not compensate for the hard work and long hours.
Forensic Psychologists Must Be Able to Adapt
All in all, if you like doing research, are comfortable working with a team, are comfortable with public speaking, can be adaptable and patient, Forensic Psychology is a career to consider. If you work as a residential youth counselor, a social worker, a probation or parole officer, or a case worker, you’ll be using both psychology and law. It will give you a glimpse of what the future might be as a Forensic Psychologist.