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Forensic psychology refers to a field in the science of mental life that focuses on addressing issues affecting individuals on legal matters. This involves both criminal and civil fields. It is one of the many sub disciplines of psychology and has its own independent elements such as research journals, professional bodies, as well as training and development programs (Hall, 2007). As a profession, forensic psychology plays a crucial role in bridging the gap between the justice system and mental processes of criminals, witnesses, and lawyers. For example, forensic psychologists are often engaged by the justice system in helping to determine the competence of a suspected criminal to stand trial. Forensic psychology is a crucial element in these among other areas of concern in the justice system, thus the need to ensure that the individuals enrolled to study the course have the right competencies to deal with its demands (Bartol, 2011). In addition, forensic psychologists often undergo intensive training on numerous things in order to prepare them adequately for the high demands of the job market in their field of specialization. According to experts, one of the most tasking duties of forensic psychologists is interpreting psychological information into legal status for the sake of the courtroom, legal personnel and witness statements. Therefore, it is important for the forensic psychologist to have a clear understanding of the rules, standards, and values of the judicial system that they work with for the sake of maintaining their credibility (Hall, 2007).
Research has established that the demand for forensic psychologist has escalated a lot over the last couple of decades (Canter, 2010). This phenomenon has been attributed to the high number of movies and television shows focusing on criminal investigations and the numerous elements of the justice system involved. However, experts argue that the films portray the role of forensic psychologist in the wrong manner, thus contributing to the slow growth being experienced in the professional uptake of the discipline. According to the American Psychological Association, forensic psychologists mainly involve themselves with the clinical application of various specialties that characterize the legal field (Bartol, 2011). One of the specialties that forensic psychologist involve themselves with is the clinical assessment of all the individuals linked to the justice system. Other essential competencies that an effective forensic psychologist ought to have are good interviewing skills, ability to write comprehensive reports, as well as strong oral and written communication skills (Bartol, 2014). The space for forensic psychologists in the United States has been growing every year, owing to the high number of criminal cases being handled by the justice system. Reports of the Federal Bureau of Investigations indicate that forensic psychologist are increasingly being involved in more areas of the legal system that it was initially anticipated. This development has been brought about by the fact that their work has proven to improve the efficiency and credibility of the justice system (Crighton & Towl, 2015).
One of the areas in which forensic psychologist have been involved the most is dealing with individuals whose sanity with regard to the crime they committed and their ability to stand trial is put in question. According to legal experts, the United States constitution does not allow anyone with an unstable state of mind to stand trial because there is a huge possibility that they did not posses a guilty mind when they broke the law (Bartol, 2014). However, the challenge with this element is the fact that the various state governments apply varying standards with regard to the definition of insanity. This has in turn affected the ability of forensic psychologist to standardize the application of this element into their professional model. The only standard value that they use, regardless of the fact that it yields different outcomes is the need to know whether the offender had the awareness of his or her intention to commit a crime (Canter, 2010). This means that the most important time of consideration is when the crime was being committed, which then determines the ability of one to stand trial. A career in forensic psychology is very demanding and requires one to have high academic qualifications. According to the American Psychological Association, a qualified forensic psychologist should have a doctorate degree from an institution of higher learning whose programs they have fully accredited (Crighton & Towl, 2015). In addition, they should have a minimum of two years of supervised professional experience with a program credited by the relevant bodies. The good organization and high standards of professionalism exhibited by the American Psychological Association has played a major role in the growth of forensic psychology as a career of choice over the last two decades. This has seen forensic psychologists working in various legal matters such as violence risk assessment, family law, personal injury cases, examining the mental state of criminal defendants, social science research, dispute resolution, and jury selection among others (Bartol, 2014).
Opportunities in Forensic Psychology
The field of forensic psychology grows bigger every passing year, and experts project that the professional opportunities for individuals that choose to enter this field are most likely to be directly proportional to the level of awareness created (Fulero, 2008). This argument is developed along the fact that the existing legal market has the task of creating the demand for forensic psychologists, and at the same time ensuring that they provide favorable working conditions that will entice people to pursue the course in institutions of higher learning (Bartol, 2011). In addition, professional bodies such as the American Psychological Association have the ethical obligation of ensuring that their programs are marketed in an effective manner in a bid to promote the discipline. One of the opportunities available for forensic psychologists is academic research (Fulero, 2008). This mainly involves highly qualified individuals who have demonstrated their ability to impact knowledge on forensic psychology through research and training. Such individuals teach aspiring forensic psychologists the requirements of the profession, as well as instilling them with the necessary competencies needed during their work (Hall, 2007). Their main employers include colleges, universities, government agencies, and research institutions. Those employed in research institutions deal with issues involving the relationship between psychology and law, as well as policy evaluation. In addition, they are involved in testing the various hypothesis applied in determining the reliability of confessions made in court and the ability to evoke the memories of eyewitnesses (Canter, 2010).
Another opportunity for forensic psychologists is law enforcement consultancy. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, forensic psychologists play a crucial role in enforcing the law through the work they do in collaboration with various legal agencies. They have both legal and ethical obligations towards the police force, because their expertise is essential in ensuring that justice is served correctly and to the deserving parties (Crighton & Towl, 2015). Some of the areas of law enforcement that forensic psychologists are largely involved include crisis intervention, suicide cases, developing training programs, counseling, and stress management among others. Forensic psychologists also work as correctional psychologists in prisons and correctional facilities. Due to the challenge of overcrowding in prisons, the federal government has focused a lot on the need to improve the efficiency of various correctional facilities in order to accommodate petty offenders. In such situations, forensic psychologists have a huge role to play because they have to evaluate the mental state of the offender and at the same time offer the necessary treatment (Scott, 2010). Correctional psychologists also deal with criminals on probation by monitoring their progress and providing them with clinical services as they may require them. Reports indicate that correctional psychologists are also involved in research, psychological testing, and developing witness programs.
Forensic psychologists are also involved in legal evaluation. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, they are involved in assessing individuals involved in legal cases in terms of their mental stability to stand trial. Their evaluations also involve establishing the probability of criminals engaging in violent acts in the future. This assessment is often carried out to criminals in parole in a bid to establish whether they have indeed changed and in a sound state of mind (Scott, 2010). Unlike counseling sessions where the information shared between an individual and the psychologist is considered confidential, evaluation sessions are open to scrutiny by various interested parties. Therefore, the evaluators have an ethical obligation of ensuring that all the individuals involved in an assessment are aware of this element in order to avoid any form of confrontations and legal suits. In most cases, evaluators assessing criminal cases are often required to appear in court as part of presenting any necessary evidence involving a case (Davies & Beech, 2012). Other areas in which forensic psychologists can work as evaluators include mental health facilities, psychiatric departments of health centers, and private practice among others.
Over the years, forensic psychologists have also been engaged during legal cases as expert witnesses. According to experts, there is a huge difference between a fact and expert witness. A fact witness only gives an account of the events as they witnessed or know about them, while an expert witness has the freedom of adding their opinions to an event they did not have first hand experience simply because they have special skills to understand a topic beyond the actual events (Scott, 2010). Forensic psychologists often use their expertise, whereby they use the findings of their research and assessment work to help the court in making informed judgments on various cases. In most cases, they offer their expert opinion on the mental state of a defendant before being put on trial. A career as a forensic psychologist requires a high degree of morality because in the case where one is required to be an expert witness, it is important to provide an honest opinion and avoid the temptation of creating any bias (Davies & Beech, 2012). However, it is important to note that a judge overseeing a case in which an expert witness is needed has the authority to either accept or reject the opinion given by the forensic psychologist. Therefore, it is crucial for an expert witness to understand the difference between loyalty to their profession and influencing the result of a case in the right manner (Fulero, 2008).
Forensic psychologists can also work as trial consultants. The main work of such individuals is helping the judges and trial attorney in preparing for a case in terms of the strategy to apply and the manner in which the witnesses will be handled. The work of a trial consultant is heavily dependent on the quality of research they conduct and their ability to maintain high moral standards. A trial consultant engages many professionals and in the process, various conflicts are likely to emerge because of divergent viewpoints (Davies & Beech, 2012). Therefore, trial consultants are always required to exercise a high degree of emotional intelligence because their decisions with regard to the people that will participate in a case should be free of any bias or even guided by unsettled scores with the other parties involved. Another lucrative opportunity for forensic psychologists is being a treatment provider to people involved in legal cases. In most cases, forensic psychologists are required to provide such individuals with psychological interventions (Canter, 2010). This need often arises due to factors such as emotional breakdown, loss of memory, and mental instability commonly experienced by individuals who are put on trial. Their services are also needed during family cases, where a couple is either going through a divorce or fighting for the custody of children. Experts argue that such cases are often expressive and it is very easy for those involved to experience emotional breakdowns that can compromise the ability of a case to be concluded in time (Scott, 2010). Therefore, the presence of forensic psychologist during such cases is very important because the kind of evaluation they make about an individual often determines the course that a case takes in terms of its proceeding and the final verdict. Research has established that cases in which the intervention of a forensic psychologist was sought in a timely manner tend to be very successful and very few of them require an appeal after the ruling has been passed (Davies & Beech, 2012).
Forensic psychology as a discipline has gained a lot of ground over the last couple of decades across the world. Its emergence has played a crucial role in improving the efficiency of justice systems across the world, mainly because everything is done in a systematic manner and under favorable conditions. Research has established that the career of a forensic psychologist has many ethical implications, especially for the individuals whom they provide treatment to and those that rely on their research findings to make their decisions. A career in forensic psychology requires highly competent individuals, whose morality and emotional intelligence does not raise any questions. In the recent past, there has been an increase in the number of people taking up forensic psychology as a course in institutions of higher learning. There is an urgent need for the relevant professional bodies and authorities to create more awareness about the profession because the number of people in need of their services across the world keeps increasing every day. It is important to note that a successful forensic psychologist should have good knowledge of the law and keep him or herself informed with the latest developments in the field by reading research journals from all the fields involved.
Bartol, C.R. (2011). Current Perspectives in Forensic Psychology and Criminal Behavior, Third Edition. New York, NY: SAGE.
Bartol, C.R. (2014). Introduction to Forensic Psychology: Research and Application, Fourth Edition. New York, NY: SAGE.
Canter, D. (2010). Forensic Psychology: A Very Short Introduction. San Francisco, CA: OUP.
Crighton, D.A., & Towl, G.J. (2015). Forensic Psychology, Second Edition. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
Davies, G.M., & Beech, A.R. (2012). Forensic Psychology: Crime, Justice, Law, Interventions. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
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Fulero, S.M. (2008). Forensic Psychology, Third Edition. New York, NY: Cengage Learning.
Hall, H.V. (2007). Forensic Psychology and Neuropsychology for Criminal and Civil Cases. New York, NY: CRC Press.
Scott, A.J. (2010). Forensic Psychology. Los Angels, CA: Palgrave Macmillan.