Forensic psychology. The term is likely conjuring images of a brilliant profiler getting into the psyche of heinous criminals, bringing them to justice. I hate to shatter dreams, but such careers are few and far between. The good news is, forensic psychology is a vast field for anyone interested in the intersection of law and psychology. Today, we’ll examine what “forensic psychology” means and introduce a primer for what the field has to offer. Over the next couple of weeks we’ll examine the below in more detail, so stay tuned!
A Popular Career Interest
With the rise of popular crime-related TV shows some 20 years ago, it seems every crime-story-loving college student interested in psychology dreamed of being the next Criminal Minds team member. Historically, forensic psychologists and clinicians weren’t formally educated on the topic; they did an internship or post-doctoral fellowship in a forensic setting and the ball rolled from there. In the 90’s, though, colleges began scrambling to get forensic psychology elective classes and concentrations into their undergraduate and graduate programs. Some schools developed master’s degrees entirely on the topic.
Like many things in popular culture, however, there is/was a misperception about forensic psychology: that it is synonymous with criminal profiling. This was understandable, as the only frame of reference for the uninitiated was how it was portrayed on TV. Students therefore flocked to the forensic psychology programs with visions of a career in the FBI, hot on the trail of the next Unibomber. Well, there’s a lot of students who went to those programs, and most-wanted criminals are a scant few. Supply and demand just doesn’t allow for all those dreams to come true.
All was not lost, however. Forensic psychology students did learn that did not mean they were simply sold a dream. Getting a glimpse into the forensic world, it quickly becomes apparent that, although profiling is a rarity, if they have a genuine interest for the intersection of law and psychology numerous other, exciting opportunities abound to work in the field. You see, forensic simply means applying science, in this case the social science of psychology, to various facets of the legal system, which has many more layers than just catching the bad guys.
More Than Profiling
Aside from helping law enforcement end games of cat-and-mouse with psychopaths, forensic psychology professionals can be found in many settings. These range from jails to courts, to sex offender registry boards and forensic hospitals.
- Correctional facilities
Today, most jails and prisons in the Untied States are about more than “cuffing and stuffing.” If people’s behaviors are to be corrected (hence, “corrections”), they must be rehabilitated. I did my graduate internship at a jail, and then worked there for 9 years. What stood out most is that many inmates are decent people who’ve encountered bad situations. These men and women are glad to accept the help to get back on track. Such facilities are often the last stop for many on their way down the drain. To give you an idea of the scale of the matter, Al-Rousan et al. (2017) noted that mental illness in jails is two-to-four times more prevalent than in the general population, and serious mental illness is 10 times more prevalent. Los Angles County Jail has long been called the largest inpatient psychiatric center in the country. Clearly, there is much work to be done. Clinicians seeking work in a fast-paced environment evaluating and treating the wounded well to the most impaired of the impaired will find rewarding work. It not only helps the individuals served, but ultimately helps society by contributing to recidivism reduction.
District/Superior, Juvenile, and Probate/Family Courts have built-in Court Clinics where psychologists, psychiatrists and master’s level clinicians evaluate court-involved individuals for a variety of reasons. Court clinic evaluators are neutral parties and not trying to coax a particular outcome, like expert witnesses hired by attorneys may. More often than not, referrals come from Judges, Probation Officers and Attorneys. They refer due to questions about how mental health has influenced the individual getting court-involved or their ability to participate in proceedings. Sometimes, the court clinics have to perform crisis evaluations or evaluate if a person requires involuntary commitment for substance abuse treatment. Some clinics offer group treatment opportunities for things like anger management, or bridge therapy services to start working on acute problems while the individual awaits a long-term provider in the community.
Many Courts are developing mental health and substance abuse specialty courts to acknowledge that people are committing crimes influenced by their illness, but nonetheless need to held responsible. Court Clinic social workers are often involved as mental health advocates and liaisons.
- Problematic Sexual Behavior Evaluation and Treatment
Some facilities specialize in evaluating and treating people with inappropriate sexual behaviors and offenses. Through very specific psychotherapy and risk assessments, mental health professionals help offenders works towards curbing their problematic behaviors, and evaluated readiness for reintegration to the community. These professionals often work as consultants for Sexual Offender Registry Boards (SORB) and Boards of Parole.
- State Hospitals
Nowadays “state hospital” is generally synonymous with what was once called institutions for the criminally-insane. The role of these hospitals is multi-faceted:
- Caring for severely/acutely mentally-ill and suicidal inmates
- Competency/Criminal responsibility evaluations
- Competency restoration
- Housing people found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI)
- Involuntary substance abuse treatment for people who are involved with the legal system
- Sexual offense treatment
- State Departments of Mental Health
Though it varies by state, many departments of mental health have a forensic division to address the fact that mental illness has a ripple effect into the legal system. Mental health professionals provide case management for forensically-involved, severely mentally-ill individuals. They are essential in helping such mentally-ill people successfully transition back to the community and keeping stable so as not to get into further trouble either from self-medicating or other behavior encouraged by their illness.
- Private Practice/Expert Witnesses
Mental health professionals in private practice make a up a huge percentage of forensic psychology practice. Many are psychologists and psychiatrists who are experts in their particular area, like personality disorders, memory, sexual behavior, or malingering (faking symptoms for secondary gain) who get hired by attorneys to evaluate and/or testify on behalf of their client. Unlike court clinic evaluations with neutral opinions, expert witnesses are usually “hired guns” who work for a specific outcome. This is often the most lucrative forensic psychology career, given such professionals’ hourly rates range from $200-$1000 per hour depending on how high in demand they are.
Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll explore some of the above categories in more detail. For readers seeking interesting, introductory books about the topic of forensic assessment and treatment, the following are great primers about the nature of the work:
Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream: A Forensic Psychiatrist Illuminates the Darker Side of Human Behavior, by Robert I. Simon, MD
Handbook of Correctional Mental Health, by Brian Scott, MD and Joan Gerbasi, JD, MD
Mosaic of Despair: Human Breakdowns in Prison, by Hans Toch
Understanding, Assessing, and Rehabilitating Juvenile Sex Offenders, by Phil Rich, Ed.D.
Al-Rousan, T., Rubenstein, L., Sieleni, B. et al. Inside the nation’s largest mental health institution: a prevalence study in a state prison system. BMC Public Health 17, 342 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4257-0