When people are asked” what is forensic psychology?”, they usually think of the criminal profilers seen on movies and television shows, when this is only a fraction of what happens in reality. In its most basic definition, forensic psychology is the application of the psychology practice within the law and the legal system. The word “forensic” originated from the Latin word “forensis” which means “of the forum” referring to the Imperial court in ancient Rome. This relatively new specialized branch of psychology was only given official recognition by the American Psychological Association in 2001.
The portrayal of forensic psychology in popular shows, books and movies caused a surge of interest in the field, especially for the past few years. However, these are glamorized depictions of the profession and are not entirely accurate. The people who practice forensic psychology aren’t strictly “forensic psychologists.” They could also be clinical psychologists or child psychologists, but their expertise or knowledge might be required to provide assessment, testimony and recommendations in legal cases. Some of their roles include determining an individual’s competency to stand trial, mental health assessment in insanity plea cases, and specialized forensic assessment of an individual’s personality. For instance, a clinical psychologist might be asked to assess the mental health of a suspect or a child psychologist will be asked to evaluate children subjected to abuse or prepare them for court testimony in criminal or child custody cases.
Forensic psychologists work in jails, police departments, law firms, rehabilitation centers or government agencies and deal directly with lawyers, defendants, victims, families or patients within these institutions. Their responsibilities within correctional institutions involve regular psychological assessments, individual and group therapy sessions, anger or crisis management and other court-ordered evaluations. The work of forensic psychology also includes working with the police departments, to evaluate law enforcement personnel and provide training on criminal profiling and other relevant courses. There are also those who prefer academic pursuits in universities to do further research on criminology, law and the human behavior. Analyzing crime trends, criminal profiling and effective mental health treatments are some of the topics covered by forensic psychology.
What separates this branch from other fields like clinical psychology is that forensic psychology is limited to specific duties in every individual case, such as providing advice on the suspect’s mental capacity to face charges. Learning the answers to “what is forensic psychology?” means dealing with individuals who are getting evaluation and treatment not by choice, unlike in the usual clinical setting where clients volunteer to seek help.
They are also called to provide expert testimony but they must be knowledgeable enough of the legal system to be called as a credible witness for the case. Majority of their role is preparing and delivering their testimony and translating it to legal terms, which has been more challenging since lawyers know how to undermine or discredit psychological opinions. There have been cases of malingering or feigning illnesses so psychologists should know how to recognize the real symptoms as well as evaluate the consistency of information across different sources. A great part of understanding the answer to “what is forensic psychology” means being able to explain or reformulate psychological terms or principles within a legal framework.
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