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What is Forensic Psychology?

What is forensic psychology?

Forensic psychology is the interaction of the practice or study of psychology and the law. Psychologists interested in this line of applied work may be found working in prisons, jails, rehabilitation centers, police departments, law firms, schools, government agencies, or in private practice, to name a few. They may work directly with attorneys, defendants, offenders, victims, pupils, families, or with patients within the state's corrections or rehabilitation centers. Other psychologists interested in forensic psychology focus on the study of psychology and the law. They may work in colleges, universities, government agencies, or in other settings interested in researching and examining the interaction of human behavior, criminology, and the legal system.

Psychologists working in forensic psychology often come from a wide variety of education, training, and work experiences. All hold a doctorate degree in a field of psychology. Some graduate training programs now offer specializations in the field. Some of these psychologists also have education or training in the law or even hold a Juris Doctor - the degree earned by attorneys. Most working in applied settings such as a private practice or prison also hold a license to practice granted from their state's board of psychology following the successful completion of an approved doctoral degree, pre and post doctoral training years, and passing scores on a series of board examinations. The exception to this is that some governmental agencies are considered exempt settings, which allows unlicensed psychologists to practice with supervision for a period of time.

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Psychologists working in applied forensic psychology settings may provide a multitude of services, too many to fully describe here. Generally though, psychologists working in corrections may attend to the mental healthcare needs of inmates including, screening, psychological assessment, individual therapy, group therapy, anger management, crisis management, court-ordered evaluations, or daily inpatient rounds. They may also consult with prison staff, inmate attorneys, advocates, and court systems on a variety of mental health related topics or recommendations garnered as a result of psychological assessment. Psychologists working directly with attorneys may provide psychological assessment, personality assessment, assessment of mitigating factors, assessment of sexual offenders, competency evaluations, and recommendations for parental custody or visitation, to list just a few. Psychologists working in police departments often provide services for the department employees, such as counseling or crisis management.

Psychologists working in forensic psychology research or academic settings may teach or research on any topic in which psychology and the law interact. The field seems limitless. To name a few popular areas: criminal profiling, crime trends, effective mental health treatment for offenders, effective treatment for substance abusers, techniques for jury selection, impact of divorce, custody, separation, visitation on children. The list goes on.

Thank you to all you who e-mail me with interesting questions about this line of work. This entry may have added to the confusion, but to quote David Webb from his website, "The debate as to what is forensic psychology and what is not forensic psychology rests primarily on the nature of psychology's relationship with the legal system." And right now that relationship is bigger than ever. Check back later for more detailed descriptions of particular careers in forensic psychology.

Marisa Mauro, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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