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Forensic Psychology

You Do Therapy With Dead People? : Demystifying Forensic Psychology

What exactly is forensic psychology? And why is it so hot right now?

2008 just happens to mark the centennial of the founding of forensic psychology, initiated by the publication in 1908 of the groundbreaking text On the Witness Stand by Harvard University psychology professor Hugo Munsterberg. Today, forensic psychology is a thriving subspecialty recognized by both the American Psychological Association and the United States criminal and civil courts. Indeed, forensic psychology is one of the fastest growing areas in psychology today. What exactly is forensic psychology? Who can practice it? What is its contribution? And why is it suddenly so hot?

Let's begin with another word association experiment: What first comes to mind when you hear the phrase forensic psychology? How many of you are right now wondering whether (and how!) forensic psychology deals with dead people? You are not alone. That seems to be the most frequent question whenever I mention to someone in casual conversation that I practice forensic psychology. I suppose this common misconception comes from shows like CSI or Forensic Files, and seeing various real-life forensic pathologists and medical examiners like physicians Drs. Cyril Wecht and Michael Baden holding forth regularly as expert commentators on cable news broadcasts, nonchalantly discussing decomposition rates of corpses of possible murder victims and performing grisly post mortem autopsies to determine the exact cause of death. Hence the intimate--but inaccurate--association in the public's mind between the term forensic and death.

In fact, the word forensic has nothing to do with death per se. It pertains instead to the legal justice system. The term forensics is derived from the Latin forēnsis meaning belonging to the forum, where, in ancient Rome, public presentations or debates on important topics of the day would take place. Now, such spirited public debates occur regularly between forensic experts of all kinds in the legal arena. Any time a physician, psychologist, dentist or any other kind of specialist--including anthropologists, sociologists, criminologists, or even accountants--serve as professional witnesses or experts for the legal system, they are referred to as forensic experts. Forensic psychology is simply the intersection of psychology and the law. In my case, as a forensic clinical psychologist, I make available my expertise in clinical psychology to the criminal court system, and have been doing so for close to two decades.

And what exactly does a forensic psychologist do for the court? My colleagues on the Approved Panel of Psychiatrists and Psychologists for the Criminal Division of the Los Angeles County Superior Court and I are called upon to conduct clinical evaluations of criminal defendants, many of whom have been charged with violent crimes or other evil deeds. Sometimes, these evaluations are confidential consultations requested by the defendant's attorney regarding their client's mental health, and include psychiatric diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment recommendations. These confidential evaluations combine consulting psychology with forensic psychology, in that we provide consultation to the defendant's lawyer regarding key clinical questions, as well as addressing specific forensic issues to assist in determining how to legally proceed with such cases. Other kinds of court-appointed evaluations require reporting our findings regarding a defendant's competency to stand trial, legal insanity or dangerous states of mind directly to the court. Nine out of ten forensic evaluations I conduct take place in the confines of the county jail, where the accused is incarcerated, awaiting trial or other adjudication.

Forensic psychology practice calls for being a combination of psychologist, detective, criminologist, sociologist, archaeologist, philosopher, theologian, legal scholar, teacher, writer and psychotherapist. But the role of forensic psychologist is quite different from that of the psychotherapist, requiring a far greater degree of detachment, discipline and objectivity. Evaluation is not treatment. To perform such evaluations, forensic psychologists must be sufficiently familiar with the legal issues surrounding these cases, have extensive experience dealing with severe psychopathology and criminal behavior, be able to empathetically yet systematically engage the defendant in the structured evaluation process, and possess exceedingly keen clinical and diagnostic skills. In some cases, the court additionally requires the evaluating forensic psychologist or psychiatrist to testify at trials or other proceedings as an expert witness.

In this series of posts, I'll be discussing in some detail my work as a court-appointed forensic psychologist, applying my forensic experience to criminal cases in the news (see my previous posts), and trying to provide you with a palpable sense of what it's like to meet face-to-face with alleged murderers, rapists, pedophiles, sociopaths and other seriously disturbed individuals who have run afoul of the law. What typical forensic evaluations consist of and how, and in what context, they are conducted and utilized. How long they take. Who pays for them. Why not every forensic evaluator sees the defendant in the same way or reaches the same conclusions. What the relevant legal, philosophical, clinical and ethical issues are in forensic practice. Differences between forensic psychologists or psychiatrists and criminal "profilers." How the reality of practicing forensic psychology compares to its dramatic portrayal in movies like 88 Minutes (2008), Stephanie Daley (2006), Like Minds (2006), Along Came A Spider (2001) and Copycat (1995), and popular television shows like Law & Order. And why we really do need more and better forensic psychology in the criminal justice system. I will also try to field any questions you may have about forensic psychology. So feel free to ask.

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