Forensic Psychology Careers
It's more than profiling.
Posted Nov 02, 2020
Forensic psychology. The term likely conjures images of brilliant profilers 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.
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 evolved from there. In the '90s, though, colleges began scrambling to add 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 Unabomber. Well, there's a lot of students who went to those programs, and most-wanted criminals are a scant few. The law of supply and demand just doesn't allow for all those dreams to come true.
All is not lost, however. Forensic psychology students aren't just sold a dream. Glimpsing into the forensic world, it quickly becomes apparent that, although profiling is a rarity, if students have a genuine interest in law and psychology, then numerous other, exciting opportunities await them 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 cat-and-mouse games with psychopaths, forensic psychology professionals are found in many settings. These range from jails to courts, to sex offender registry boards and forensic hospitals.
Today, most jails and prisons in the United 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 nine years. What stood out most is that many inmates are decent people who've encountered bad situations. These people are glad to accept the help to get back on track. Such facilities are often the last stop for many on their way down society's drain.
To give readers an idea of the scale of the issue, 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 (Al-Rousan et al., 2017). 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 all demographics and conditions will find reward. 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 various reasons. Court clinic evaluators are neutral parties and not trying to coax a particular outcome, like an expert witness may. Judges, Probation Officers, and Attorneys make referrals about how mental health has influenced the individual becoming court-involved or their ability to participate in proceedings. Sometimes, the court clinics perform crisis assessments or evaluate if someone requires involuntary commitment for substance abuse treatment.
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 inappropriate sexual behaviors and offenses. Through very specific risk assessments and psychotherapy, mental health professionals help offenders works towards curbing such behaviors. They may also evaluate readiness for community reintegration and consult with the Parole Boards and Sexual Offender Registry Boards (SORB).
Today, "state hospital" is generally synonymous with what was once called institutions for the criminally insane. The role of such hospitals is multi-faceted. It includes caring for severely/acutely mentally-ill and suicidal inmates; Conducting competency/criminal responsibility evaluations, and problematic sexual behavior/offense rehabilitation.
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 on 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
In 1962, the case of Jenkins vs the U.S. opened the doors for psychology professionals to independently examine defendants and offer admissible testimony (APA, 2020). Until then, only medical professionals were considered qualified to offer opinions on disease in court. Today, psychiatrists, psychologists, and some masters-level practitioners who are experts in their particular area, like personality disorders, memory, sexual behavior, or malingering (faking symptoms for secondary gain) get hired by attorneys to evaluate and/or testify on behalf of clients. 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 several days, we'll explore some above categories in detail. For readers seeking interesting, introductory books about the topic of Forensic Psychology 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
American Psychological Association. (2020). Jenkins vs the United States. https://www.apa.org/about/offices/ogc/amicus/jenkins.