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Forensic therapy is concerned with the mental health assessment, evaluation and treatment of individuals who are in the legal system for crimes committed. Victims and families may also be involved in the therapy related to the occurrence of crimes. A forensic therapist helps the offender to examine the motivations for their behavior, the actions committed, and take responsibility for them, which may help prevent any future activity. Where possible, a therapist works to prevent recidivism on the part of the offender, and/or evaluates inmates to assess the likelihood that they will commit further crimes. The patient and therapist may work in a therapeutic, supervisory, or consulting capacity, depending on the client’s situation and the requirements of the legal system. The process may also call on other health professionals such as social workers and physicians. Forensic therapy, forensic psychology, forensic psychiatry and forensic expert witnesses at criminal trials each focus on different aspects of criminal behavior. However, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

Many factors go into recidivism and or repeat offenses among the criminal population, and there is some debate over the efficacy of this therapy type. However, in 2001 the American Psychological Association recognized forensic psychology as a specialty, which emphasizes research and analysis.

To learn more about clinical work within the criminal justice system, see Forensic Psychology.

When It's Used

Forensic therapists work with both juvenile and adult offenders, both individually and in groups. The work takes place in prisons, hospitals, schools, specialized mental health centers and therapeutic communities, legal environments, such as probation services, and government forensic assessment units. Clients are evaluated for criminal responsibility, competency to stand trial, or risk for violence. Forensic therapists also testify as expert witnesses in courtrooms. Cases and specializations may include child abuse and neglect, child custody and parental fitness, sex offender risk assessment, violence risk assessment, juvenile evaluations, and sentencing and mitigation. Forensic therapists often work with offenders who have antisocial personalities and or psychopathy.

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What to Expect

An assessment may be conducted for the purpose of determining a course of therapeutic treatment or simply to establish facts, such as mental competency, for use in the legal system. If a forensic therapist is asked by an attorney or court to evaluate an individual, the therapist may evaluate the person's mental competence to help determine facts in a legal case, but therapeutic treatment is not indicated. When a forensic therapist is assessing an individual for treatment, the emphasis is less on determining the facts of a case and more on identifying the person's problems and deciding on an appropriate treatment plan. A forensic therapist often works as part of a multi-disciplinary team.

How It Works

The treatment goal of forensic therapy is to understand what triggers a person to commit a crime and help that person understand their own motivations and take responsibility for their actions. By building this self-awareness, as well as an understanding of the nature and impact of their crime, it may be possible for offenders to change their thinking and behavior patterns so they are less likely to act out or commit crimes in the future

What to Look for in a Forensic Therapist

A forensic therapist may have a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology, social work, counseling, or a related field and, in some cases, postgraduate academic work in a forensic psychology program. Educational and licensing requirements may vary from state to state. The American Board of Professional Psychology also provides board certification in forensic psychology for forensic psychologists with a Ph.D. or Psy.D. who meet their professional standards and pass an oral examination. In addition to the appropriate education and training, a forensic clinician must have excellent communication skills and strong knowledge of the profession to clearly express the theoretical, ethical, and legal basis of their findings.

It's important to seek a therapist with whom it is possible to establish clarity of communication and a sense of good fit. In addition, experience counts, so it is advisable to seek a therapist who has had extensive training and experience in this area.

You might ask a prospective therapist such questions as:

  • How often have you dealt with problems such as this before?
  • How do you know whether a patient is a good candidate for forensic therapy?
  • How does forensic therapy work?
  • How do you measure progress?
National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. “Forensic Mental Health Services in the United States": 2014        
McGauley G, Humphrey M. Contribution of forensic psychotherapy to the care of forensic patients. Advances In Psychiatric Treatment. Mar 2003;9(2): 117-124.
American Board of Forensic Psychology.
American Psychological Association: What is forensic psychology? Sept 2013.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice: Postgraduate Certificate in Forensic Psychology.
National Institutes of Health. National Library of Medicine.
Counseling in the Family Law System. Springer Publications.