ForPsychSeries Part1

LIFP Series – Part 1 – Work for Forensic Psychologists

This is Part One to my LIFP (Look into Forensic Psychology) Series of posts. In this first part, I will be looking at the work that forensic psychologists can do through the criminal justice, prison and other systems.

This post also looks at the issues with public and some judge’s perceptions of forensic psychologists being called on as expert witnesses at trials.

Part 1 – Forensic Psychology in the Criminal Law System

forensic psychology headerForensic Psychology is a subset – often applied as the ‘fifth’ branch – of psychology. It is a profession which combines psychology with the law, and deals with criminals and our justice system(s). Many psychologists who move onto this field also take subjects linking into the nation’s criminal law systems.

According to The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, ‘forensic’ means ‘Of, used in, courts of law’. So, strictly speaking, forensic psychology is the application of psychology to matters concerning the court of law.

Criminal Psychology – technically, criminal psychology is one branch of forensic psychology, although many people get these confused. Forensic Psychology involves all matters of the law – this includes criminal law, but also civil and tort law, although forensic psychologists working in civil or tort law fields aren’t as well known or portrayed in our television series.


Index to Part 1

  • 1A – The Sub-specialisms of Forensic Psychology.
  • 1B – Direct Justice System Work
  • 1C –  Issues and Debates
  • 1D – Work within the Prison System
  • 1E – Other Forensic Psychology Jobs
  • 1F – Professional Organisations and Administration
  • 1G – The Problems with Being a Forensic Psychologist (and Expert Witness)

1A The Sub-specialisms of Forensic Psychology.

In ‘Introduction to Forensic Psychology Research and Application’, 2nd Edition, Los Angeles, Sage by Bartol, C and Bartol, A (2008)  the authors took the approach that alongside an extended range of topics included within forensic psychology there has been a functional separation of roles. Bartol and Bartol subdivided their textbook into areas of sub specialisms –

  • police psychology
  • criminal psychology
  • correctional psychology
  • victimology
  • psychology of the courts.

Through these sub-specialisms, they identified up to 16 different locations which constitute work settings for forensic psychology practitioners. These include (via ‘Forensic Psychology 2004’ Bartol, Pgs 1 – 29 found at Scribd) –

  • Private practice
  • Family courts,drug courts,and mental health courts
  • Child protection agencies
  • Victim services
  • Domestic violence courts and programs
  • Forensic mental health units (govern-mental or private)
  • Sex offender treatment programs
  • Correctional institutions (including research programs)
  • Law enforcement agencies (federal,state,or local)
  • Research organizations (governmental or private)
  • Colleges and universities (teaching and/or research)
  • Juvenile delinquency treatment programs
  • Legal advocacy centres (e.g.,for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled)

1B – Some Direct Justice System Work

justice systemForensic Psychologists can take jobs which focus directly within the justice system, working with law enforcement groups and in the court systems. There, they can provide the following services –

  • Mental evaluationsfitness for trail, mental state during offense, and plea bargaining as regards insanity / voluntary or involuntary manslaughter defences.
  • Mental assessments and Services for police systems – eyewitness interviews, police line-ups, and jury selection
  • Expert Witnesses on cognitive behavioural patterns for courts – memory, perception, recollection by witnesses
  • Profiling of crimes to obtain lists of suspect types (offender profiling), and for research and development purposes.
  • Assistance in Safeguarding Vulnerable Witnesses – witness testimony preparation, challenging methods of examination (video-recorded cross-examinations, closed-room testimonies etc). *

* The ‘Forensic Psychology’ manual edited by Graham Davies, Clive Hollin and Ray Bull gives several examples of where conventional methods for eye witness court testimonies have been challenged and improved upon for the safeguarding of vulnerable witnesses such as young children, or those sexually attacked.

Aside from the obvious of obtaining mental evaluations for offenses such as violent and sexual crime, you may find forensic psychologists involved in other areas of the court system.

In some instances, in civil law, forensic psychologists have been used in assessing potential jury members for prejudices, and through the police or law enforcement agencies,  forensic psychologists have been asked to analyse or consult on police line-ups or police interrogations of the suspects or eyewitnesses. In family law areas, psychologists have been involved in capacity assessments for parents or the elderly.

Others have been brought in as experts to the criminal law courts to talk in specifics over topics such as the science behind eyewitness reports – memory, perception and recollection, and how this might affect what eyewitnesses may be able to provide in regards to testimony.

criminal profilerThe Forensic Psychologist as a criminal profiler is an overly used television model hyped up by shows such as ‘CSI’ or ‘Criminal Minds’. Profiling involves using an understanding of human behaviour, motivation and pathology to create a psychological profile of the suspect or offender.

In Britain, the days of the stand-alone criminal profiler being brought in to provide a subjective profile of a criminal type is long gone, with behaviour analysts now providing investigation help using statistical data gathering. I will talk much more on the profiling topic in Parts  2-5 of this series.

Forensic Psychologists are most often found in criminal and police systems working in research, providing analysis and evaluations of past crime patterns, measuring crime, and developing crime prevention initiatives to reduce crime, innovate police procedures and offender treatment strategies.

Psychology and the Justice System

There’s also something interesting to point out here regarding earlier statements about forensic psychology, which still hold true today.

Source for below – The Cambridge Handbook of Forensic Psychology, Introduction Brown, Campbell.

As early as 1976, in a volume of the Annual Review of Psychology, Tapp’s paper examining forensic psychology literature (updated by Monahan and Loftus in 1982) suggested that psychology’s contributions to understanding and predicting legal phenomena clustered in three domains:

  1. Validity of assumptions underlying substantive law (e.g. competence, deterrence)
  2. Clarifying the nature of formal legal processes (e.g. roles of judges, jurors, defendants and process components such as evidence, procedures and decision rules)
  3. mapping the contours of the informal legal system in which decision makers act (criminal justice system, mental health system).

They drew attention to a number of recurring themes: a divergence between theory testing and theory generating research, problems of the external validity of laboratory-based simulations and analogue research, and they were critical of the disjunction between the legal topics that psychologists study and the importance to law of these topics.

For example, much research effort addresses crime and criminals yet less than 10% of law courses concern criminal law. Much effort addresses decision making in trials yet 97% of criminal convictions are negotiated guilty pleas. (A point also made by Carson (2003) in the UK context.) They suggest that one reason for the skew is the diet of crime and courtroom dramas in the media, which may operate as a heuristic bias in perception of the scope of the law. They pointed out the virtual non-existence of psychological research into tort or tax law.

Further studies through psychological papers and journals through the later 1990’s and late 2000’s by several researchers qualifies that there is a continuing absence of studies psychological studies investigating non-criminal aspects of law. American journals continue to be dominated by research into juries, while the UK emphasises eye witness interviewing.

1C – Issues and Debates

false confessionsWhereas the application of forensic psychology into areas such as criminal profiling still seems a little thwarted by professional debates over the usefulness and correctness of some statistical data gathering methods, the usefulness of having trained psychologists with the court and prison systems is generally accepted.

Even so, some issues and debates should still concern anybody being called upon as an expert witness to a courtroom prosecution or defence. Forensic psychologists need to keep themselves constantly up to speed with the latest understanding on topics such as –

  • False confessions
  • The manipulation of memories – brought to the public’s attention with recent convictions of child abusers being overturned on appeals due to the faulty interviewing and forensics processes used with the alleged victims
  • Juries and Judges – and the other factors  which help the peer groups determine their findings and sentencing
  • Victimology – the emotional distress caused on victims as a result of the crimes, and how this may affect witness testimonies, criminal trials, public perception, and sentencing.

–> I will be looking more into some of the above in an upcoming series I will be publishing in April.

1D – Work Within the Prison Systems

psychology therapy in prisonsThere are only a  few forensic psychologists working as consultants within the police and court systems in Britain. Most forensic psychologists work either in a correctional institution or in a psychiatric hospital. There, they perform a number of important roles including –

  • Therapeutic intervention, diagnosis, and psychometric testing to evaluate the client’s risk of violence or likeliness that that a criminal will recommit a crime.
  • In certain situations they are asked to assess the risk towards self-harm or suicidal attempts by possibly unstable or non-coping prisoners.
  • Provide certified behavioural courses such as ETS (see below) for groups of prisoners.

These evaluations are important to future parole and competency hearings, and things like transfers of prisoners to different custody conditions, or giving more access rights to prison privileges.

In fact, in the British Prison system some criminals serving life sentences can not have their application for parole considered until they have gone through some mandated CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) sessions. This can be very difficult to get at, with prison funding and other constraints impacting a prisoner’s ability to take these courses.

The results from these CBT courses have often been debated both internally and externally. Here, a now archived report on the HM Prison Service’s Enhanced Thinking Skills programme appears to provide some evidence that the EST courses provide short-term positive results with less incidence of internal prison security reports being issued after prisoners have undergone the sessions.

In the same settings, psychiatrists can perform much of the same roles, with a mental illness stream, and provide medical intervention for some illnesses which benefit from this.

The HM Prison Service at Justice.Gov.UK has a nice page on Forensic Psychologist careers.

Forensic Psychologists following the prison service career path must train through the BPS British Psychological Society’s route for training to achieve chartered and registered status. Here, the BPS supplies the qualifications that trainees will need to obtain. The BPS has a Division of Forensic Psychology which forensic psychologists can seek membership through.

1E – Other Forensic Psychologist Jobs

psychology researchThe HM Prison Service is the largest single employer of forensic psychologists in the UK. This Prison Service also includes the Home Office Research and Development Unit. (My protaganist, Blue Finchett, actually did an internship through this unit, as part of her backstory).

Forensic Psychologists within the UK can also be employed in the Health Service (including rehabilitation units and secure hospitals), the Social Services (including the police service, young offenders units, and the probation service) and in university departments or in private consultancy.

Forensic Psychologists also hold skills in psychometric assessments, clinical and academic research which can see them work within some unusual jobs for psychologists. Some examples –

  • Traffic Psychologist – Traffic Psychology is an emerging field that studies driver behaviour. Forensic psychologists may look into road accidents which implicate crimes, or even something like behavioural studies of road rage.
  • .Net Psychologist, or Computer / Internet Crime Psychologist – There is actually a Google Psychologist hired by Google as a human factors psychologist studying fonts. But as we know, high-tech internet and computer crime is a growing crime area taking up copious governmental and law agency forces. Psychological studies into the behaviour of such criminals has been found of benefit to those workforces.
  • Workplace Forensic Psychologist – large corporations have a risk towards in-house crimes such as fraud, money laundering, etc, which a behavioural analyst could well work against.

The Sub-specialisms of Forensic Psychology.

In ‘Introduction to Forensic Psychology Research and Application’, 2nd Edition, Los Angeles, Sage by Bartol, C and Bartol, A (2008)  the authors took the approach that alongside an extended range of topics included within forensic psychology there has been a functional separation of roles. Bartol and Bartol subdivided their textbook into areas of sub specialisms –

  • police psychology
  • criminal psychology
  • correctional psychology
  • victimology
  • psychology of the courts.

Through these sub-specialisms, they identified up to 16 different locations which constitute work settings for forensic psychology practitioners.

1F – Professional Bodies and Administration

dsm-ivGenerally, Psychiatry and Psychology are administered by professional bodies in most countries. These bodies provide the definitions of mental and personality disorders and diseases, administer the professional qualifications and administer the certification of professionals working under those qualifications. Which obviously includes forensic psychologists.

In Britain, for instance, the Royal College of Psychiatrists is the professional organisation for Psychiatry. The British Psychological Society administers psychology. Australian psychology and forensic psychology is administered by the APS (Australian Psychological Society).

Many of these organisations publish industry journals. And several have now become standard for definitions in the legal systems across much of the Western World.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) and DSM-IV

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has more than 35,000 American and International members, who together attempt to create a definition list for mental or medical personality disorders known as the DSMDiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This manual describes the symptoms of disorders, but does not discuss the reasons behind them.

DSM-IV was the fourth edition of the DSM, originally published in 1993. Recently, the APA has attempted to introduce the fifth version of this tool, but has encountered some controversy with several of the listings within. The fifth version is due to be published in 2013.

The DSM-IV-TR is the 2000 text edition of the current DSM, which incorporates some later changes to ID sets. This manual is available to purchase for professional bodies, or you can purchase subscriptions to various online versions also.

The DSM-IV and that of the ICD-10 definitions (see below) are used by many countries in their legal systems, when quantifying mental fitness and states during trials and assigning sentences.


Note that these links are a little confusing. The American Psychology Association has used the APA initials, whilst the Psychiatry Association comes under

  1. American Psychiatric Association (
  2. American Psychological Association (
  3. The British Psychological Society (BPS).
World Health Organisation and the ICD-10

icd10As well as the DSM-IV (above), court systems in many countries use another world health definition list for assessing mental states of criminals during and after their trials.

The World Health Organisation administers the ICD-10 International Classification of Diseases. This body of work came into use from 1994, and is available in various forms online via The WHO links here.

Crimology Journals

The British Psychological Society has published the ‘Legal and Criminology Psychology’ journal since 1996. You will need to be a BPS member to access past journals, but Wiley Online has these all available as e-books, or provides the latest edition and some previous articles free as PDF

The American Psychology-Law Society publishes a bimonthly journal ‘Law and Human Behavior’. You can access the full online version of the latest edition via the  page. These go back to Volume 1 published in 1977.


1G – The Problems with Being a Forensic Psychologist (and Expert Witness)

Guns for Hire

for hireForensic Psychology, as with any profession, has its share of critiques. In fact, psychology as a practise, is always under debate, understandable when we consider the impact a mental assessment, therapy, or misdiagnosis may have on many lives.

One of the main accusations put upon the work of a Forensic Psychologist is that of being a “gun for hire” (sometimes even termed as being a “whore” for somebody). For those questioning an expert witness’s statement or opinion through a court trail, this may be an easy suggestion to make to discredit the opinion.

Many of the public may distrust the opinions of somebody working for either the defence or prosecuting side on a court trial, paid to be “their” expert witness. In fact, there have been some high-profile cases portrayed in the media where psychiatrists or psychologists used have later been found to have subverted the cases with their forceful expert opinions. Cases such as parents sent to prison for child abuse only to later to be found to have been convicted based on falsified memories of children handled badly by social workers or testifying mental experts – those types of things stick easily in the public’s mind.

The area of false-memory syndrome, and eyewitness recall is a large topic of interest, often bringing in expert witnesses from the psychology fields into such court trials nowadays, as a result.

Practices, Methods and Routines around the police investigation,  forensic psychology and forensic science analysis of sexual crime cases have also been much more highly developed to stop these types of injustices from happening again.


But are forensic psychologists really guns for hire?

This doesn’t make sense when we look at the most common situation in most of our courts today. Most forensic psychologists, as expert witnesses are paid for by the courts, or are salaried employees of an authority. They get the same amount of salary no matter what opinion they might give on a certain person’s mental state. There is nothing in it for such experts to lie or return an opinion to match the “side” they may be speaking for, other than a possible loss of professional reputation should they later be found to be completely incorrect, corrupted or mistaken in their own analysis.

(The same can be said of expert medical witnesses, some of whom have corrupted court trials with incorrect assessments).

Although they work as expert witnesses for certain authorities in criminal justice, they still are professional and certified psychologists who must answer to a professional association should their work be found wanting. (Sadly, those psychologists who have provided psychological expert evidence and then brought their opinions into disrepute, continue to be the easiest to find when doing web-searches, of course.)

Other accusations towards forensic psychologists as expert witnesses sit with their work being only on assessment, ie. not based on real-life work, practicing psychology. This, again, is commonly incorrect. Expert witnesses have built up their reputation over many years of practice, to allow them to be logged on a national “expert witness” listing of some sort. Although salaried by the justice system, many such expert witnesses continue to hold private practices allowing for clinical work in dealing with people day-to-day.

Also, the vast majority of forensic psychologists actually work in clinical practices through a country’s prison or health systems, working day to day with criminals. Only a small proportion build up a creditable resume of work to become expert witnesses at a later stage in their career.

Expert Witnesses and Wizard Hats

wizardAfter looking at all the accusations, and possible failings of being an expert witness (above) it might make you wonder why any psychologist would want to risk their reputation and provide expert testimony like that.

There has been such a longstanding distrust of psychologists and psychiatrists being used as expert witnesses that in 1995, New Mexico voted on a bill requiring psychologists to dress as wizards. New Mexico state senator Duncan Scott was getting aggravated by the number of experts being used, and in protest tacked on the following amendment onto a bill :

When a psychologist or psychiatrist testifies during a defendant’s competency hearing, the psychologist or psychiatrist shall wear a cone-shaped hat that is not less than two feet tall. The surface of the hat shall be imprinted with stars and lightning bolts. Additionally, a psychologist or psychiatrist shall be required to don a white beard that is not less than 18 inches in length, and shall punctuate crucial elements of his testimony by stabbing the air with a wand. Whenever a psychologist or psychiatrist provides expert testimony regarding a defendant’s competency, the bailiff shall contemporaneously dim the courtroom lights and administer two strikes to a Chinese gong […]

That amendment was passed through unanimously in the Senate but was thankfully excised before it reached the House. (Source: io9)

Just as I was about to publish this series, the whole ‘wizard hat’ thing spun around the web as a meme again. Responding to this the excellent Forensic Psychology blogspot blogger, Karen Franklin PhD, posted an article entitled ‘Who wants us to wear wizard suits, and why?’.

In this article, the author looks into the entire situation including an analysis of why the meme continues to be discussed today, and the political agendas behind it’s reoccurrence decades later, and why that might be. As she states, at the time of the bill –

Just as panic over bogeyman sex offenders is all the rage today, a perceived rise in insanity verdicts was a hot-button topic in the 1980s and 1990s, in the wake of John Hinckley’s insanity acquittal in the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. The verdict triggered widespread public concern over the reliability of psychiatric testimony, and the U.S. Congress and half of the states changed their laws to limit or eliminate the insanity defense.

In reality, the popular concern was misplaced. Insanity is very rarely invoked as a defense, being used in less than one percent of cases, and it is successful even more rarely. And, contrary to public opinion, forensic psychologists and psychiatrists who evaluate a defendant’s mental state are most likely to conclude that he or she does not meet the legal threshold for insanity.

In this recent article, Karen concludes on behalf of forensic psychologists and psychiatrists – “But, let’s face it. By and large forensic evaluators are pawns, not chess masters. We are invited into the legal realm by attorneys and courts, and serve at their discretion. While a few of us may exhibit an arrogance meriting a wizard hat, by and large forensic practitioners are appropriately humble and honest, and make every effort to remain within the limits of our science.”

Forensic psychologists and psychiatrists are always privy to bad press and mistrust from the public, but the ramifications of this can see a reluctance from many in the profession to provide their services through to the courts.

In fact, in Britain bad press in 2005 on a series of child abuse cases where three experienced and high profile experts came under the spolight ; saw a reluctance of any child psychiatrists and paediatricians to appear to give expert evidence for many years.* These cases remain as topics of interest across many countries still looking at expert witness regulations and reliability.

* The 3 professionals who took expert evidence into disrepute were  Professor Sir Roy Meadow** – struck off the Medical Register following his role in the conviction of Sally Clark, Professor David Southall – banned from work in child protection for three years, and Dr. Camille San Lazaro – criticised by the General Medical Council after she admitted giving inaccurate evidence about sex abuse to a review tribunal.

**It should be noted that Professor Meadow was an extremely powerful medical expert in child abuse and cot death – in fact, before being disreputed by the Sally Clark appeal, he had trained judges in both subjects, and trained several more medical experts in his own techniques for diagnosis and analysis. He was known for his statistical evidence, claiming several erroneous statistical metrics regarding SIDs / multiple cot deaths in families.

He was such an “expert” that the defence lawyers didn’t bother to put up a counter-expert who could robustly question his opinions. However, some of this was also due to the fact that the prosecution or crown’s ‘war chest’ of funding from the government was much bigger than that of the funded defence allowance, and funding of a counter-expert was often out of the question, or delayed many trials at the time.

For more on this, see the wikipedia entry on Meadows and the Clark appeals.

Although the central reasons for the Clark appeal’s success had nothing to do with Meadow, the discredited statistics were revisited in the hearing. In their ruling, the judges stated that “….if this matter had been fully argued before us we would, in all probability, have considered that the statistical evidence provided a quite distinct basis upon which the appeal had to be allowed.”

In 2003, after having his expert testimony on another case which the jury set down a not guilty verdict on, the Solicitor General for England and Wales banned Meadows from court work. A couple convicted of non-accidental salt poisoning of their adopted son under a 1993 paper written by Meadows were also later set free from prison after an appeal.

A expert witness has advantages over a factual witness – a fact witness can only testify to what he has experienced for himself. Whereas an expert is allowed to base his opinion upon all the available information drawing upon his professional knowledge and experience.

However, there are normally expected containers around that evidence. If the expert evidence advances a novel or unusual scientific theory or technique it should be subjected to special scrutiny to determine whether it meets a basic threshold of reliability. Which is where historical allegations of sexual abuse open up questions towards theories of repressed or recovered memories.

In the USA the Daubert standard (introduced in 1992)sets out four criteria for determining whether expert testimonydaubert meets the requirement to constitute scientific knowledge. These are:

1. whether the theory can be, or has been, tested (can it be falsified?);

2. whether the theory has been subjected to peer review and publication;

3. in the case of a technique, what is the potential rate of error;

4. whether the theory has gained acceptance in the academic and scientific community.

There is no such standard in the UK (***now changed); the closest Britain comes is the Bolam test used for professional negligence that holds that a doctor is not negligent if he has acted “in accordance with a practice accepted as proper by a responsible body of medical men skilled in that particular art – even if there is a body of opinion which would take a contrary view.”

Source: The above was paraphrased from a post for the British False Memory Society, in a text entitled ‘The role of expert witness’ by Dr Janet Boakes FRCPsych, in October 2005. In the same article Dr Boakes later goes on to say that there is no minimum standards in the UK for experts, and it is the judge alone who decides who is an expert and whether or not to allow the inclusion of expert testimony.

She also gives an example of where her own evidence was so at logger-heads with that of the opposition’s expert, that the judge declared “If even the experts cannot agree, how can we expect the jury to do so” and stayed the case.

At the same time as Professor Sir Roy Meadow was struck off the medical register in the UK, Dr Robert N Moles in South Australia discussed this case, and the Daubert Standard or expert witness standards expected in his state.  And here you will find the Expert Witness conditions for the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Australia.

***In the UK now there are several organisations which provide training for expert witnesses of all professions. One is The Academy of Experts.  This site has a database of expert witnesses and publishes a journal of guidance and importantly, a registry of 2500 expert witnesses. This is the GMC’s guidance page for expert medical witnesses. Both the medical and legal professional bodies offer guidance for fees paid for expert witnesses.

In March 2011, expert witnesses in the UK lost their 400-year old immunity from being sued in the civil courts. Some professions reacted in horror at this.

The Law Commissions work (started in 2009) recommends that there should be a new “reliability-based admissibility test for expert evidence in criminal proceedings”, (Source: various links and the report download from an Forensic Dentistry Online article ), however, at this point in 2012, the UK has not setup a gatekeeping test for expert witness testimony similar to America’s Daubert rule. And even that Daubert rule has been found not to be infallible.

In Part 2 of this series I will take a look at Investigative Criminal Psychology or Offender Profiling, with an introduction and history.

The Index to this Series is found here.

Published by


Hunter Emkay writes psychological thrillers set in our contemporary domestic world. Hunter Emkay grew up and moved between small town surburbia to corporate geekiness – and back. Maybe all that surburban excitement has led to a little too much murder on her mind.