Forensic Psychology: The Newest Wing of Justice

Accident forensicsGuest blogger Denise Hewitt wants to claim “forensics” all for psychology (we know its all applied anthropology) in the following post:

Face to face with our nation’s most reviled citizens, it’s not government officials or law enforcement diving into deep, murky, psychological waters of alleged criminals — it’s a relatively new breed of cognitive analysts. A recent slew of high-profile crimes has brought mental health to the forefront of our national conversation, and a growing number of specialized psychologists are leading the way. Dubbed “forensic psychology,” it’s likely to become a rapidly growing field. Criminal justice and psychology students alike may find themselves filling out a job application form to work in this new arena. The mental health experts in this field play key roles in the outcome of heart-wrenching trials, much to the chagrin of a vocal opposition.

What is It?

Dr. Christina Pietz, a forensic psychologist tasked with analyzing the gunman charged in killing six people and injuring U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, during a 2011 shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., testified that the then-23-year-old was competent to stand trial, according to Azcentral.com. Her testimony followed six months of evaluation that weaved together psychological assessment with the legal process.

According to the American Board of Forensic Psychology, these professionals apply science and psychology to issues relating to law and the legal system. This broad description leaves room for many roles, including competency evaluator, personality assessor and criminal therapist, among many others.

As evidenced by the Tucson shooter’s trial, forensic psychology plays a significant role in the legal process without a precisely defined role. That doesn’t mean the field is immature, however. The American Board of Forensic Psychology released its fifth draft of specialty guidelines in 2010, which outlines methods and procedures, conflicts in practice, privacy mandates and commenting best practices, among other things.

How Does It Work?

Unlike more conventional psychological assessment in which a professional explores the psychology of a willing subject, forensic psychologists often assess subjects that have no intention to assist the process in any way. Criminal profiler and serial crime expert Deborah Schurman-Kauflin described her basic approach to profiling violent criminals on Psychologytoday.com. Schurman-Kauflin has three questions in mind as she evaluates a suspect: What evidence is present at the scene? What is the motive? Who is the suspect?

In high-profile cases, the media relentlessly report evidence and potential motives, but forensic psychologists have intimate, exclusive access to the accused, making their testimonies all the more intriguing.

After the shooting in 2011, Dr. Pietz diagnosed Jared Loughner with schizophrenia. She stood by her diagnosis during her August 2012 testimony, revealing that medication led him to feel remorse for what he had done, according to Azcentral.com. Pietz’s conclusion that Loughner was competent to stand trial was a significant step in advancing the case.

Significant Opposition

Predictably, this new justice system resource has considerable opposition. Psychologytoday.com explored a particularly strong opinion posted on its website, which described forensic psychology as “a whore subspecialty until otherwise proven, as it is doing what is financially convenient for the M.D…”. The comment implies that forensic psychology is susceptible to corruption and experts will say what they are paid to say. With the amount of influence these professionals have in the justice system, it’s certainly a fair concern.

Most forensic psychologists are American Board of Forensic Psychology certified, and board guidelines define clear processes to promote transparency. For example, the guidelines indicate the forensic psychologists should strive to have all data they considered when forming an opinion readily available for inspection. While the potential for corruption may always loom, forensic psychologists have the ability to offer undeniable astute opinions when assessing violent criminals.

Author: TheAnthroGeek

TheAnthroGeek has a phd in anthropology from Columbia University in NYC. But don't assume that means he knows anything!

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