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What is Forensic Psychology?

Broadly defined, forensic psychology is the application of clinical and experimental psychological methods to the legal arena. With increasing frequency mental health professionals are being called upon to offer opinions on psychological issues pertaining to legal matters such as fitness for trial, mental state at the time of the offense, competencies, sentencing, and more. Based on their training, knowledge, and expertise, these evaluators are entrusted with conducting comprehensive psychological evaluations and offering their informed opinions, which have the potential to impact the legal fate of matters related to civil or criminal proceedings. 

Modern forensic psychology has been a viable professional field for the last half-century so it would seem that defining forensic psychology should be a straightforward task; however, this is not the case. The difficulty stems from the fact that the professionals who work in forensic psychology come from a wide range of graduate and professional backgrounds. This article provides an overview of the various ways in which forensic psychology has been defined. 

What is Forensic Psychology?


What Do Forensic Psychologists Do?

Psychological assessment of individuals who are involved with the legal system is perhaps the most common task. One central issue in defining forensic psychology is that forensic psychologists can work both within and outside the legal system. Forensic services encompasses a wide variety of psycho legal roles and functions, such as, researchers, advisors, consultants, examiners, treatment providers, mediators or negotiators, arbiters, or case managers. Forensic psychology requires specialized training, as the skills required to succeed in this field slightly differ from clinical and counseling psychology. 

Forensic Psychology Jobs

Forensic Psychology Jobs

One of the most common jobs in forensic psychology is conducting evaluations. Individuals may work in correctional settings, forensic hospitals, or for the court, determining if an individual is fit to stand trial, criminally responsible, or possesses a high risk for future violence.  

Another common job is research. Forensic psychologists can work at an institution conducting research and teaching students. Alternatively, professionals can obtain vocational opportunities at national organizations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the mean annual salary for forensic psychologists is $86,510, with a range between $41,200 - $119,940. These are aggregated data that do not account for years of experience but provide a reasonable expectation regarding what one can earn with a doctoral degree in psychology.  

Definitions of Forensic Psychology

As mentioned, it has been difficult to arrive at a definition that encompasses all of these professional backgrounds and varied roles. Various individuals and organizations have proposed different definitions of forensic psychology. Some use broad definitions that attempt to encompass all of the backgrounds and roles described above and distinguish the research and practice contributions. Others focus more on the applied applications of psychologists as providers of expertise to the legal system.

American Board of Forensic Psychology

The American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP) and The American Academy of Forensic Psychology (AAFP) define forensic psychology as the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system. Today forensic refers to the application of scientific principles and practices to the adversary process where especially knowledgeable scientists play a role.

American Psychological Association

The American Psychological Association (APA) defined forensic psychology as the professional practice by psychologists who foreseeably and regularly provide professional psychological expertise to the judicial system. Such professional practice is generally within the areas of clinical psychology, counseling psychology, neuropsychology, and school psychology, or other applied areas within psychology involving the delivery of human services, by psychologists who have additional expertise in law and the application of applied psychology to legal proceedings. 

Committee on Ethical Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists 

The Committee on Ethical Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists defined forensic psychology to include “all forms of professional conduct when acting, with definable foreknowledge, as a psychological expert on explicitly psychological issues in direct assistance to the courts, parties to legal proceedings, correctional and forensic mental health facilities, and administrative, judicial, and legislative agencies acting in a judicial capacity” (p. 657). The goal of these guidelines is to improve the quality of forensic psychological services, enhance the practice and facilitate the systematic development of forensic psychology, encourage a high level of quality in professional practice; and encourage forensic practitioners to acknowledge and respect the rights of those they serve.

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