When psychology and law intersect in a discipline known as forensic psychology, applications are widespread and impactful. As early as the 1970s, forensic psychology has become a more formalized practice, according to the American Psychological Association. Since then, the field has continued to grow.
Here are ten applications for psychology in law:
Forensic psychologists can examine criminal behavior at a macro level to help isolate common traits. This data is sourced from interviews with victims, criminals, and friends and family of a criminal, as well as crime scenes and evidence. This profile can be used to make an assessment of a whether or not a defendant committed a crime, and can ultimately impact sentencing.
Psychologists can work with children to help them communicate experiences with accuracy and honesty in abuse cases, even supporting their court testimony. And in divorce and custody cases, psychologists can evaluate psychological function in parents and children, act as expert witnesses to advocate for children’s best interests, consult with litigators, help coordinate and coach divorce arrangements, and provide therapy to children and parents. Psychologists can also strive to alleviate “parental alienation,” which occurs when a parent’s words or actions cause a child to demonstrate resistance or hatred toward the other parent, typically in child custody cases. In these cases, the psychologist can evaluate the child’s behavior, his or her individual relationship with each parent, and the aligned parent’s behavior.
Social and cognitive psychologists, in particular, can play a key role in evaluating and selecting a jury. While a social psychologist would holistically look at the jury as a social group that listens, converses, persuades and compromises, a cognitive psychologist would seek to understand the group as well as the individual approach to decision making, problem solving and memory, which are both impactful when it comes to reaching a verdict as a jury.
In some cases, professionals with a psychology background may pursue a career as a lawyer to apply their psychology expertise to law practice. For example, Craig Michael, B.A. in Psychology and J.D., told Psychology Today his background has equipped him to deal daily with his clients well, and overall has armed him with a skillset to better understand and interact with people – a critical facet of being a lawyer.
Assessing Mental State of Criminal Defendants
Psychologists assess criminal defendants for mental health, examining defendants and making a recommendation for whether the defendant should have his or her sentence reduced for temporary insanity, or whether they are incompetent to stand trial. In the United States, the law recognizes instances where a “guilty mind” or mens rea may be absent, and a person cannot be held accountable for that crime. In addition to self-defense, insanity is also an acceptable instance. To determine this, the psychologist must retroactively assess the defendant’s mindset at the time the crime was committed, measuring against state and federal definitions of “insanity,” a legal, not clinical, term.
In addition to assessing the mental health of criminal defendant, psychologists can also provide assessment for individuals who have exhibited symptoms of severe mental illnesses, and work with the court to establish court-ordered treatment, called civil commitment.
Through investigation, consulting, assessing and administering treatment, psychologists provide an array of other assessments to support schools, child custody cases, elderly competency evaluation, victim counseling services, death notification procedures, law enforcement screening and assessing individuals for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
With expertise in abnormal psychology, psychological assessments and human behavior, psychologists are often called upon in court to act as an expert witness. In some cases, this may mean delivering a report; in others, providing testimony. Often, this comes into play when a defendant’s mental capacity is questioned or if a child is involved. As an expert witness, the psychologist may even advise on treatment as a component of sentencing.
Treating Prisoners and Juveniles
Psychologists can strive to understand mental health among prisoners, juveniles included, from a systematic perspective, assessing sentencing, the validity of assessment tools across cultures, and unequal access to mental health support and how that may link to violence. The American Psychological Association estimates about 80% of youth in the juvenile justice system have a mental health diagnosis, most of whom need improved treatment plans.
Science-based evidence is critical in law when it comes to understanding several key factors in the legal process, including eyewitness identification, memory accuracy and determining when someone is being deceptive. Psychologists can contribute to this arena outside the courtroom, often through university-based research, to provide reports on what science overall says about a specific question or task.
Attorneys can hire litigation consultants to support case evaluation and create a trial strategy. This involves several steps. First, facilitating group jury research studies to create a mock trial focus group. Throughout the process, data is collected from the participants on reactions to case documents and witness video clips, and the consultant assesses emotional reactions, comprehension and inclination toward a verdict. Then, this research can be applied to inform areas of the case that may need to be strengthened. In high profile cases, the consultant can examine the impact the visibility has had on the juror pool to aid in impartial jury selection.
To learn more about careers in the forensic psychology field, check out our guide.