Forensic psychology is the application of psychology to the law and forensic psychologists are psychologists who work at the interface of psychology and the legal system. This article provides an overview of the various areas within forensic psychology and the types of work in which forensic psychologists engage.

Although the criminal justice system is what typically comes to mind when one thinks about the legal system, there are actually two broad areas encompassed by the legal system—the criminal justice system and the civil justice system—and forensic psychologists work within both of these systems.

Criminal Justice System

Psychologists who work at the interface of psychology and the criminal justice system apply their knowledge and skills to assist the legal system or those involved with the criminal justice system. They may work in applied settings, such as jails, prisons, rehabilitation centers, forensic hospitals, state or private treatment facilities, police departments, government agencies, or private practice or in research settings, such as law schools and universities, private research think tanks, or for government research agencies.

Clinical forensic psychologists who work within or in conjunction with the criminal justice and correctional systems apply their knowledge, training, and clinical skills to either conduct evaluations of or provide treatment for individuals who have come into contact with the criminal justice or correctional system and who have a mental disorder or disability or other functional deficits. Clinical forensic psychologists typically conduct evaluations of defendants in order to assist the court in making a determination about a legal issue, such as competency to stand trial, mental state at the time of the offense (insanity), risk for future violence or for sexual offending, treatment recommendations or sentencing determinations (mitigating and/or aggravating factors). In addition to assessment and evaluation of defendants, clinical forensic psychologists also engage in intervention or treatment services for those involved

in the criminal justice system. This might entail providing treatment for defendants with mental disorders or disabilities in a correctional setting, a forensic facility, a residential drug or alcohol treatment program, or any other of a variety of treatment settings within the criminal justice and correctional systems.

Forensic psychologists also conduct research and study issues relevant to the intersection of psychology and law. This research might inform public policy, assist the courts in understanding the psychological aspects of a legal issue, or be used to try to change some aspect of behavior. Providing consultation and expert testimony on legal issues, psychological research, or evaluation / intervention services is also common for forensic psychologists working in conjunction with the criminal justice system.

Civil Justice System

Unlike the criminal justice system wherein a defendant charged with a crime is involved in legal proceedings aimed at making a determination regarding guilt or criminal responsibility, the civil justice system is concerned with whether a party should be held civilly liable for damages or injuries sustained by another party. For most crimes, there is a corresponding “tort” (the term used in civil court) for which a crime victim may bring civil suit. Psychologists who work within the civil justice system are involved in many of the same types of activities as in the criminal justice system, including assessment and evaluation, intervention and treatment, consultation, research, and expert testimony.

The most common types of evaluations conducted by clinical forensic psychologists working within or in conjunction with the civil justice system are evaluations of personal injury or psychological injuries sustained by an individual or a group of individuals, civil commitment evaluations (determining whether a person is a danger to self or others), risk assessments, and family court issues, such as custody and access evaluations.  Clinical forensic psychologists working in conjunction with the civil justice system also engage in treatment provision in a wide variety of settings including, residential treatment facilities, outpatient treatment facilities, private and state psychiatric institutions, and private practice settings, to name just a few.

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