What are the Roles and Responsibilities of a Forensic Psychologist?

Forensic psychology can be conceptualized as encompassing both sides of the justice system (criminal and civil) as well as two broad aspects of psychology (clinical and experimental). Forensic psychologists may be trained as either clinical psychologists or experimental psychologists and engage in a variety of roles within each of these two broad areas. The wide variety of roles and responsibilities of forensic psychologists are described in this article.

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Role and Responsibilities of Forensic Psychologists

The roles and responsibilities of forensic psychologists are many and varied. There is no one particular path to becoming a forensic psychologist and forensic psychologists may be employed in a wide variety of settings. In general, a forensic psychologist will take on one primary role but may engage in additional roles depending on his or her interests and training. The various roles that a forensic psychologist may take on include, but are not limited to: trial consultant, expert witness, evaluator, treatment provider, researcher, academic, and correctional psychologist. Each of these roles will be described in a little more detail below.

Trial Consultant

Trial consultants (or jury consultants) work with legal professionals to assist in various aspects of case preparation, including jury selection, development of case strategy, and witness preparation. Many trial consultants rely on their research training to develop and execute research that will assist attorneys in preparing a case. Research and data collection strategies might include community surveys, focus groups, jury simulations, shadow juries, and mock trials. Trial consultants (or jury consultants) may be involved in both civil and criminal cases and may assist at any (or all) stage(s) of the proceedings—in preparation for trial, during trial, or after trial. Typically, trial consultants have advanced degrees in one of the behavioral sciences, such as psychology (clinical or experimental) or criminology.

Expert Witness

An expert witness is someone who testifies in court about specialized knowledge that he or she possesses. Forensic psychologists are often called upon to testify regarding matters of mental health (clinical forensic psychologist) or general theory and research in psychology and law (clinical or experimental forensic psychologist). Generally, clinical forensic psychologists are involved as expert witnesses after having evaluated a defendant and thus are called to testify regarding that defendant’s mental state and how it relates to the legal issue at hand (such as insanity, competency, dangerousness, civil commitment, etc). It is possible, however, for forensic psychologists to serve as general expert witnesses where, instead of testifying regarding specialized knowledge about a particular defendant/complainant, they may be called to testify regarding broader psychological principles in which they have specialized knowledge or expertise. This role is usually performed in conjunction with another role, such as that of researcher, academic, or evaluator and thus is not generally the only (or even the primary) role in which a forensic psychologist engages. Forensic psychologists in the expert witness role may participate in both criminal and civil proceedings and are usually trained either in general psychology or in a particular psychological specialty such as clinical psychology.

Evaluator

Many forensic psychologists take the role of evaluators. In general, this refers to the evaluation of criminal defendants or parties to civil litigation with respect to mental health issues that relate to the legal issue at hand; however, this may also refer to the evaluation of service delivery or treatment programs. In the criminal realm, forensic psychologists may be called upon to evaluate defendants with respect to their competency to stand trial, their me

ntal state at the time of the offense (insanity), their risk for future dangerousness, or other such issues. In the civil realm, forensic psychologists may be called upon to evaluate an individual’s psychological state after having been injured or in an accident or may evaluate families involved in custody and access disputes. The evaluator role usually goes hand-in-hand with the expert witness role as many evaluators are called into court to testify about the opinions they formed during their evaluations. Forensic psychologists who take on the role of an evaluator are employed in a wide variety of settings, including forensic hospitals, state psychiatric hospitals, community mental health centers, and private practice. Forensic psychologists who evaluate defendants or parties to civil litigation usually have been trained as clinical psychologists and have some specialization in forensic psychology and are usually required to be licensed as psychologists.

Treatment Provider

Treatment providers provide psychological intervention or treatment to individuals requiring or desiring these services. Forensic psychologists who are treatment providers work in a wide variety of settings, including: forensic hospitals, state psychiatric hospitals, community mental health centers, and private practice. In addition, treatment providers may work with individuals (or groups) involved in both criminal and civil proceedings. In the criminal realm, treatment providers may be called upon to provide psychological interventions to individuals who have been determined by the courts to be incompetent to stand trial (and require treatment for the restoration of competency), insane at the time of the crime (and require treatment for their mental illness), or at a high risk to commit a violent offense (and require treatment to minimize the likelihood of acting violently in the future), as well as a number of other criminal law-related issues. Within the civil realm, forensic psychologists may be called upon to provide treatment to families who are going through divorce proceedings or to individuals who sustained psychological injuries as a result of some trauma that they endured or a host of other civil law-related issues. The same forensic psychologist may perform both treatment provider and evaluator roles, although ethical guidelines serve to limit the chances that both of these roles will be fulfilled with the same client or patient.

Researcher

Forensic psychologist researchers design and implement research on various issues relevant to forensic psychology or psychology and the law, both criminal and civil. In addition, these professionals may conduct research on mental health law and policy or program evaluation. These professionals may be employed in a number of settings including universities and colleges, but also at research institutes, government or private agencies, and psychiatric hospitals or other mental health agencies.

Academic

Forensic psychologist academics are involved in teaching, research, and a host of other education-related activities such as training and supervision of students. Psychologists who take on this role can be trained either generally in psychology or in one of the specialties such as clinical psychology. In addition, these professionals usually have an advanced degree in psychology, typically a PhD. It is often the case that academics will also take on one or more of the aforementioned roles in addition to the role of academic. In general, academics are employed by institutions of higher learning—colleges or universities.

Correctional Psychologist

A correctional psychologist is a forensic psychologist who works in a correctional setting with inmates and offenders. These psychologists often engage in direct service delivery—both evaluation and treatment—of individuals who have been incarcerated or who are out on probation or parole. Thus, in addition to the roles of evaluator and treatment provider, correctional psychologists may also take on the role researcher or expert witness.

Excerpted from: Roesch, R., Zapf, P. A., & Hart, S. D. (2010). Forensic Psychology and law. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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