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When you hear about a crime committed on the radio, TV, Twitter or social media have you ever wondered how judges come up with sentences? They use instructions to help them, but sometimes the crime is unique, and more help is needed. When judges believe there may be a mental health issue at the heart of a crime, they will reach out to forensic psychologists. They work as a bridge between the legal system and psychology data. These professionals assist the judge by offering their years of education, and experience to help the judge make a decision.
If you understand a judge does not have enough time to do research and these issues are too complicated, so a professional is called in. When this happens, the professional is obligated to help the judge because their client is the legal office. Forensic psychologists are trained professionals often with doctorate degrees and have spent years learning about the law and applying psychology to it. As a result, these professionals pay particular attention to gathering information.
Working as a forensic psychologist
You could find the professionals in a range of legal settings such as testing people accused of a crime. There is a need to test some individuals who might be insane or need to be found competent to stand trial assessments. These tests usually require a court designated forensic psychologist. You could also be helpful in family court when there are issues around child custody hearings. Occasionally you may be asked to help in jury selections. You may be invited to work on social psychology research. There are many options and different ways to contribute such as civil law issues or theories. Risk and violence assessments have also been in demand.
What has forensic psychology contributed?
Dr. Joseph Toomey, a Designated Forensic Psychologist (DFP), and director of the forensic psychology concentration doctorate program at William James College suggests that forensic psychology is still relativity new and growing. He reports that interest began to grow about thirty years ago when more research applied social and cognitive psychology theories to law enforcement. There still is a growing interest in the understanding of how police identify and question suspects. A study looking at police interrogation tactics determined that more police are being trained to follow a formal questioning model. Trained officers decide if the non-verbal and verbal behaviors tell if the person is feeling guilty at which point the officer uses persuading tactics:
Handling denials in order to secure a confession
Dr. Toomey mentioned Dr. Gary L. Wells research on eyewitness identification for accuracy. In 2014, he reported that about 75% of DNA tests which found someone blamed for something not guilty had false eyewitness identification. To help reduce observer error, he advises using a sequence line-up. The witness would see an individual line-up at a time, instead of groups at once. Having fair line up conditions is vital for the legal system because someone who saw a crime happen can be extremely impacted by suggestion. Wixted and Wells also report that eyewitness line-up conditions are steadily improving, which helps accurately identify who is innocent or guilty.
False confessions because of false memories
Another growing topic is the making of false memories because a person can believe they had committed a crime when they had no part in it. Researchers Shaw and Porter developed a suggestive memory-recall method to produce criminal and noncriminal emotional false memories. After three rounds of interviewing 70% of participants had false memories of committing crimes. The false memories have the same level of detail compared to true memories. The researcher’s comments impact a person’s ability to remember information accurately. This study also shows how easy it could be to make false memories in someone with untrained interrogation tactics. In short eyewitness reports can’t be the only information used to convict someone of a crime.
Helping identify patients
A forensic psychologist also helps determine if someone in the legal system is suffering from a mental illness. 1 in 5 adults experiences a mental illness. 1 in 25 experience a severe mental illness that changes their lives. When you look at the prison population, these numbers drastically change. 1 in 2 inmates has a history of mental illness. Then 1 in 5 prisoners recently had an episode of symptoms. These figures suggest that prisons seem to be a holding place for people with mental illness. The truth is that prisons are not hospitals, and 1 in 5 inmates might be in need of a hospital instead of several years behind bars. Prisons do not always have the right kind of staff available to take care of prisoners.
Forensic Psychology is a vast field. There is so much to learn and many opportunities to help. At the heart of forensic psychology, I feel everyone in the field wants to help others. Every research study wants to reveal helpful info. Wells has emphasized how important it is to follow fair line-up methods. Shaw and Porter worked together and showed the world how fragile our memory could be. This helps avoid arresting the wrong person for a crime. One of the accepted founders of forensic psych is Hugo Munsterberg. He always looked for different ways psychologists could improve the legal process.
“Whenever a great movement sweeps through the civilized world, it generally starts from the recognition of a great social wrong and from the enthusiasm for a thorough change.”
― Hugo Munsterberg,
Munsterberg was sure that the legal system could benefit from psychological help. He noticed that torture and taking away a person’s freedom were not effective ways to get information. Hugo knew the truth would be difficult to uncover because there were many issues with collecting confessions such as torturing suspects and denying them freedom. He was years ahead of his time when he reported statements from eyewitnesses were unreliable. Today the legal system and psychology share a stronger connection. Forensic psychologists continue to research and report findings to help improve the legal process.