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Forensic psychologists apply their knowledge of psychology to the study of criminal behaviour and assessment of the mental health and stability of perpetrators and victims of crimes and staff working in the penal and justice systems. They work in a variety of settings, including Her Majesty’s Prisons, Courts and Tribunals Service, NHS and private healthcare facilities, higher education institutions and with the Police.
Forensic psychologists will often be required to testify in a court of law and communicate their findings in such a way that the courts will understand. Under some circumstances courts will seek recommendations from a forensic psychologist for sentencing or treatment for either an offender or a victim.
Forensic psychology differs from other branches of psychology in terms of protocol and ethics surrounding confidentiality and consent: an emotional distance will be maintained and, often, a person being assessed will know that they are being analysed for the purpose of gleaning information which may be used in courts either in their interests or to their disadvantage.
Psychologists working in the courts sometimes need to carry out evaluations to decide whether an offender, victim or witness is mentally stable enough to withstand court proceedings.
A defendant’s mental state at the time that the offence was carried out will normally be assessed prior to court proceedings. However, in some situations, a forensic psychologist will make judgements after a court hearing if the defendant has pleaded not guilty on the grounds of impaired mental health or insanity. In such cases, the forensic will need to be able to detect malingering – the display of false or exaggerated symptoms.
Forensic psychologists also work with victims: they provide support; carry out evaluations; and, if necessary, will refer the ‘patient’ to other mental health experts, such as counsellors.
In prisons, a forensic psychologist will carry out assessments in order to ascertain whether an offender is capable of high-risk behaviour, either to themselves or to another individual. They write reports and maintain records.
Many forensic psychologists will split their time between different institutions, i.e. working for the Courts, assessing offenders in prisons and teaching students in higher education institutions.