Origin of the term
Forensic – from the Latin word “forum” –
public gathering places in the Roman city-
states where much of the judicial process
took place in the form of debates – thus,
forensic psychology deals with the
intersection of psychology and the legal
The professional practice by psychologists
within the areas of clinical psychology,
counseling psychology, neuropsychology,
and school psychology, when they are
engaged regularly as experts and
represent themselves as such, in an
activity primarily intended to provide
professional psychological expertise to the
Critical Judgments That Mental-Health
Professionals Are Asked to Make About
People Accused of Crimes
Whether they are competent to stand trial
Whether they were sane at the time the
crimes were committed.
Clinical psychologists specializing in forensic
psychology work with individuals who may
present with a variety of mental illnesses and
mental health issues within the context of the
criminal or civil arenas of the law.
Criminal: situations in which an individual has
committed a crime against society
Examples: insanity pleas, competency to stand trial,
assessment of future violence potential, treatment of
Civil: a plaintiff believes someone else has
physically or emotionally injured them
Examples: personal injury suits, civil commitment
proceedings, child custody disputes, workers
Competency to Stand Trial
People who do not have an understanding of what is
happening to them in a courtroom and who cannot
participate in their own defense are said to be
incompetent to stand trial.
Defense attorneys suspect impaired competence in their
clients in up to 10 percent of cases.
Psychologists have developed tests of cognitive abilities
important to following legal proceedings, and people
who perform poorly on these tests.
Insanity is actually a legal term rather than a
psychological or medical term, and it has
been defined in various ways.
All definitions of insanity reflect the
fundamental doctrine that people cannot be
held fully responsible for their acts if they
were so mentally incapacitated at the time of
the acts that they could not conform to the
rules of society.
Insanity Defense, continued
While the lay public often thinks of the
insanity defense as a means by which
guilty people “get off,” the insanity
defense is used much less often than the
public tends to think.
Fewer than 1 in 100 defendants in felony
cases file insanity pleas, and of these only
26% result in acquittal.
Comparison of Public Perceptions
of the Insanity Defense
Persons "not guilty by
reason of insanity" set free
Persons "not guilty by
reason of insanity" sent to
Insantiy pleas resulting in
"not guilty by reason of
Felony indictments for which
an insanity plea is made
0 20 40 60 80 100
Insanity Defense Rules
M’Naghten Rule At the time of the crime, the individual was
so affected by a disease of the mind that he
or she did not know the nature of the act he
or she was committing or did not know it
Irresistible At the time of the crime the individual was
driven by an irresistible impulse to perform
Impulse Rule the act or had a diminished capacity to
resist performing the act.
Durham Rule The crime was a product of a mental
disease or defect.
Insanity Defense Rules
ALI Rule At the time of the crime, as a result of mental
disease or defect, the person lacked
substantial capacity either to appreciate the
criminality (wrongfulness) of the act or to
conform his or her conduct to the law.
APA Definition At the time of the crime, as a result of mental
disease or mental retardation, the person was
unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his or
Guilty but Defendants convicted are incarcerated for the
normal terms designated fro their crimes, with
Mentally Ill the expectation that they will also receive
treatment for their mental illness.
Before 1969, in the U.S., the need for
treatment was sufficient cause to hospitalize
people against their will. Such involuntary
hospitalization is called civil commitment.
Since 1969, the need for treatment alone is no
longer sufficient legal cause for civil commitment
in most states.
Criteria for Involuntary Commitment
Dangerousness to Self
Dangerousness to others
*In many states the danger posed must be imminent.
Involuntary Commitment and Civil
People who have been committed to a mental
institution often feel that they have given up all their
But numerous court cases over the years have
established that these people retain most of the civil
rights, and have certain additional rights due to their
l Right to Treatment
l Right to Refuse Treatment
Child Custody Disputes
Ninety percent of the time, parents who are divorcing
can agree on the custody arrangements for their children
without taking disputes to court.
If parents cannot agree, however, the court must help
determine how much authority each parent will have in
decisions for the children and how much contact each
parent will have with the children.
The law requires that custody decisions be made “in the
best interests of the child.”
Child Maltreatment Cases
Psychologists and other mental-health
professionals are now involved in every
phase of child maltreatment cases.
The psychologist may conduct interviews
and also testify in court.
Training in Forensic Psychology
Few Ph.D. or Psy.D. programs offer specialty
training in clinical-forensic psychology.
Most clinical-forensic psychologists are
graduates of general clinical psychology
programs who developed their specialty later in
their training, either on internship, by way of
completing a forensic fellowship, or by
independent and continuing education study.
Students interested in becoming clinical-
forensic psychologists should consider a
clinical Ph.D. or Psy.D. program which
offers a forensic specialization or enter a
clinical doctoral program which houses a
faculty member whose research and
clinical interests are in the clinical-forensic
area. Additional and more specialized
training will occur at the internship and
A Note About Criminal Profiling
Due to depictions in popular media (e.g., Silence
of the Lambs, Profiler, CSI), many students
express an interest in and ask questions about
criminal profiling, which may be described as a
criminal investigative technique based, in part,
on psychological expertise and knowledge. In
reality, few law enforcement agencies employ
such techniques and there is little call for such
professionals. Those interested in such work
would probably do better to consider a career in
law enforcement than clinical-forensic
The Behavioral Sciences Unit of the FBI,
does employ a few FBI agents who
engage in this activity. The FBI makes a
distinction between mental health and law
enforcement: FBI agents are law
enforcement professionals, not mental
health professionals. In order to work as a
profiler, or with the FBI in any other role,
it is necessary to become an FBI agent.