Forensic psychology is the application of psychology in the legal system. It covers a wide range of work, which does not always involve therapy. For example, it can include completing assessments of accused persons, or giving advice to police officers about criminal behavior during investigations.
Forensic psychologists work in prisons, rehabilitation centers, police stations, universities or courtrooms. They have completed the education and training to be psychologists, with specialized forensic training. Others may even have additional university degrees in law.
Unlike other therapists, the primary aim of forensic psychologists is generally not to help people to feel better, or help improve symptoms of mental health conditions. It is more focused on managing risk. While forensic psychologists can, and often do, provide therapy, this is not necessarily their main function. The work they do is primarily driven by legal needs.
Examples of forensic psychology services
Forensic psychologists work with offenders or people identified as at-risk of offending, as well as family members or victims of crime. A range of services falls under the category of forensic psychology, such as:
- Psychological assessment of accused persons, which might be used as evidence in court
- Providing psychological treatment to inmates in prison to help them to change their behavior (anger management, for example)
- Using psychological principals to understand criminal behavior and assist police with investigations
- Giving advice to other services, such as parole boards
- Providing help or counseling to colleagues in the legal system
- Providing crisis management
- Make recommendations in court relating to child custody, or whether a person can be deemed responsible for their actions, for example
- Giving expert opinions as evidence in court
- Acting as mediators or negotiators
- Working with victims to support them in recovery
What happens in a typical forensic psychology session
Given the varied range of services offered by forensic psychologists, this really depends!
If the psychologist is providing therapy, a session might look a lot like a usual therapy session, depending on the therapy type. The psychologist works with you to build a therapeutic relationship and helps you to change your thoughts, feelings and behavior. You’re likely to see them more than once for therapy.
If, on the other hand, the psychologist is court-appointed to provide a psychological assessment, they may only see you for one or two sessions. They won’t provide therapy or treatment. Instead, they’ll ask you lots of questions and will likely ask you to complete questionnaires. The psychologist uses this information to write a report, which is submitted as evidence.
What to look for in a forensic psychologist
In the majority of cases, people who are in contact with forensic psychologists are not necessarily able to choose who they work with. That said, all forensic psychologists should have:
- Current license: All forensic psychologists should have a current license. This means that your therapist has completed the appropriate level of education to practice.
- Specialized training: Forensic psychologists will have completed specialized training in forensic psychology. In the United States, The American Board of Forensic Psychology is the regulator of certification in the field.
- Awareness of the limits of confidentiality: Usually, all aspects of therapy remain confidential, unless there is a risk issue. Because of the nature of forensic psychology, the same limits do not always apply. Ask your forensic psychologist what kind of information will remain private, and what information they may need to disclose in the legal system.
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Sources and references
1. American Board of Forensic Psychology
2. American Psychological Association, “Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology”
3. British Psychological Society, “The reality of work as a forensic psychologist”