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Forensic Psychology Essay

To firstly understand and then evaluate the importance of ethical practice in the role of forensic psychologists we must first understand what it means to be a forensic psychologist. This involves the burden put on them and the power of persuasion they weald in a courtroom when it comes to persuading jurors for or against a case. So firstly we must ask the question what is forensic psychology?

It’s difficult to turn on a television, go to the movies, or walk through a bookstore without running across a fictional portrayal of a crazed but brilliant serial or mass murderer being tracked by a psychologically trained and deductively sound hero. Popular movies such as Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal and television shows like CSI or MIT or something else that sounds just as thrilling, they often depict the intersection of law enforcement and psychology in a sensational and dramatic fashion. If you watch the news or read a newspaper you can hear about the psychological “profile” written up by a forensic psychologist linked to the latest serial killer/high profile case. In truth the world of a forensic psychologist is far from the glitz of popular media and lies mostly on evaluating witnesses and assessing the worthiness of a defendant to stand trial.

So if someone told you they were a forensic psychologist what would you expect them to do? If like most people you automatically zoom in on the word forensic and automatically think that they help collect evidence at a crime scene or that they perform autopsies you would be far from the truth. By definition a forensic psychologist literally describes any individual who works where the legal system and psychology cross.

The American Psychology-Law Society (1995) define forensic psychology as:
The professional practice by psychologists within the areas of clinical psychology, counselling 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 judicial system. (p. 6)

As you can see this is seemingly a very broad sweeping definition and could encompass many psychologists but in fact this only really covers the areas associated with mental health issues and does not bridge onto any of the new fields opening up for forensic psychologists. These new areas which psychology is moving into at a greater extent cover areas like jury selection and the arguments ensuing from the use of eyewitness testimony. The type of expertise varies though from what is needed when working with mental health issues to the knowledge needed to say asses a jurors personality and leanings in relation to the case in hand.

When dealing with mental health issues the help of a clinical psychologist would be needed. If in relation to criminal proceedings the services of a clinical psychologist were called upon the dispute would probably involve areas like pleading insanity, raising issues of competency to stand trial, assessment of future violence potential during sentencing, or treatment of sex offenders.

On the other end of the field there are other psychologists who hail from other areas of psychology and use their own specific expertise to assist either the prosecutor or the defence in pleading their case. These individuals may work on the area of eyewitness testimony where it is estimated that there are over 4,250 wrongful convictions each year due to sincere, yet inaccurate eyewitness identification. This has led many courts to consider inviting forensic psychologists to offer testimony about perception and memory. Forensic psychologists are not permitted to testify on the accuracy of a particular witness, only on the inherent unreliability of eyewitnesses in general. Another new field where forensic psychologists are required is in the process of jury selection as it is on the decision that these 12 people make that decides the verdict. Jurors would be selected for their biases, which may affect the case; for example a female juror may look at a victim of rape and automatically think she was asking for it without even looking at the evidence.

The field of forensic psychology has been around for many years and through this time it has experienced many changes through its development. The field actually predates the sociological jurisprudence movement of 1930-1950 where it first came to the forefront, and goes back at least to 1908 when Hugo Munsterberg the founder of applied psychology published his book named On the Witness Stand, a book mostly about eyewitness testimony and juries. With the insanity defence, the field goes back even further, to the case of Daniel M’Naghten in 1843, who shot and killed the secretary of the Prime Minister. In criminology, one can trace the origins of a clinical or psychological criminology to the psychiatrist William Healy, who in 1909 created the Juvenile Psychopathic Institute to assist the newly created juvenile court in Illinois. Through this time there have been numerous thinkers who have all added to what we see as forensic psychology today and it is through mistakes made in the past that the ethical and moral values of the present day are based.

Ethics and codes of practice must accompany all major advances to allow them to be used correctly and justly. Forensic psychology is no exeption the knowledge used by the psychologist can also be misused. The code of ethics a particular practitioner abides by depends unto which organisation he/she is a member. For the purposes of this article I will use the ethical codes used by the APA. The Speciality Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists go beyond the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and represent an aspirational code of ethics for those who represent themselves as psychologists involved in providing professional expertise to the judicial system.

The following areas are ones which are in the most important to uphold:
1. RESPONSIBILITY – Quote ?services and/or products should be provided in a forthright, responsible manner, reflecting the highest standards of the profession ?EAPA ethical code)
2. COMPETENCE – services should only be provided in those areas of psychology in which a person has specialised knowledge, skills, experience, or education?E(APA ethical code)
3. RELATIONSHIPS -fee structure and anticipated costs should be contracted beforehand, avoiding “contingency fees”; a certain amount of work should be done pro bono, and clients should be informed of their legal rights and give informed consent ?EAPA ethical code)
4. CONFIDENTIALITY – every effort should be made to maintain confidentiality of any information that does not bear directly on the legal purpose of the services provided ?EAPA ethical code)
5. METHODS – accepted clinical and scientific standards for scholarly/empirical investigation should be used, actively testing plausible rival hypotheses, minimising reliance upon hearsay, and exercising extreme caution in preparing reports or other documentation, applying such detail and quality to the documentation that the standard is higher than for general clinical practice – APA ethical code)
6. COMMUNICATIONS – every reasonable effort should be made to correct any misunderstandings, misuse, or misrepresentation of products, evidence, and testimony, but avoiding any out-of-court statements – APA ethical code)

1 Every forensic psychologist represents through the quality of their work the profession as a whole and must strive to work at a certain level this level is called the Daubert Standard. The standards for the assessment must meet the criteria set by Daubert (1993). The expert must be knowledgeable in test construction, reliability and validity issues, standardization and norms applicable to the client, and limits on the interpretation caused by the type of measurement instruments used. Additionally it is unethical under this reliability standard to reach a clinical diagnosis from one test but unfortunately too many tests confuse the jury so they are kept to a minimum.

2 This applies to any work being done by someone who is not qualified to do so, any tests/procedures done in this way are not admissible in court the stress put on the qualified psychologist may tempt them to cut corners by asking others to carry out routine tests.

3 Firstly, there is a need to clarify the role to be played and the expectations of an employer. A formal contract is needed at this stage to allow clarity of thought for both parties. In most circumstances, psychologists avoid performing multiple and potentially conflicting roles in forensic matters. The contract is drawn up to assess the extent of confidentiality in advance in order to avoid compromising professional objectivity.

4 In areas where the psychologist is administering tests to be presented as evidence the limits to confidentiality must be explained to the patient. In private evaluations or therapy sessions which will often involve information from third parties, that will affect the admissibility of anything reviewed in the sessions. Except if previously wavered in the contract.

5 All tests that are carried out must be to the highest standard, as the psychologist cannot afford to foul upon a test carried out; the tests must be standardised and administered under controlled conditions as to minimise error, which could lead to a subsequent wrongful conviction. (See also point 1)
6 There are many ways of wording responses and if a barrister can manipulate facts to mean other things. The misuse of psychological evidence in this way must be avoided and prevented whenever possible though brash and off the cuff remarks may bring the evidence into question effectively making it worthless.

Now do you see any glamour in the world of forensic psychology? This is a far reach from the media portrayal of the role isn?t it there are no references to codes of ethics in movies are there. The difficulties with forensic assessments are the requirements placed on procedures. clarity of roles, integrity of the results. and the blurring of tasks/roles/responsibilities. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer and evidence produced will be cross-examined thoroughly by opposing parties. The main ethic applicable in this field is do not make assumptions and stick to facts. The botched job done in a rush will be evident during trial and cross examination thereby convincing everyone that the role of the paychologist is not needed in court and they cannot contribute to legal questions. So if you were talking to a forensic psychologist now, would you ask them what they did or would you just congratulate them on doing such a hard job?

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