Roles Psychologists Play in the Justice System

by Elizabeth Hall
English: This is a photograph of the Alabama C...
English: This is a photograph of the Alabama Criminal Justice Center, which houses the headquarters of the Alabama Department of Corrections and the Alabama Department of Public Safety (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The psychological study of the law inevitably prepares us for roles in our criminal justice system and the goals of our education inevitably intertwine our careers with our criminal justice system.  There are three areas we may find ourselves working in, with many different jobs in each, law enforcement, corrections, or the courts system.  Each of these three areas encompasses different factions of our legal system, different functions with offender contact, and different reasons for that offender contact. Psychologists do not only study offenders, but victims, law enforcement staff, the juror, any expert witnesses, judges, prison guards, and parole officers in our legal system.  Their research findings have impact on all of these areas in the legal system, and this responsibility comes with the need to follow strict ethical guidelines while producing and communicating precise information to explain specific legal situations or settle legal disagreements.  With this in mind, we will explore the duties, and ethical considerations forensic psychologists face while performing these duties.  (Greene, Fortune, Heibrun, & Nietzel, 2006)
Local police motorcyclists
Local police motorcyclists (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Psychologists play a large role in modern law enforcement agencies, especially the larger ones according to Davis (1998) as organizational development advisors, and submitting performance results assessments advisors, and police psychologists.  We will look at police psychologists, also known as behavioral scientists, in their duties and functions within a law enforcement facility in particularly the ethical considerations faced by these psychologists.  They usually are involved in law enforcement agencies either as a member of the agency’s permanent staff, providing consultation, psychological services, and instruction for their agency, or are used as outside advisors providing their services and advice under contract.  Either way, the person providing these services should have good communications with the police chief and other higher managerial positions within the agency.  (Davis, 1998)
The typical duties of the police psychologist include but are not limited to officer candidate assessment, officer risk assessment, hostage negotiations, stress management and counseling for officers and sometimes their families.  They may also be involved in other duties such as police management and training, teaching at the police academy, and in some cases work with the sex crimes and homicide units on cases providing a psychological view to the investigation.  (Davis, 1998)
The ethical issues involved in police psychology that can bring up problems almost daily for these scientists surprisingly has little research on the subject, as McCutcheon (2002), notes.  There are several common ethical issues, which are found to intersect into six areas of problems often.  These areas are confidentiality, dealing with conflicts between agency needs and the standards of the psychological profession, the duality of the relationships between them, the management of the agency and chiefs, and the officers receiving services. Areas even include the dispensing and management of standard tests used in the psychological profession, agencies ignoring recommendations the psychologist has made, and other more individualized dilemmas.  (McCutcheon, 2002)
In order to help the psychologist deal with these ethical dilemmas, the American 
American Psychological Association
American Psychological Association (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Psychological Association requires that psychologists adhere to strict guidelines, and a code of conduct along with a set of principals they must follow called the APA Ethical Principals of Psychologists and Code of Conduct in 2002.  Revisions have been made to these standards since then, most recently as June 1, 2010 according to McCutcheon (2002).  Additional principals that are required of police and all psychologists are that they must try to do good and cause no harm to another with their knowledge called Beneficence and Nonmaleficence.  “Fidelity and responsibility, integrity, justice, respect for other people’s rights and dignities (McCutcheon, 2002)” are required principles as well.   
Prison 2
Prison 2 (Photo credit: planetschwa)
In the corrections system, there are many diverse areas that the psychological staff must be aware of, and duties to perform.  The main psychologist in any facility is responsible for primarily the mental health requirements of their facility of course, but have many other tasks assigned as well.  This is usually different depending on which correctional department or facility you find yourself working in as stated by Correia (2010).  However, some duties are indicative of all correctional facilities.  Analyzing and caring for the inmates with mental illness in the facility, preparing assessments for varied branches of the legal system, even violence or suicide potential are some of these.  Correctional facility psychologists are also responsible for crisis intervention, along with evaluations of staff and therapy for the inmates.  (Correia, 2010)
According to the International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology (IACFP) (2010), offenders are put in jail to impose punishment, but that the jailing is the punishment, therefore offenders are not incarcerated to receive further punishment once imprisoned.  It is the ethical obligation of the corrections psychologist to resist the pressures of what society, corrections administration staff, or even the lack of enough mental health resources can put on them.  The pressures can affect the number of psychological staff in an institution, the amount of care that an inmate receives, inappropriate assessments, documentation, treatments, abusive conditions, and improper due process protection.  This is why the IACFP makes the additional STANDARDS FOR PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES IN JAILS, PRISONS, CORRECTIONAL FACILITIES, AND AGENCIES, in order to help correctional psychologists deal with the extra pressures and ethical issues that they face in their everyday roles. (IACFP Practice Standards Committee, 2010)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 07:  District Attor...
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 07: District Attorney Steve Cooley answers a question during a press conference inside the district attorney's office at the Criminal Justice Center after Dr. Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson's physician when the pop star died in 2009, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Michael Jackson's death November 7, 2011 in downtown Los Angeles, California. Murray will be sentenced November 29. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
Psychologists function in the courts system much the same as in the other two areas, with many diverse job functions. One of the many areas they are involved in is an advisory or consultant capacity as an expert witness, which could be for either the defense or prosecution.  In an advisory role, the psychologist would advise a legal client and attorney of the insight that psychology could contribute to the case.  In the role of consultant, they might advise the court on the particulars of psychological research, conclusions of examinations, or even the opinions of other psychological experts.  (Committee on the Revision of the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists, Division 41 American Psychological Association, and American Board of Forensic Psychology, 2005)
One of the issues with expert witnesses is that ultimately the judge will be the one to decide if their testimony is allowed or not.  They also may not take cases based on contingency fees, and are required to share all of their findings regardless of the outcomes with the court.  They also must not appear to take sides and must appear objective at all times. Another ethical issue is when the court requires a firm decision in an either this or that situation, even when the science is not empirical.  In dealing with these ethical issues, the American Psychology-Law Society (2010) has drafted “Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists”, which is supposed to offer more precise guidelines, on the practice of forensic psychology.  This is in addition to the original American Psychological Association’s (APA) guidelines to the practice of forensic psychology.  (Greene, et al, 2006)
In conclusion, forensic psychologists have many roles to play in the criminal justice system, which are concentrated in three areas, law enforcement, corrections, and the courts.  Three examples, one for each area, are police psychologists who work in law enforcement agencies, prison psychologists who work in the correctional institutions of our country, and expert witnesses who provide information to the courts.  There are several common ethical issues, which intersect into all three areas.  These areas are confidentiality, dealing with conflicts between agency needs and the standards of the psychological profession, and the duality of the relationships between them. Because of these issues, forensic psychologists must not only adhere to the regulations of the APA but to those of the American Board of Forensic Psychology as well.


Committee on the Revision of the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists, Division 41 American Psychological Association, and American Board of Forensic Psychology, (2005).  SPECIALTY GUIDELINES FOR FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGY.  Retrieved From: http://www.ap-ls.org/links/SGFP%20version%202.0%20of%2002-14-05%20for%20posting%20to%20the%20discussion%20list.pdf
Davis, J.A. Ph.D., (1998).  American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.  The Emergence of Psychologists and Behavioral Scientists as Human Factors and Performance Consultants to Law Enforcement.  Retrieved From: http://www.aaets.org/article34.htm
Greene, E., Heibrun, K., Fortune, W.H., Nietzel, M.T. (2006).  Psychology and the Legal System (6th Ed.).  Florence, Kentucky.  Cengage Learning
IACFP Practice Standards Committee.  (2010). STANDARDS FOR PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES IN JAILS, PRISONS, CORRECTIONAL FACILITIES, AND AGENCIES International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology.  Retrieved From: http://cjb.sagepub.com/content/37/7/749.full.pdf+html

McCutcheon, J.  Psy.D. (2002).  Ethical Issues in Law Enforcement Psychology: Selected Ethical Challenges and Decision-Making Models to Resolve Ethical Dilemmas.  Retrieved From: http://psychweb.cisat.jmu.edu/spcp/conference2010/McCutcheon.pdf
Psychology-Law Society, (2010).  Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists.  Retrieved From: http://www.ap-ls.org/aboutpsychlaw/currentforensicguidelines.pdf

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1 comment:

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