Forensic Psychology Professionals in Court Settings

Subject: Psychology
Pages: 12
Words: 3226
Reading time:
12 min
Study level: PhD


Forensic psychology professionals perform as experts in court settings when courts need additional guidance and expert opinion to conclude about the aspects of a certain case. From this point, forensic psychology professionals are requested to use the specific knowledge in the field to conduct psychological investigations and provide the courts with the evidence presented in the reports to support the defence or prosecution (Bass & Nussbaum, 2010, p. 365). The roles of forensic psychology professionals in courts are specific, therefore, several particular areas can be determined within which the forensic psychology research and evidence are applied to the court settings to support the criminal proceedings. These areas are the following ones: the direct assessment of accused persons to conclude regarding their mental or psychological state; the decision on the competency to stand trial for adults and adolescents; the evaluation of the youth’s psychological health; and the risk and recidivism prediction.

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Application of the Forensic Psychology in Court Settings and Primary Responsibilities of Professionals

The process of applying the evidence from forensic psychology research in criminal proceedings and the reference to the forensic psychologists’ expert opinion can be discussed as highly standardized procedures that are based on the set of rules associated with the specifics of court settings. Therefore, the researchers are inclined to study how the ethical and legal principles of using forensic psychology in courts are applied in practice (Neal & Grisso, 2014, p. 1407). In their research of 2012, Taylor, Graf, Schanda, and Völlm state that it is the primary task of the professional in the field of forensic psychology to avoid any conflicts of interests while performing as an expert in the court settings. According to the researchers, an expert witness “is expected to report facts truthfully but, also, to offer an interpretation of those facts where they are relevant to the case and interpretation would otherwise be beyond the knowledge or experience of the court” (Taylor, Graf, Schanda, & Völlm, 2012, p. 272). The researchers support their conclusions with the results from the study in the European Union. It was found that in order to become an “advocate for justice”, a forensic psychologist needs to directly separate his roles of a treating clinician and the role of an expert during the trial, thus, “the treating clinician and the expert cannot be the same person” (Taylor et al., 2012, p. 272). This position is correlated with the set of principles determined for forensic psychologists.

To succeed in their practice, psychologists need to refer to many ethical principles of providing testimony and expert opinion. These principles include “confidentiality, consent, honesty and objectivity, and qualifications for the task” (Taylor et al., 2012, p. 273). Furthermore, forensic psychology professionals are expected to propose high-quality guidance in courts while using many tools and methods. The progress in forensic psychology research resulted in focusing on the most efficient approaches that can be used to apply forensic psychological techniques in court settings (Skilling & Sorge, 2014, p. 993). In their practice, forensic psychology scientists use a variety of tools to guarantee the greater efficiency of their work with accused persons and provide the detailed and accurate analysis of the available information (Neal & Grisso, 2014, p. 1407). This condition is important to support the effective work of lawyers in courts and choose the measures that are appropriate for working with adults or adolescents, discussing the duties and capacities, and predicting violence or effective treatment (Neal & Grisso, 2014, p. 1415). These discussed issues are in the field of clinical questions, and only professionals in forensic psychology can provide the experts in courts with the necessary information to make relevant decisions.

From this perspective, forensic psychologists are responsible for providing specialist information in courts in the most professional manner. According to Buck, London, and Wright, today it is rather difficult for courts to avoid referring to the assistance of forensic psychologists because the expert testimony provides “information that is beyond the ken of the jury” (Buck, London, & Wright, 2011, p. 153). In addition, the experts offer “their opinion on the extent to which a particular investigation adhered to best practice standards” (Buck et al., 2011, p. 152). However, the role of forensic psychology scientists is not only in assessing the competency and the mental or psychological state of the accused person but also in participating in further intervention planning to achieve better results for a person who has a certain diagnosis and demonstrates definite symptoms (Neal & Grisso, 2014, p. 1415; Skilling & Sorge, 2014, p. 994). In this context, the forensic psychology research applied to the practice of professionals in courts is important to observe and understand the tendencies in the behaviors of patients who are under trial or incarcerated to propose effective counseling or treatment.

Research indicates that there are cases and situations when the forensic psychological assessment at the level of the trial is often the only measure to resolve the case and predict possible risks (Skilling & Sorge, 2014, p. 993). The study conducted by Kumar and the group of researchers supports this idea. According to the study findings, more than 85% of persons who need the psychological assessment committed the murder, and about 90% of patients suffer from the psychiatric diagnosis (Kumar, Viswanath, Sebestian, Holla, & Konduru, 2014, p. 55). In addition, the research in the sphere of forensic psychology is important to show that these persons can also suffer from substance use that affects their moods and behaviors (Kumar et al., 2014, p. 55; Skilling & Sorge, 2014, p. 993). If the forensic psychological assessment is conducted at the early stage of the criminal proceedings, it is possible to state the cause-effect relationships between the accused person’s psychological state and the case details. If expert opinion is not provided, the discussion of the case becomes complicated.

The Expert Opinion of Forensic Psychology Professionals to Influence the Verdict

The key role of forensic psychologists in court settings is to conduct the psychological assessment depending on the case details and the purpose of the investigation as well as to provide the expert opinion regarding the person’s psychological state, competency, and capacities related to different areas. As a result, the assessments and conclusions made by forensic psychology specialists are usually used to indirectly influence the jurors’ debates and the final verdict (Bass & Nussbaum, 2010, p. 370; Neal & Grisso, 2014, p. 1407). In their research, Buck, London, and Wright note that in most cases, jurors need the expert opinion of forensic psychologists to reach the guilty verdict (Buck et al., 2011, p. 160). However, the problem is in the fact that the expert opinion can provoke either the juror sensitivity or the juror skepticism (Buck et al., 2011, p. 153). In this case, court professionals need to avoid biases while discussing the psychologists’ testimony and opinions.

Researchers pay much attention to the problem of bias not only with references to the perceptions of judges and jurors but also with references to the visions of forensic psychology experts. These professionals can face the problem of bias while conducting the assessment, and this problem is actively discussed in the study of 2013 completed by Murrie and the group of researchers (Murrie, Boccaccini, Guarnera, & Rufino, 2013, p. 1896). Forensic psychology professionals are expected to provide their unbiased opinions and expert evaluations, but these opinions can be based on the position of the party that requests the completion of the assessment. In this case, forensic scientists demonstrate subjectivity and biased conclusions depending on the work for the defense or the prosecution within the court settings (Murrie et al., 2013, p. 1896). The effective application of forensic psychology research to court settings is possible only when the bias of professionals is minimized.

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Psychologists can have an impact on the verdict also when they determine whether the person is insane and when they provide recommendations for the further treatment of the offender. From this point, performing in court settings, forensic psychology professionals are responsible for selecting the appropriate violent risk assessments to provide the evidence and ground for the judicial decision and conclude about the further treatment for the offender (Bass & Nussbaum, 2010, p. 370). This responsibility is also explained by Neal and Grisso (2014) in their study. According to the researchers, it is important to remember that “the court may want to know more about how to manage the risk or what treatment the evaluee might require” (Neal & Grisso, 2014, p. 1417). In this case, forensic psychology professionals are expected to perform their direct roles and responsibilities.

The Work of Forensic Psychology Professionals with Children and Adolescents

The work with children and adolescents in court settings is one of the most controversial and complicated responsibilities of forensic psychology professionals who need to use specific interview techniques in order to question children and adolescents in specific settings, focusing on the age, psychological state, and the purpose of the interview. The reason to involve psychologists in the process is provided by Buck, London, and Wright who state that it is possible to conclude about the reliability and quality of child witnesses’ reports only when they were interviewed and evaluated by the professionals in the field of forensic psychology (Buck et al., 2011, p. 160). Professionals in the field of forensic psychology are also often requested to perform assessments in the youth in terms of predicting possible suicidal behaviors. According to the research conducted by Moore, Gaskin, Franzcp, and Indig in Australia, 16% of adolescents report having suicidal thoughts. In addition, 10% of the youth report suicide attempts, and 16% note self-harm (Moore, Gaskin, Franzcp, & Indig, 2015, p. 1). Research suggests that suicidal behaviors are typical for many young offenders, and the role of the professional is to determine the causes of such behaviors and to predict the further development of the depression, disorder, or suicidal intention. The researchers note that “more work is needed to improve identification of those most at risk and explore protective factors that may work to increase resilience to suicidal behavior” (Moore et al., 2015, p. 2). Thus, the cases that involve children or adolescents need the participation of forensic psychologists.

It is important to state that forensic psychology professionals play a key role in the area of juvenile competency legislation because their expert opinions are significant to ensure that adolescents can receive fair trials. From this point, it is important to refer to the definition of the competency to stand trial provided by Jackson, Warren, and Coburn (2014). According to the researchers, the competency to stand trial is “a legal construct describing the criminal defendant’s ability to understand and participate in legal proceedings” (Jackson, Warren, & Coburn, 2014, p. 24). In court settings, this procedure includes the capacities assessment made by the forensic psychology professional to state whether an adolescent can stand trial in a concrete legal situation. Despite the fact this assessment is one of the basic duties performed by forensic psychologists, the researchers state that the current interpretation of the juvenile competency law and actual assessments need improvements (Jackson et al., 2014, p. 34). Therefore, it is often almost impossible to decide on the adolescents’ competency without the participation of the forensic psychologist because only the interview with an expert provides the necessary data to determine the role of such factors as anxiety, parental loss, parental divorce, sexual orientation, suicidal thoughts, and substance use in influencing the young person’s behavior (Moore et al., 2015, p. 2). Such an interview supported with the assessment is essential to guarantee a further fair trial for the young person.

On the one hand, the assessment of mental health in children and adolescents is a usual task for forensic psychologists. They often need to assess not only the state of the mental health but also the specific mental health needs while paying much attention to depression or psychosis before making children or adolescents being involved in the court trials and the juvenile justice system (Neal & Grisso, 2014, p. 1417). In order to support this idea, Neal and Grisso claim that “almost every evaluation relied on an interview with the examinee, and most relied on mental health or medical records as well” (Neal & Grisso, 2014, p. 1418). On the other hand, the evaluation in forensic settings can become a challenge for a child if the assessment tool is not selected effectively.

The problem is in the fact that the quality of forensic psychology scientists’ assessments often depends on the tools and instruments that are used to evaluate the youth’s behaviors. According to Skilling and Sorge, not all assessment instruments traditionally used for assessing the risky behaviors in adults can be effective to assess the criminogenic factors associated with the adolescents’ behaviors (Skilling & Sorge, 2014, p. 1004). However, only a forensic psychology professional can conclude about the competency of an adolescent to stand trial. Peterson-Badali, Skilling, and Haqanee claim that for young people involved in the justice system, “reliable and valid assessment is a critical step in establishing programming needs (e.g., types of interventions, levels of supervision)” (Peterson-Badali, Skilling, & Haqanee, 2015, p. 304). From this perspective, the focus on forensic psychology is important to follow the latest tendency in the research and choose the most effective assessment tools to determine antisocial attitudes and predict criminal, aggressive, violent, or risky behaviors and actions. In order to conclude about the behaviors of those young people who are involved in the criminal justice systems, judges, jurors, and attorneys need the assistance of forensic psychology professionals.

Role of Forensic Psychology Professionals in Predicting Recidivism

Professionals in the field of forensic psychology work in courts to analyze the causes of recidivism and provide them with the necessary psychological ground. Furthermore, it is a modern practice to use the assessment to predict recidivism in offenders who demonstrate a high level of violence and aggression. According to Bass and Nussbaum, much attention is paid to identifying and predicting the causes of violent recidivism in recent forensic psychology research. In this context, forensic psychologists need to use the most effective and reliable assessment tools to predict the cases of further violent crimes in persons (Bass & Nussbaum, 2010, p. 370). This assessment and made predictions can also be taken into account while deciding on the verdict for the accused person.

In order to discuss the possibility of recidivism in patients under trial, practitioners in the field of forensic psychology focus on assessing a range of factors that can cause the absence of positive changes in the person’s behavior after the period of incarceration or treatment. Greiner, Law, and Brown claim that these factors include the person’s marital status, participation in the community’s activities, criminal associates, and employment (Greiner, Law, & Brown, 2015, p. 458). The results from the evaluation sessions demonstrate that these factors influence the persons’ emotional state and criminal attitudes, and psychologists can predict risks of recidivism while analyzing the observed changes in the persons’ behaviors (Greiner et al., 2015, p. 459). In addition, psychological assessments are also helpful to predict changes regarding the intensity of possible risky behaviors in the future. At this stage, forensic psychologists also propose correctional treatment to prevent recidivism. Skeem and the group of researchers note that “correctional services are most effective in preventing recidivism when they intensively treat high-risk individuals” (Skeem, Kennealy, Monahan, Peterson, & Appelbaum, 2015, p. 1). On the contrary, “untreated psychosis can lead directly to violence” (Skeem et al., 2015, p. 2). Therefore, the prediction of recidivism is one of the psychologists’ primary tasks while working in court settings.

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Summary of the Major Findings and Recommendations

Professionals in forensic psychology play the important role in court settings while providing expert opinion to support the criminal proceedings and to conclude about the person’s competency to stand trial. The application of forensic psychology research depends on the fact that psychologists are expected to provide their assessment and conclusions in those areas where judges and jurors have no knowledge or experience. Furthermore, the interpretation of the assessment results should be bias-free to avoid the intended support of this or that party during the trial process. Moreover, forensic psychology professionals can contribute to the work of courts when they utilize individual approaches to assess the accused persons. A variety of tools can be used by psychologists in court settings, but they need to be reliable and appropriate. The research indicates that if all these conditions are met, forensic psychologists can provide the ground for further discussion of the case by jurors and judges, and they can indirectly influence the verdict. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to discuss the cases involving children and adolescents without the participation of psychologists to assess the competency to stand trial and the psychological state. Finally, the methods of forensic psychology are also used in order to determine risks and violent behaviors in offenders as well as to predict recidivism.

In terms of future directions for research, it is important to make the area of interest narrower and focus on the concrete aspect of applying forensic psychology in courts. The research highlights the problem that forensic psychologists often cannot demonstrate impartiality while assessing the clients upon the request of the defense or prosecution. Moreover, advocating for one of the parties, psychologists face the challenge of bias. As a result, the accuracy of the assessment becomes questionable. There are also researches pointing at the bias caused by the impact of a psychologist on the trial as a treating specialist rather than an independent expert. However, the problem is in the fact that additional research is necessary for this field to state how such factors as gender and age of the accused person can influence the forensic psychologist’s conclusions. This research is of great importance because there is a gap in the research literature regarding this aspect. The scholars pay attention to the types of assessments and specific instruments that can be used for evaluating children, adolescents, and adults as well as females and males in court settings, but they do not study the impact of gender and age on the possible bias. It is important to recommend focusing on the further search of the appropriate literature on the problem and conducting additional studies to discuss the aspect in detail.


It is important to state that studies in forensic psychology provide a lot of information and evidence associated with the principles of application of the professionals’ knowledge to court settings in order to contribute to the development of criminal proceedings and to guarantee that the decisions are made appropriately. From this perspective, to add to the investigation process in courts, forensic psychology professionals need to perform certain roles and duties. The efficiency of the decision or verdict and the appropriateness of the choice of the conditions for the following incarceration and treatment significantly depend on the work of psychologists in these settings. From this point, it is rather difficult to overestimate the role of forensic psychology scientists in the criminal justice system, especially while referring to the role of professionals in working with children and adolescents. Thus, the principles of forensic psychology are useful to make the trial process more focused. They are also important to address the needs of the accused person depending on his or her psychological state and risks associated with the behavior and the level of violence.


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