What Is Forensic Psychology?

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on May 31, 2022
4 min read

Forensic psychology is a specialty area in psychology that provides psychological expertise to the criminal and civil legal system and the people who come into contact with the law. Forensic psychology is a relatively recent field within psychology that has grown a lot in the past 20 years. Popular television shows like "Criminal Minds" have sparked interest in forensic psychology, but they're not an accurate portrayal of the field or the people who work in it. 

Forensic psychologists often provide clinical evaluations for people who are involved with the legal system. Examples of forensic psychology include: 

  • Threat assessments for schools
  • Child custody evaluations
  • Competency evaluations of the elderly or criminal defendants
  • Counseling services for victims of crime
  • Screening of law enforcement applicants
  • Establishing procedures for death notifications
  • Assessing post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Directing intervention and treatment programs for juvenile or adult offenders

Forensic psychologists are also often required to testify in court as expert witnesses. As part of evaluating individuals involved in the legal system, forensic psychologists have to produce reports. These forensic psychology reports are formal work documents that follow specific guidelines and are meant to convey the findings of a forensic psychologist to a legal audience instead of to other psychologists. 

One of the most important functions of a forensic psychology report is to determine criminal responsibility and the ability to stand trial. The first part of such a report will provide information about the person being evaluated and the context and purpose of the evaluation. It will also indicate that the person who was evaluated was told that a report was prepared and testimony may be given based on their evaluation. 

The second section of the forensic report provides data and a narrative history of the person being evaluated. This may cover their medical history, family history, childhood, education, and mental health. 

Finally, the third section of the report covers the discussion and conclusion. This section is where the forensic psychologist outlines their assessment of the person's mental functioning as well as their recommendations about criminal responsibility, ability to stand trial, and need for treatment. 

Forensic psychology is explicitly used for psycholegal issues, which is when any psychologist uses their specialized knowledge of psychology to address legal issues. Psychologists who are not trained as forensic psychologists are still considered to be practicing forensic psychology if they perform their services in civil or criminal legal cases. 

One of the most important applications of forensic psychology is determining if someone who committed a crime has a "guilty mind" or knew that what they were doing was wrong at the time. There is no psychological definition of insanity, only a legal one. Each state has its own definition of insanity, and there is a federal one as well. In general, the person has to know what they did was wrong. 

To decide if a person knew they were committing a crime, a forensic psychologist has to determine what the person was thinking at the time the crime was committed, not necessarily what they were thinking at the time they were examined. Forensic psychologists may have to rely on information from other people or previous written communication to make that determination.  

The American Psychological Association (APA) has guidelines that cover all aspects of a psychologist's responsibilities and standards when they're working in forensic psychology. The APA developed these guidelines because forensic psychology is significantly different from other, more traditional areas of psychology. 

Forensic psychologists are often evaluating people who are not there of their own free will, so they have to have additional knowledge about the legal system and the rights of the individuals they're evaluating or treating. The nature of the legal system is adversarial, so forensic psychologists have to remain fair and neutral in their evaluations.

There's a lot of overlap between forensic psychology and criminal psychology, but there are some important differences as well. Criminal psychologists work to understand the motives of criminals by examining criminal behavior and diagnosing any underlying mental health conditions. Forensic psychologists work with a wider range of people involved in the legal system, including victims, witnesses, attorneys, law enforcement, and people who are dealing with civil matters. 

Criminal psychologists may also work with law enforcement to develop a profile to help apprehend criminals and to provide insight into a criminal's behavior at the crime scene and in court. But, unlike in popular television shows, criminal psychologists don't participate in police interrogations of suspects. 

The biggest difference between criminal psychologists and forensic psychologists is that a criminal psychologist's work focuses on criminals, while a forensic psychologist's work can involve many different people who are involved in legal cases.  

Any psychologist is considered to be practicing forensic psychology if they're using their psychological expertise in the legal arena. This means you don't have to be certified as a forensic psychologist to work in the field. But if you want to specialize in forensic psychology, you can pursue a career as a board-certified forensic psychologist. 

There are master-level forensic psychologist degrees, but to become a board-certified forensic psychologist, you have to have the following experience and credentials: 

  • A Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree from an APA-accredited or Canadian Psychological Association (CPA)-accredited doctoral program
  • Two years of organized, supervised, sequential professional experience, including one year of APA- or CPA-accredited predoctoral internship
  • Passing an oral or written exam, depending on the requirements in the state where you want to practice