Psychologists who practice forensic psychology are well positioned to provide psychological expertise to the judicial system for those involved in civil litigation (e.g., personal injury suits, workers compensation, civil commitment, child custody determination) or those involved in criminal and delinquency proceedings (e.g., sanity at the time of the offense, competency to stand trial, waiver of juveniles to adult courts). Some of the major challenges in performing this type of work include limits on the voluntary nature of the evaluation (evaluations can be court-mandated), regard for examinee autonomy, response style of the examinee (this can include limited test engagement or malingering), and threats to validity posed by tests that were not validated in forensic populations.
Compensation of mental injuries is an area of practice in which psychologists who practice forensic psychology contribute heavily. Psychologists assess the relationship between the injury and the event, ascertain whether there has been mental injury (particularly in the areas of posttraumatic stress or depression), and speak to prognosis (is the condition and its effects likely to persist and to continue to impact the examinee in the same way?). Related to prognosis, psychologists try to predict violence and risk for recurrence of violence. When an individual is accused of a crime and sentenced to time within the prison system or a psychiatric treatment facility, a forensic psychology expert performs evaluations of the individual’s behavior.
Civil commitment is another interesting area of forensic psychology practice, and covers the areas of assessment of mental disorder, capacity to make treatment decisions, assessment of danger to self or others, need for treatment, and consideration of the least restrictive alternative for management of the condition.
In terms of civil competency, adult guardianship evaluations may be conducted. Guardianship of one’s person (healthcare decisions) or one’s estate are considered. Determining who shall be guardian and what the guardian shall do can be sought through a psychological evaluation. Another type of competency the clinician may evaluate is whether an individual was competent at the time of executing a will. This is called testamentary capacity.
In terms of the criminal process, psychologists who practice forensic psychology can comment on competency to plead guilty, to waive the right to counsel, to refuse an insanity defense, to testify, and to be sentenced. The question of “Can the defendant’s criminal behaviors be explained by brain damage he sustained?” is also frequently posed. To answer this question, the forensic psychologist or neuropsychologist will frequently administer a test battery, conduct records review, and interview the accused and those who knew him or her. Interestingly, those individuals involved within the judicial system have a higher rate of head injury, and questions such as these may be pertinent. At the same time, it is true that many individuals involved within the legal system may have experienced head injuries that do not explain the behaviors in question. There is not a 1:1 relationship between head injury and behavior, as there are many other factors that can explain behavior at the time of offense (e.g., personality disorder, personality factors, behavioral disinhibition and impulsivity that is not linked to a mental health condition, stressors, social factors, alcohol consumption).
Claimed amnesia for the events in question (within criminal cases) is also common, and psychologists may be able to comment on whether a particular condition exists that could explain this. I have consulted on cases where it was claimed that alcohol, drug abuse, dissociative symptoms associated with PTSD, and neurologic illness was claimed to have led to amnesia.
Within the criminal justice and civil court systems, forensic psychology has a critical impact. The forensic psychological evaluation and assessment of accused individuals is paramount to the trial process, both in pre-sentencing assessments and sentencing and mitigation recommendations.