So what does a forensic psychologist do, exactly?
Back in 1974, a man named Alvin Ford was convicted of murder in Florida and sentenced to death. Over the next 10 years, the man became certifiably crazy – paranoid schizophrenia, they diagnosed. He started referring to himself as Pope John Paul III. He claimed to have personally thwarted Ku Klux Klan efforts to bury dead prisoners inside the jail. He even went so far as to personally appoint his own set of justices to Florida’s Supreme Court.
Despite the diagnosis by a panel of psychologists, the governor of Florida signed the death warrant anyway.
Bridging Psychology and Criminal Justice
The convicted man sued all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which finally confirmed that a civilized nation such as ours should not be in the business of executing the insane. Their view was that it served no penological purpose. Not only that, the Court said, but the governor could not single-handedly decide whether or not to take into account the psychologists’ findings before signing death warrants. The full court would make that call, with the full protections, testimony and cross examination of psychologists that you see in a full-blown trial. This was a decision that assured, once and for all, the critical job that forensic psychologists do in our court system: bridging the gap between psychology and the criminal justice system.
But the forensic psychologist’s authority extends beyond just fitness to stand trial. Even if someone is deemed fit, the findings of prior mental illness, general state of mind at the time of the offense, are all factors that are taken into account based on the forensic psychologist’s report. The forensics expert bases this on interviews with the defendant and his family, police reports, exposure to physical and mental abuse, exposure to traumatic events and violence, and general family medical history. The U.S. Court of Appeals has upheld this right of all defendants where mental issues can play a role. After sentencing, the findings of forensic psychologists often play a big role in determining the sentence, where it must be carried out and the length. As you might imagine, the importance of these findings cannot be understated, since they are often making judgments about the future danger that convicts might pose to the public should their sentence be reduced or modified.
So where does a new Forensic Psychologist start?
Forensic Psychology, among all the fields of forensic science, requires probably the largest commitment of any forensic science field in terms of time, patience, academic education, certification, and scrutiny by the judicial system. Having said that, in the same breath we will tell you to not let that scare you away. The reality is that if you make adequate preparations early on, and you go into this field with a firm understanding of the requirements that will be demanded of you at each step down the line, it can be much, much easier to get a degree in forensic psychology and land a job. It is, after all, a series of smaller steps, with preparation at each point, to help you earn your degree and land a job you’ve always dreamed of.
What we’ve tried to do here is demystify the process of becoming a forensic psychologist, starting from high school and up. We’ve also tried to avoid the same old BS that you see posted everywhere on the internet. What we offer is kind of an insider’s guide to getting what you want.
What if you’re already out of high school and in college? Even further, what if you already have a job, and you’re looking to make a break into the field? We offer suggestions on that as well. Just understand that the earlier you can get your footing in the preparation that will be required, the easier it will be for you to manage the competition that surrounds the forensic psychology field.