This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 14 table of contents.

Summary: Psychology and Law

Psychologists are involved with the legal system in numerous ways. Forensic psychology is the branch of psychology which deals with criminal investigations. It became popular in the late 1990s because media attention to profilers—people who assemble a psychological profile of a criminal who is still at large. James Brussel used intuition and common sense to draw up a profile of a "Mad Bomber" in the 1950s. John Douglas of the FBI used computer analysis of large databases to do the same thing. Correlational methods can tell what characteristics are typical of people who carry out particular types of crimes. Psychology is also used during interrogation of subjects after they have been caught.

Psychologists may appear in court as expert witnesses, in which case they can expect to have their credentials and credibility challenged. Psychologists may analyze the transcript of confession to see if it is in the defendant's own language. They may test people's perceptions, to find out if a witness's testimony is credible. Psychologists such as Elizabeth Loftus are frequently asked to testify about the possible inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony.

Under English common law, a person cannot be tried unless competent to participate in his or her own defense. One result of this is the insanity defense in which a person is found to lack the intent to commit a crime because of a severe mental disorder. This defense seldom succeeds, and when it does, a person may be hospitalized longer than if convicted of the crime.

A prison psychologist faces the challenge of coping with a bureaucracy which may be sluggish or indifferent plus a set of clients who are not seeking help voluntarily. Systematic behavior modification was tried in a Maryland facility called Patuxent, and in some ways it worked well, but it was expensive and controversial. The state passed a law against behavior modification programs in its prisons, and Patuxent closed.


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