North Wales Management School - Wrexham University

What is forensic psychology?

Posted on: February 20, 2023
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Forensic psychology is a field of psychology that blends expertise in psychological practice and the law to aid and assist justice and legal systems.

It is a relatively new field within psychology, and is commonly employed to explain psychological aspects and influences in cases that are being reviewed by attorneys, judges, and other legal professionals. For example, forensic psychology can be used to:

  • conduct psychological assessments and evaluate whether an individual is able to stand trial.
  • provide valuable information and recommendations during sentencing hearings.
  • give expert testimony in cases where psychological profiles, criminal profiling, or other aspects of forensic psychology are relevant.
  • conduct new psychological research, uncovering new tools and applications for forensic psychology.
  • offer psychotherapy to criminal offenders as well as the victims of crime.
  • create safer communities through psychological interventions and other programmes.

Through their understanding of both human behaviour and the legal system, forensic psychology professionals, known as forensic psychologists, can help ensure that legal systems are equipped to appropriately review cases that are strongly linked to human psychology and mental health. Crucially, they also explore the psychological factors associated with criminal behaviour, helping to treat people who have committed offences, and working towards the prevention of future crimes.

According to the British Psychological Society (BPS), forensic psychology is also used to support healthcare services and other institutions:

“We often develop and facilitate learning and teaching materials to support the organisations we work with to create safer, hopeful environments,” the BPS website states. “We also work to develop and to inform strategy and policy development at an organisational, national and international level.”

What does a forensic psychologist do?

Forensic psychologists can work within the criminal justice system as well as within civil law, but they’re most often associated with cases that involve criminal behaviour. They frequently work with:

  • criminal offenders.
  • prisoners.
  • attorneys and lawyers.
  • judges.
  • victims of criminal activity.
  • families of criminal offenders.
  • the police.
  • probation services.
  • young offender institutions.
  • secure mental health hospitals.

Work conducted by forensic psychologists can include:

  • Providing expert evidence during trials and other court cases.
  • Developing new policies, risk assessments, and other working practices for institutions such as prisons.
  • Advising parole boards and mental health tribunals.
  • Creating prisoner rehabilitation and treatment programmes.
  • Designing appropriate crime prevention and re-offending prevention programmes.
  • Working to reduce stress and conflicts for both staff and offenders in secure settings, such as prisons.
  • Supporting police services with crime analysis and criminal investigations.
  • Performing child custody evaluations.
  • Informing jury selection.
  • Criminal profiling, also known as offender profiling, which is a research-based, investigative strategy often used by police and forensic psychologists to help identify criminal suspects or support investigations in legal cases.
  • Treating offenders in a number of different areas, such as sexual offending, violence, and drug or alcohol use.

Research is another important area for forensic psychologists. It’s used as evidence to support psychological professional practice in everything from working with offenders to understanding offending behaviour, so psychological theories, as well as psychological research methods, research skills, and research projects, need to stay up-to-date and accurate to appropriately and effectively inform practice.

What is the difference between a forensic psychologist and a therapist?

A therapist is someone who provides a general kind of counselling or psychotherapy, whereas a forensic psychologist is focused specifically on human psychology and behaviour as it relates to criminal and legal systems. A forensic psychologist can provide therapy to criminal offenders, for example, but a more generalised therapist, such as a clinical psychologist, would be unlikely to treat a criminal offender in a prison setting without first receiving specialised training in forensic psychology.

What is the difference between neuropsychology and forensic psychology?

Neuropsychology and forensic psychology are sometimes mixed up, but they are very different areas of psychology. While forensic psychology applies psychological practice to the law, neuropsychology explores the relationship between the brain and human behaviour. This means that neuropsychology research can be applied to forensic psychology practice, but they are not the same thing.

Forensic psychology also has ties to clinical psychology, social psychology, and cognitive psychology, among other areas of psychological knowledge.

Careers in forensic psychology 

According to the NHS, there are more than 2,000 forensic psychologists in the UK, and the roles available are varied.

For example, the National Careers Service states that career progression and professional development opportunities for forensic psychologists can include:

  • Running the psychology department in a prison.
  • Moving into a policy, strategy, or management role.
  • Progressing into freelance and consultancy work, such as working as an expert witness in court cases.

Where do forensic psychologists work?

HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPS) is the largest employer of forensic psychologists in the UK. Other employers include:

  • NHS Trusts.
  • HM Courts and Tribunal Services.
  • Social services.
  • Specialist mental health settings, such as secure hospitals and health services.
  • Various government agencies.
  • Offender management services, such as police services and other forensic settings.
  • Universities and other institutions that support teaching, mentoring, supervising, and researching in forensic psychology.

How long does it take to become a forensic psychologist?

There are a few paths towards employability in forensic psychology. For example, those without a qualifying degree can gain entry to the field through work experience as an assistant or an interventions facilitator within HMPS.

One of the main routes, however, includes gaining an undergraduate degree in psychology. This degree should have accreditation from the British Psychological Society. This is then followed by obtaining Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership (GBC) from the BPS, completing postgraduate study in forensic psychology, and then doing two years of supervised practice as part of stage two of the BPS qualification in forensic psychology.

At this stage, the chartered forensic psychologist title can be gained by registering with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

Are forensic psychologists well paid?

The National Careers Service lists an average salary of £27,000 to £54,000 annually for full-time forensic psychologists.

Within the NHS, forensic psychologists who have completed their training are paid at band 7 of the Agenda for Change (AfC) pay scales. As of April 2022, this band ranges from £41,659 to £47,672 per year.

Prospects, the graduate careers website, also notes that trainee forensic psychologists working for HM Prison Service earn a starting salary of between £27,021 and £34,461, and this range jumps to £38,148 and £51,154 for fully qualified psychologists and senior psychologists – with salaries higher in London.

Learn human psychology – and apply it in the workplace

Turn your passion for psychology into a career advantage with the 100% online MSc Psychology postgraduate degree at North Wales Management School, part of Wrexham University. One of the key modules on this flexible, part-time master’s degree is in forensic psychology, so you’ll gain a broad overview of the contribution that the field can make in justice systems, and consider the nature of forensic psychology as well as the insights that it provides into understanding crime, police practices, and criminal proceedings in court.

For more information about coursework, entry requirements, and tuition fees, as well as information specific to international students, such as IELTS English language requirements, please visit the University website.