The broad discipline of forensic science applies empirical research to the solution of crimes or the adjudication of criminals. Forensic science is quite old, dating back at least to the time of Song Chi (1186-1249) who wrote “Collected cases of injustice rectified through forensic science.” Forensic science embraces well over 20 professional disciplines, from accounting and anthropology to toxicology and virology. Forensic psychology / psychiatry is one of those 20+ disciplines.
Forensic psychology / psychiatry is a relative newcomer, emerging in the 19th century, primarily in response to a series of cases that deeply perplexed the courts and prompted assistance from mental health professionals (exclusively psychiatrists in the early years). Historically, the criminal justice system recognized only two elements: (1) the offense, and (2) the penalty. The 19th century brought about the emergence of a third element – the offender – and with it, the need to understand the “actor.”
Today, forensic psychology is a vigorous, flourishing sub-division of the American Psychological Association. Founded in 1981, the American Psychology-Law Society (Division 41 of APA) has roughly 2,500 members. The equivalent organization for psychiatrists, the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, was founded in 1969 and has about 1,500 members. This niche of forensic science is supported internationally by 15 or more high caliber academic journals.
Although many forensic psychologists are academics who teach and do research, most are full-time practitioners. Forensic psychologists are, essentially, clinicians trained to conduct specialized evaluations for the courts and testify as expert witnesses. The evaluations that the courts may request vary widely, ranging from criminal responsibility, diminished capacity and competency to child custody, disability, personal injury, death penalty mitigation, malingering, and violence / dangerousness risk.
Masters-level forensic psychologists will not, for the most part, be assigned to conduct these evaluations, although they may assist under the supervision a doctoral-level forensic psychologist. Masters-level forensic psychologists most frequently are employed as clinicians who conduct therapy with forensic clients, either in forensic settings (e.g., jails, prisons, locked forensic units in state hospitals) or in the community with probationers or parolees. Masters-level forensic psychologists are also employed to do research with a variety of justice-related agencies and organizations. As noted, masters-level forensic psychologists may also be hired by court clinics or private practitioners to assist with evaluations under the supervision of a licensed psychologist.
Our program at Fairleigh Dickinson University is designed to offer our students the maximum possible exposure to the broad field of forensic psychology while at the same time streamlining a curriculum that allows students to finish in 18 months. Students are exposed through coursework to all of the aforementioned areas of forensic psychology practice. In addition, students gain invaluable clinical experience through the completion of a 300-hour externship placement, and have the option to participate in forensic research and do a thesis.