Forensic psychology, according to the American Board of Forensic Psychology, is the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system. It is a combination of psychology and law, used to solve crimes, rehabilitate criminals and stop crimes before they start. It is a growing field that has widespread applications.

The History of Forensic Psychology

The principles of forensic psychology have been around for centuries. Any time an investigator tried to learn about the criminal by looking at the scene of a crime or tried to understand why that same criminal did the things he did, forensic psychology was being used. Early studies on memory, measuring the ability of participants to remember details of an event or photograph after they viewed it, were also part of what would become forensic psychology. It wasn't until the 1900s, however, that the combined field of law and psychology was studied in earnest.

Use of Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology can be used in several ways. The most well-known use is in criminal profiling, using psychological knowledge of criminals, in general, and the clues left at a crime scene to create a psychological profile for a suspect. It is also used in courts of law, when forensic psychologists are brought in to explain the psychological aspects of a case. It is also used in community outreach programs, working with at-risk youth to prevent them from entering a life of crime, and in prisons and other detention centers. It also can be used in court-ordered psychological treatments, such as substance-abuse rehabilitation or anger-management courses.

Many think that forensic psychology and criminal profiling are the same thing. While criminal profiling is one aspect of forensic psychology, there is much more to this field than just that one area. Criminal profilers use their understanding of forensic psychology to help investigators find suspects. Many of the other aspects of forensic psychology, such as community outreach, working with victims and providing support for parolees adjusting to life outside of prison, get little attention, even though careers in these areas make up a majority of the available positions in the field.

Benefits of Forensic Psychology

There are many benefits to the study of forensic psychology. As new studies are done, new information and insights become available to investigators, psychologists and other researchers. For example, at one time eyewitness testimony was considered to be almost beyond refute. Now, it can be used to support evidence, but not as the only evidence in a case. This change has drastically reduced the number of wrongful convictions.

Another benefit is that by learning how the criminal mind works, investigators and prosecutors are better able to protect the public. They know that those convicted of child molestation are likely to commit that crime again, so there are now systems in place to keep these criminals off the street for as long as possible and then give community members the right to know who they are and where they live. Knowing how the criminal mind works also makes it easier to find and arrest suspects.

Careers in Forensic Psychology

Students interested in this field should study both criminal justice or law and psychology. Many colleges have forensic psychology programs, especially at the post-graduate level. Students can expect to take courses such as criminology, statistics, research methods, juvenile delinquency and behavioral science. Most forensic psychologists have at least a bachelor's degree, but many also have a masters or doctoral degree. Careers are available in law enforcement, government agencies, mental health care facilities, detention centers (prisons) and with community programs.