According to the American Board of Forensic Psychology, it is “The professional practice by psychologists within the areas of clinical psychology, counselling psychology, neuropsychology, and school psychology, when they are engaged regularly as experts and represent themselves as such, in an activity primarily intended to provide professional psychological expertise to the judicial system”. Common criminal issues tackled by such experts may relate to the treatment of mentally ill offenders and the competency and mental state of a defendant. The psychologist may also be employed in civil cases, such as public policies, new relevant laws, lawsuits, insurance claims, and matters of civil litigation.
Competency of the defendant refers to an individual’s mental state at the time of the trial. The psychologist must asses whether or not the defendant is capable of providing the plea they have made. If an individual is not deemed ‘sane’, meaning they do not understand what is right and wrong, they cannot be tried under ordinary circumstances. It is common for a defendant to fake a mental illness in order to receive a more lenient sentence, an act known as malingering. Similarly, an assessment of future risk can help establish whether the offender is likely to commit the act again in the future, particularly important when passing a sentence. The treatment of mentally ill offenders is a task usually undertaken by clinical psychologists specialising in the forensic field of work.
Offender profiling involves the study of an offender’s behaviour, motives and background in order to build a profile and aid further investigation. Many myths surround profiling, which has been made popular through media channels. In reality police forces vary rarely hire criminal profilers, as it is not an exact science and in actual fact may lead investigators in the wrong direction altogether. However based on research from previous offenders and the personal experience of the psychologist, it may be possible to draw certain conclusions about an offender.
As forensic psychology is not an exact science, the causes of criminal behaviour may never be fully understood. However there are a vast number of possible explanations, including biological, psychological, and sociological theories.
Cesare Lombroso (1876) believed that criminal behaviour was inborn, and that their lawless nature was accompanied by certain physical characteristics. He believed criminals displayed asymmetrical faces, large and slanted eyes, a huge jaw, fat lips and high cheekbones. Similarly, William H Sheldon (1949) believed that there were three basic body types; endomorphic (round and soft), ectomoprhic (thin and fragile), and mesomorphic (muscular and hard). Those with the mesomorphic body type were apparently more likely to display criminal tendencies. Genetic Inheritance A common believed cause of criminal behaviour is genetics. Some believe a kind of ‘killer gene’ exists, an inherited predisposition to criminal behaviour.
Scientists following Darwin’s evolutionary theory theorised that aggression associated with criminal behaviour is an innate characteristic of the human species, acting as a kind of survival tactic.
Numerous researchers have claimed that criminal behaviour can be the result of genetic disorders. For example in the 1960s a genetic abnormality was discovered in which a selection of males have XYY chromosomes, allegedly making them more prone to aggressive behaviour.
Neuropsychological theorists believe that certain disorders and damages to the brain can bring about deviant behaviour. Such abnormalities may include physical brain damage, particularly to the frontal cortex and temporal lobe, abnormal brainwaves, and peculiar functioning of the amygdala. Similarly, biochemical imbalances in the brain are also thought to be related to criminal behaviour.
Id, Ego & Superego
Sigmund Freud believed that the human personality is composed of three major components. The Id (the pleasure-seeking component), the Ego (the realistic component), and the Superego (the moral component). He claimed that certain imbalances in these three, such as a dominating Id, would result in immoral behaviour.
Bowlby’s (1953) maternal deprivation theory focuses on the link between the mother and child and its results. The theory states that if an individual is deprived of maternal care during childhood, they will suffer psychological damage which may potentially lead to unlawful manners later in life.
This model draws links between childhood traumas and anxieties and later behaviour. Freudian theorists in particular view aggressive acts as the result of repressed feelings regarding these memories.
Hans Eysenck developed a simple personality test characterising individuals as being extroverts or introverts, and neurotic, stable or psychotic. Those who were psychotic, neurotic and introverted were more likely to display criminal behaviour.
Becker’s (1963) labelling theory states that a person displays criminal behaviour as a result of being labelled deviant. When a person is given a label by someone else, we may apparently live up to that label in what is known as the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Social Learning Theory
One of the more renowned social theories of criminality states that such behaviour is learned. An individual supposedly witnesses a criminal act and later repeats the behaviour. This idea is particularly focused on in the claim of violent television and video games resulting in aggressive behaviour.
Poor levels of education and low academic achievement have been strongly linked with criminality. However it is unclear whether poor education causes criminality, or criminality leads to a disinterest in education.