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What is a Forensic Psychologist?


Question: What is a forensic psychologist? Whenever I think of something forensic, I think of crime scenes and dead people. What part do psychologists play in all of that?

You’re not the first to person to ask me that question. Forensic psychology is a specialty area in psychology that deals with both psychology and the law. Forensic psychologists use special tools to answer psycholegal questions. These special tools are referred to as Forensic Assessment Instruments (FAIs).

Some traditional clinical assessment instruments, such as IQ tests and personality tests are also used, depending on the referral question. These more traditional clinical instruments are referred to as Forensically Relevant Instruments (FAIs). The field of forensic psychology has witnessed dramatic growth in recent years, as more and more instruments have been developed to better answer legal questions.

Some of the more common legal situations for which a forensic psychologist might be called could be Competency Evaluations, Sentencing Recommendations, Evaluation of the Risk of Reoffending, Opinions Concerning the Need for a Legal Guardian, and Child Custody Evaluations.

Forensic psychology differs from other specialty area such as clinical psychology in that the duties of a forensic psychologist are fairly limited in terms of scope and duration. A forensic psychologist is asked to perform a very specific duty in each individual case, such as determining if a defendant is competent to stand trial, or competent to waive Miranda rights.

Also, quite different from traditional mental health evaluations, the client is not the person being evaluated. The client is the person who hired the psychologist. Confidentiality is very limited in that all information gathered about the person is passed on to the client (the one who hired the psychologist), rather than the examinee. And the when the evaluation is ordered by the court, the psychologist does not have to have the examinee’s permission to conduct the evaluation.

An important aspect of forensic psychology is the ability to testify in court, explaining psychological findings in legal terms. In order to be a credible witness, the forensic psychologist must have a basic understanding of legal statutes and case law related to the referral questions.

For example, a forensic psychologist is frequently appointed by the court, or hired by an attorney, to assess a defendant’s competency to stand trial. In order to do that the psychologist must have working knowledge of the case law and statutes related to competency to stand trial. Using their knowledge of the particular legal question, psychologists select FAIs and FRIs that provide answers to the referral question.

So, to be a good forensic psychologist is to be a good investigator (of living people, not dead people).

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to

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