With the mind-blowing popularity of TV shows like CSI and Criminal Minds, it’s safe to say that many of us are absolutely fascinated by the psychology of criminality. We want to know exactly what sets a person off on the track to break the law or cause violent harm to others. It’s the kind of thing we don’t really want to look at, but at the same time, we can’t look away.
But criminal psychology is more than just a human fascination. It’s a field of work for many people and has a significant role in the legal system. After all, uncovering the motivations and psychological states of criminals helps solve crimes and convict criminals. Maybe most importantly, understanding the psychological motivations behind people who commit crimes is an essential step toward crime prevention.
What Is Criminal Psychology?
Broadly speaking, criminal psychology is the study of how the criminal mind and psyche works. Criminal psychology is closely associated with forensic psychology. To many, the two are one and the same.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines forensic psychology as “the application of clinical specialties to the legal arena.” Criminal psychology experts frequently work with law enforcement agencies to solve crimes. They may perform psychological assessments of convicted criminals and develop psychological treatment plans. Criminal psychology also includes research and suggestions for how concepts in criminal psychology can be applied to the practice of law enforcement.
Forensic psychologists are the experts most often hired by law enforcement officials to help solve crimes and understand the criminal mind, but criminal anthropologists may also be employed.
What Is A Criminal Psychologist?
The vast majority of criminal psychologists are forensic psychologists. Forensic psychologists have specific training in both the psychology of people who are involved in the crimes as well as training in how the legal system works. Although forensic psychologists come from a variety of backgrounds, they must hold doctorate degrees in psychology (either a PhD or a PsyD). Many also have law (J.D.) degrees.
Forensic psychologists work in a variety of settings, including mental health facilities, prisons, government agencies, schools, counseling programs, and law firms. They must have strong clinical skills as well as solid communication skills, as they are often called to testify in court settings. Forensic psychologists often work closely with law enforcement and may train prison staff, attorneys, and legal advocates.
In addition, forensic psychologists often work directly with convicted criminals in mental health settings. They may provide individual counseling, group counseling, anger management classes, rehabilitation services, screenings, and assessments. They often provide guidance during custody disputes and may author guidelines for treating the mental health of inmates and convicted criminals.
What Role Does Criminal Psychology Play In Law Enforcement?
One of the most impactful roles a criminal psychologist (usually a forensic psychologist) has is helping law enforcement officials recognize cases of criminal insanity (“mens rea”). The United States judicial system stipulates that a person isn’t responsible for a crime if he or she was not of sound mind when the crime was committed. A forensic psychologist can advise law enforcement, attorneys, judges, and juries to help them unpack the state of mind of the charged criminal at the time of the crime.
Criminal psychologists can also play a role in how criminals are viewed and treated. Very often, mental illness and psychosis go hand in hand with criminal behavior. Research into the minds of criminals has helped us gain a better understanding of what causes criminal and violent behavior, as well as how to recognize and treat the behavior — hopefully, before the person commits a crime.
Criminal psychologists can identify youth that are at risk of becoming crime perpetrators later in life and provide preventative services for them. Case in point, a study published in American Journal of Psychology found that 3-year-olds who participated in enrichment programs emphasizing healthy nutrition habits, exercise, and cognitive skills had a 34% reduction in criminal behavior at age 23, as compared to a control group.
Other studies have looked at the positive impact of exercise and nutrition on the psychological profiles of prison inmates. For instance, a study of British prisoners, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that providing vitamin supplements to inmates reduced criminal offenses by 26%.
These are just a few examples of promising research that could have potentially positive applications for our society as well as the functioning of our criminal justice system. Clearly, criminal psychology is more than just a heart-stopping episode of a crime show. Criminal psychologists have a vital role to play when it comes making the world a safer place and protecting the mental well-being of people who are at risk of breaking the law.