Criminal Psychologist Career

The Basics

Criminal psychology is a discipline that merges psychology and criminal justice. Trained in the principles of human behavior, criminal psychologists work closely with attorneys, the courts, law enforcement agencies, and various other stakeholders involved in civil and criminal cases. It is a relatively young field of work, gaining recognition from the American Psychological Association in 2001.

However, psychologists have been serving as consultants to the courts for decades. Criminal psychologists can work in a number of capacities, including for the accused or for victims, during the trial phase as an expert witness, or they might work to rehabilitate offenders that have already been convicted of a crime.

What Does a Criminal Psychologist Do?

Criminal psychologists work in the field of forensics, applying psychological principles to the criminal justice system. Much of their time is spent conducting evaluations of the accused and alleged victims. For example, a criminal psychologist might evaluate a defendant to determine his or her competency to stand trial. They might also interview the victim of a crime in order to establish a timeline of events.

Providing expert testimony is another primary area of work for criminal psychologists. Working in civil, family, criminal, and military courts, criminal psychologists may provide testimony in a custody hearing on which parent they perceive to be more appropriate for custody of minor children. They might also work with witnesses or victims, particularly children, to develop a clearer picture of what happened and whether or not the witness will be reliable on the witness stand. Criminal psychologists can testify in military courts as well, speaking to the state of mind of the defendant during his or her alleged crime.

Related: What Can You Do with a Criminal Psychology Degree

Psychologists can also use their expertise in the criminal justice system to assist attorneys and the court. During the jury selection process, criminal psychologists help attorneys determine which potential jurors are the most appropriate for the case.

Criminal psychologists can also help prosecutors and defense attorneys conclude which arguments are most persuasive in order to make their case. In high profile cases, a criminal psychologist would also be asked to conduct a climate survey to determine the level to which pretrial publicity has impacted public opinion about the case.

Although psychologists who specialize in the criminal area can spend much time in the spotlight of a courtroom, many do not have duties that are as glamorous as portrayed on popular television shows like Criminal Minds and Law and Order. Very few criminal psychologists work as a profiler for the FBI, nor do criminal psychologists rely on hunches or feelings as is so often the case on TV. Criminal psychologists depend instead on their education, vast training, and empirical evidence to come to reasoned conclusions.

Therapy is not typically one of the criminal psychologist’s duties. However, some psychologists offer therapeutic services to individuals who are compelled by the court to participate in treatment. This might involve couples counseling for parents during or after custody has been determined, individual counseling for a person found guilty of a crime, or group counseling for people that have an addiction.

Related: What is the Difference Between Criminology and Forensic Psychology?

In fact, the scope of work for most criminal psychologists is quite narrow. Unlike their colleagues in the field of clinical psychology who work with a client over an extended period of time in order to bring about positive life changes, criminal psychologists focus on a single event (such as a specific crime) or a specific task (such as a mental health evaluation) and report their findings. They also tend to become experts in a highly specific field, such as victimology, chemical dependency evaluation, or sex offender treatment.

Criminal psychologists may also attempt to explain why some individuals exposed to certain variables and stimuli become criminals, while others exposed to the same set of circumstances do not.

Where Does a Criminal Psychologist Work?

  • Courts
  • Social work
  • Correctional facilities
  • Academic institutes
  • Law enforcement agencies
  • Mental health centers
  • Private consultancy
  • Local, state, and federal government

What is the Employment Outlook for Criminal Psychology?

The outlook for careers in the field of criminal psychology is strong. According to the American Psychological Association, the need for experts in the field of criminal psychology has grown exponentially after a court ruling in 1962 determined that psychologists could offer expert opinions in court.

Although criminal psychology has become a popular field of study in more recent years due to exposure on TV and in popular culture, demand for qualified criminal psychologists still far outpaces supply. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not offer insight into the field of criminal psychology specifically, it does note that psychology in general is set to experience double-digit job growth through 2028.

How Much Does a Criminal Psychologist Make a Year?

According to PayScale, the average annual salary for a criminal psychologist is $58,246. However, the pay band extends from a low of $29,000 per year to well above $95,000 annually (March 2020 data).

Two primary factors will determine the income a criminal psychologist makes. The length of time an individual has worked in the field will have the largest impact on salary. The city in which one works will also have great influence on pay. Criminal psychologists who are employed in large cities or municipalities with a large caseload of forensic work will earn more than individuals employed in small towns or rural areas.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the mean annual wage in 2019 for criminal psychologists (listed under “psychologists, all other”) was $98,230.

What Education is Needed to Become a Criminal Psychologist?

To become a criminal psychologist, one must start with a bachelor’s degree. These four-year programs focus on the development of general knowledge and skills in psychology. Some schools may offer special courses in the field of forensics that prepare graduates for entry-level work in the field of criminality, forensics, and criminal justice.

To move higher up the ranks, a master’s degree in psychology is essential, although a specialization in criminal or forensic psychology is not necessarily required. Psychologists with a background in clinical practice, experimentation, or neuropsychology can transition into criminal psychology by gaining forensic experience through work experiences, research, internships, or postdoctoral placements.

As in other fields of psychology, an APA accredited doctorate and licensure is usually required in order to access the most highly coveted jobs in criminal psychology. One popular option is to pursue a joint degree that results in a Ph.D. in psychology and J.D. in law. These programs, which are available at the University of Arizona, Drexel University, and Stanford to name a few, allow students to count coursework towards both degrees in order to reduce the total amount of time students must commit to obtaining their degrees. For example, Stanford allows students to apply up to 54 quarter units towards both degrees, meaning a student can expect to graduate with both a Ph.D. and a J.D. within 3-4 years after beginning their doctoral studies.

Although licensure requirements vary from state to state, a person must be licensed in order to practice. Most states require an APA accredited Ph.D. in order to obtain licensure. Regardless of the degree requirement, all states necessitate licensed psychologists to complete a specified number of provisional, supervised hours of practice (under a licensed psychologist) in order to obtain licensure. Ongoing professional development to maintain that licensure is necessary as well.

What Does It Take to Be a Criminal Psychologist?

  • Expertise in Psychology and Law: Criminal psychologists are highly trained in both legal issues and the principles of human behavior. As a result, they must be experts in psychology, law, and oftentimes forensics as well.
  • Full Command Over Psychological Tests: Expertise in administering psychological tests and examining the results of those tests is essential as well.
  • Mental Health Laws: In the realm of the law, criminal psychologists must have an excellent command of mental health law. Knowledge of state statutes, case law, and courtroom procedures is necessary as well.
  • Exceptional Communication Skills: Criminal psychologists must be adept at communicating effectively with others, including listening actively and empathically. Because criminal psychologists often testify in court, excellent public speaking skills and the ability to remain calm in tense situations are extremely beneficial skills to have.
  • Organization Skills: Much like clinical psychologists, criminal psychologists must be able to maintain records in an organized fashion and work with people from many diverse groups and backgrounds in a respectful and unbiased manner.
  • Ability to Build Trust: The ability to forge trust with the defendant and other stakeholders in a case is extremely important as well.
  • Research Minded: Impeccable research skills are also a must. Being able to effectively conduct research into past cases, examine evidence, and conduct interviews are essential skills.
  • Attention to Details: Having an eye for detail and the ability to recognize patterns of behavior are similarly important.

What is the Difference Between a Criminal Psychologist and a Criminal Profiler?

The nature of the job and the associated duties of a criminal profiler and a criminal psychologist differ quite dramatically. Criminal profilers work with law enforcement before an arrest is made. Their involvement revolves around reviewing evidence, interviewing witnesses, and examining crime scenes to help the authorities determine what happened and who the perpetrator of the crime might be.

Criminal profilers are trained in forensics, so much of their job is focused on gathering and interpreting evidence based on scientific facts and principles. Profilers might determine physical characteristics such as the height, weight, and hair color of the perpetrator. They may also interpret evidence to establish whether a perpetrator is right or left handed, a man or woman, or if they have particular personality characteristics. These duties are carried out as part of live investigations, but also in the context of cold cases. Profilers usually work for government agencies, such as the FBI or local law enforcement, but others work as consultants who work with attorneys, families of victims, and the like.

A criminal psychologist works with individuals after an arrest has been made and they have been charged with a crime. As mentioned above, in this capacity, criminal psychologists work to assess the defendant’s state of mind when the crime occurred. This may involve conducting interviews with defendants, victims, and others involved, administering personality tests, or making determinations with regard to a defendant’s ability to stand trial.

A criminal psychologist typically works in an evaluative capacity only – they determine the mental state of defendants and do not offer therapeutic services. However, their job duties also include providing expert testimony during trials, consulting with judicial authorities and law enforcement, and working with government agencies to draft legislation that governs mental health and criminal behavior. Unlike criminal profilers, criminal psychologists usually work independently of investigative or judicial bodies as experts for hire.

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