Criminal psychologists play a key role in understanding the scientific reasoning behind criminal behavior. They work on specific criminal cases and help other professionals, such as lawyers and law enforcement officials, determine criminal motivations and why a suspect might have acted in such a capacity. If you’re considering becoming a criminal psychologist or you’re interested in the field of study, you might benefit from learning more about the role of a criminal psychologist. In this article, we outline what a criminal psychologist is, what they do, the different areas of criminal psychology and the average salary of a criminal psychologist.
What is a criminal psychologist?
Criminal psychologists are professionals that contribute to the field of forensic science, or the investigation of scientific evidence gathered from a crime scene. They are experts in the subfield of criminal psychology, which is conceptualized as the study of the mental state of those who participate in criminal behavior. This process includes the examination of the personal opinions, emotions, thoughts, intentions and actions of an individual who engages in criminal activity. Essentially, criminal psychologists meld the disciplines of psychology and criminal justice by helping lawyers, court officials, law enforcement agencies and others better understand the psychological principles behind crime.
In most cases, criminal psychology is practiced as a method of identifying what factors may lead someone to commit a crime. The overarching goal of a criminal psychologist is to help keep society safe by determining the behavioral impetuses behind criminal offenses. This can be a challenging task, as psychology is not a perfect science and the definition of criminal behavior is quite abstract and continually shifting. In addition, criminal motives may depend on societal factors and vary substantially from situation to situation. Therefore, criminal psychologists are often careful in their recommendations and perform high-level research prior to drawing conclusions.
What does a criminal psychologist do?
A criminal psychologist may hold various responsibilities depending on their specific role and the environment in which they work. In general, the day-to-day duties of a criminal psychologist may include the following tasks:
- Interviewing individuals about their behaviors, personal background, upbringing and family life
- Attempting to determine the psychological motivations that could contribute to criminal behavior
- Responding to a crime scene
- Examining crime scenes and gathered evidence
- Drawing conclusions about evidence to better understand the psychology of a suspect
- Interviewing witnesses and victims of crimes
- Studying historical cases of criminal psychology
- Evaluating suspects for mental fitness and competency
- Testifying in court about the psychological reasoning behind a crime
- Evaluating a suspect’s risk of recidivism
- Helping jurors conceptualize criminal mindsets and behavior
Criminal psychologists may work for government agencies, law enforcement agencies, legal systems, academic institutions, correctional facilities, mental health facilities or as independent consultants. Given the differences in these environments, criminal psychologists may examine the behavior of a criminal suspect prior to apprehension or afterward. Here are a few of the capacities a criminal psychologist may serve in:
Some criminal psychologists work as profilers, or investigative professionals that often collaborate closely with law enforcement agencies. Profilers try to identify fugitive criminal suspects by examining the evidence left behind at a crime scene. They go through the process of examining the probable behavioral characteristics of an offender that committed a specific crime. They may try to pinpoint identifying factors such as gender, age, physical appearance, educational levels, socioeconomic status and geographic location to help law enforcement officials apprehend suspects. Criminal profilers may attempt to find answers to the following questions to contribute to investigations:
- What was the intention behind the crime?
- Is there a clear motive behind the crime?
- How much planning and premeditation went into the crime?
- Is the crime scene similar to those of other recent crimes?
- What type of crime did the suspect commit?
- How can the offender be identified best through evidence?
- Are there any evidential components that signify the offender’s gender or age?
- Can witnesses testify to an offender’s behavior?
Other criminal psychologists work with suspects who have already been apprehended for a crime. These psychologists will interview suspects and perform psychological analyses on them in order to determine the potential motivations for their behavior. They may also use their evaluations to determine whether a suspect is competent and mentally fit enough to stand trial. From here, criminal psychologists may consult with attorneys in the prosecution or defense of a suspect, providing expert testimony that may assist with exonerating or charging such individuals.
Some criminal psychologists work as clinical specialists in mental health facilities or correctional institutions. They may provide psychological support to apprehended, charged or incarcerated individuals to help them cope with and form healthy reactions to their behavior. This is an important part of helping rehabilitate those individuals who exhibit criminal behavior. Criminal psychologists gear such processes toward reducing criminal recidivism and supporting individuals in understanding the consequences of their behavior.
Further, it’s important to note that not all criminal psychologists work with suspects that commit violent crime or high-profile crimes. They may simply work within the legal system, combining the study of law and psychology. With this, criminal psychologists may also provide insight into other legal matters, such as child custody matters, in addition to criminal cases.
Areas of criminal psychology
There are various subareas of criminal psychology. A criminal psychologist may choose to work in a specialty area depending on their interests and the professional opportunities available to them. Here are the five principal areas of criminal psychology explained:
In clinical areas of criminal psychology, psychologists may perform assessments on individuals to provide an expert opinion on their mental state. In such situations, criminal psychologists use evaluation tools such as interviews and psychometrics. The clinical assessments rendered through these processes are usually provided to law enforcement officials or legal professionals to help determine the mental fitness of an individual. For instance, if a clinical psychologist diagnoses a suspect with a mental illness that relates to competency, they may rule that the suspect will not be able to stand trial or be prosecuted through standard legal channels.
When criminal psychologists work in experimental environments, they perform research processes that may inform a criminal case. This research involves conducting experiments or tests that may help determine whether or not a suspect would be capable of committing the crimes they are accused of. For example, criminal psychologists may interview witnesses to evaluate their testimonies for instances of false memory or perform tests to simulate crime scenes that can help determine whether witness testimonies are credible. Then, criminal psychologists present the findings of their research in court or to legal professionals to help contextualize the case.
Criminal psychologists may work in actuarial environments, performing research to find statistical evidence that may inform a criminal case. These statistics are incredibly useful as they can offer reliable evidence, especially in relation to large demographics. For example, a criminal psychologist may use statistical evidence to estimate the probability of a certain criminal event occurring. This might help them make recommendations about the credibility of witness testimonies or whether a criminal is likely to become a repeat offender. These recommendations may be used for justification in courts or by legal professionals when determining the results of a criminal case.
Most criminal psychologists work as consultants in advisory capacities. In these cases, a psychologist may advise law enforcement officials or legal professionals on how they should proceed with a criminal investigation. Psychologists may help decide who officials should interview, how they should be interviewed and when the interview processes will be most effective. They may also make recommendations on how to interview individuals who are victims, as they may be reluctant to provide information for fear of retribution. In other cases, criminal psychologists may use the findings of their interviews with a suspect to advise officials on how the suspect will behave throughout the investigation.
Further, as mentioned above, criminal psychologists commonly provide expert testimonies in court to help inform juries of the psychological determinations they’ve made from research and examining evidence. In these testimonies, criminal psychologists may provide details about the profile they’ve drawn on an individual to help juries better understand a suspect’s particular background. These testimonies can help advise juries and court officials about a suspect’s psychology and how it relates to the case.
The act of criminal profiling itself is also a type of advisory. Many criminal psychologists are employed by law enforcement agencies or government institutions. In these situations, they will likely spend time profiling criminal suspects and advising officials on processes to apprehend them successfully and resolve cases. In order profile suspects, criminal psychologists perform analyses that draw upon their understanding of human behavior and mental processes.
Related: 22 Different Types of Psychology
Some criminal psychologists work in applied settings, similar to forensic psychiatrists. In these situations, criminal psychologists are responsible for evaluating whether criminal offenders require psychological care. They may provide evaluations or therapeutic treatments to offenders who experience significant mental health challenges. This is especially common in cases where suspects are not held fully responsible for their actions due to psychological challenges related to their environment and other social factors. Applied criminal psychology may help reduce recidivism and assist offenders with processing the ramifications of their behavior.
Salary and job outlook of a criminal psychologist
The exact salary of a criminal psychologist may depend on varying situational factors, like where they work, their particular role, their educational background and their day-to-day duties. For instance, a criminal psychologist with a doctoral degree in psychology may be compensated at a higher rate compared to their counterparts with master’s degrees. In general, though, the national average salary for psychologists is $104,980 per year.
In terms of job outlook, the market for criminal psychologists will likely continue to grow over the next 10 years from 2019 to 2029. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment of psychologists is projected to grow by 3% during that time frame.