Papers by Dr. Williams
The Fundamentals of a Quality Forensic
Karl M. Williams, Ph.D.
What is a forensic psychological assessment?
A forensic psychological assessment is a structured evaluation that is focused upon the mental and behavioural functioning of an individual within a criminal justice or legal context. A forensic psychological evaluation differs from a standard clinical evaluation in a number of ways. First, it is implemented on behalf of an individual and/or organization connected with the criminal justice system. As such, the assessment is intended to specifically assist with the understanding of factors associated with the examinee’s psychological status and behaviour in relation to the criminal justice system. Therefore, the focus and objectives of such an assessment are not upon directly assisting the examinee by enhancing his or her functioning (although that might be an ideal ultimate goal), but upon addressing questions pertaining to the legal issues that underlie the referral for evaluation.
Secondly, although informed consent is required of the examinee prior to any psychological assessment, quite often a forensic assessment has been ordered or demanded by an official such as a judge, attorney, parole or probation officer. In contrast with a routine clinical assessment, therefore, the issue of how truly voluntary the forensic evaluation is from the examinee’s viewpoint is debatable: for instance, defendants in criminal cases who might like to decline to be assessed may perceive, correctly or otherwise, that they will be viewed less favourably by the court if they refuse to undergo evaluation – and thus only reluctantly provide their consent.
Related to this question of the voluntariness of the evaluation, and the associated inherent adversarial context within which most forensic assessments are conducted, is the assumption that forensic examinees may have a vested interest in not being entirely honest during the evaluation. Unlike a clinical setting in which the psychologist and the client generally are working together toward the common goal of directly enhancing the examinee’s life circumstances, within a forensic milieu the possibility of embellishment and/or deception is elevated.
As a result, it is incumbent upon the assessing psychologist to strive to elicit accurate information from a variety of sources, rather than simply relying upon the examinee’s statements and assertions. Depending upon the context, the examinee may perceive it to be in his or her best interests to amplify (e.g. to malinger or feign illness), to minimize, or to deny psychological symptoms. In a criminal case, culpability in regard to the offence also may be denied.
It is for these reasons that forensic psychological evaluators who seek to provide high-quality assessments ensure that the following elements are considered during the evaluative process:
• Not relying solely upon a clinical interview of the examinee;
• Utilizing various standardized psychometric tests (e.g. the MMPI-2-RF) which possess intrinsic validity measures;
• In criminal matters, rating with actuarial measures which provide validated mechanisms and procedures with which to estimate the risk of recidivism;
• Reviewing collateral documentation and records such as legal reports, prior mental health reports and an official criminal history;
• When possible and appropriate, contacting collateral parties for additional information;
• When appropriate, undertaking specialized testing (e.g. sexual interest testing in the case of sexual offence assessments);
• Providing an objective weighing of fact to formulate conclusions that are impartial and non-advocative.
Where can such high quality forensic assessments be used?
Psychologists have provided forensic assessments and oral testimony in numerous areas, most commonly in relation to the following types of issues:
• Fitness to stand trial;
• Criminal responsibility in cases of probable mental disorder;
• Dangerousness with respect to Dangerous/Long-term Offender/Civil Commitment proceedings;
• Risk of re-offence within the framework of sentencing, parole hearing decision, et cetera;
• Sentencing recommendations, including mitigating and aggravating factors;
• Treatment needs and recommendations within forensic hospital, community corrections, and secure custody correctional settings;
• Case management decisions in correctional and parole contexts.
How can a competent forensic psychologist be located?
In seeking a skilful forensic psychologist, it is recommended that a clinician be sought who possesses a doctorate in clinical psychology from an accredited university. He or she should be fully licensed/registered and in good standing with the governing College of Psychologists in the jurisdiction in which the evaluation is to be undertaken. The psychologist should have acquired post-graduate training and experience specific to the forensic field and preferably should have gained several years of experience working in a variety of criminal justice realms, such as community and custodial corrections, forensic institutions, and the courts. If it is anticipated that the forensic psychologist may be called upon to provide expert oral testimony, it is essential that the psychologist’s background and prior court experience be sufficient to enable the court to qualify the clinician as an expert witness in clinical and forensic psychology.
There are a number of ways of locating such a psychologist. Sometimes, consultation with a colleague will suffice to provide reference to a suitably qualified forensic psychologist. Another option comes in the form of local bar associations, many of which maintain databases of experts in various fields, including forensic psychologists. In addition, many state and provincial psychological associations provide referral information for their member psychologists, among which are those whose practises are focused upon forensic matters. Finally, a number of online resources are available which list the contact and practice information of potential experts – albeit ones who generally have paid to be listed in the website database: it is recommended that if a reference is obtained from such a commercial online resource, or even from a psychological association, additional screening of the psychologist be undertaken, by checking further into his or her educational and experiential background in order to ensure that the above qualifying criteria are met.
Karl M. Williams, Ph.D.