What Is Criminal Psychology? How to Begin Your Career
Television shows such as “CSI” often feature criminal psychologists in starring roles. But while TV may make such jobs appear romantic, this field often is invaluable in helping law enforcement entities apprehend criminal offenders and even prevent crime. As technology advances, criminal psychologists have even more tools at their disposal to help them practice their profession, making it an ever-more effective and attractive career pursuit.
Criminal psychology studies criminals, specifically, their thoughts and intentions, motives and reactions, emotions and feelings, especially as experienced when the individual is engaging in criminal behaviors. The goal of a criminal psychologist is to determine why a criminal commits a specific crime, from the time he or she makes the decision that results in a crime, to the moment the individual appears in court. Effective criminal psychologists help keep the world safe by using their expertise to help find and capture criminals.
Overview of Criminal Psychology — What Is a Criminal Psychologist?
Criminal psychology is a niche specialty in the psychology spectrum in which the psychologist serves in a variety of capacities, including working with law enforcement to determine the likely profile of the type of person who might commit a specific crime, giving opinions on court cases describing the mental states of people who have broken the law, and working directly with a captured criminal.
Psychologists are trained professionals who understand the inner workings of the human brain and psyche. A psychologist studies thoughts and behaviors, mental processes and emotions, and, using his or her accumulated knowledge and training, assesses the mental and physical states of a person by studying the individual and talking with him or her.
What Does a Criminal Psychologist Do?
One of the best-known roles of a criminal psychologist is offender or criminal profiling. The psychologist assesses an offender’s mental state and provides a psychological analysis.
Profilers, for instance, attempt to identify the age, gender, sex, background, physical characteristics, educational and socioeconomic levels, geographic background, and other traits of criminals who have not yet been apprehended. Through an examination of the evidence left at a crime scene, criminal psychologists can determine the probable mental characteristics of the perpetrator of a specific crime. In the last few decades, profiling has progressed from a hunch-based guessing game, which was, nevertheless, often fairly accurate, to a more rigorous field, in which the principles of forensic science and psychology are applied to help provide more accurate profiles.
Criminal psychologists do not always work as profilers. Some work with criminals who have already been apprehended, determining the motivations for their crimes and the likelihood that they will offend again if released back into society. Others work with attorneys for the prosecution or defense, describing the criminal’s actions to help incarcerate or exonerate the individual. Some criminal psychologists work as witnesses, providing expert testimony in a variety of criminal cases. In high-profile cases, criminal psychologists may be called upon to determine how a violent criminal’s actions are affecting the society at large in the region in which the crimes are occurring.
To perform these duties, criminal psychologists require a highly specialized set of skills and a diverse base of knowledge, including:
- Thorough understanding of psychological principles
- Understanding of the criminal justice system
- Ability to work with officers of the law, attorneys, and criminals
- Understanding of the legal process, as well as of what constitutes a sound, compelling legal argument
- A strong constitution, since the psychologist will likely witness gruesome crime scenes
- Ability to assess empirical evidence and draw meaningful conclusions about a criminal’s mental and emotional state
- Ability to work with criminals in a calm, compassionate, and nonjudgmental manner
- Excellent written and verbal skills
- A strong sense of logic and ethics
Not all criminal psychologists work with violent crime or even with criminals. Some may use their insights to offer opinions about custody cases, for instance. For the most part, however, their focus is on crime, as the title suggests.
The Role of Psychology in the Legal System
Criminal psychologists’ role in the legal system is important. While they provide a diverse array of services, the psychologist’s duties usually fall into one of four categories:
If an individual has already been apprehended, the criminal psychologist may offer a clinical assessment of the criminal’s mental state, his or her ability to stand trial, whether the person has a mental illness, if he or she is capable of understanding the proceedings, and so on. The psychologist uses a variety of tests, tools, and interviewing techniques to construct these assessments.
The clinical psychologist may perform simple experiments to determine whether a suspect is capable of committing the crime of which he or she is accused. For example, the psychologist may perform tests to determine if a witness could see or hear a crime taking place as alleged in his or her statement.
When applied to large groups, statistics can offer reliable evidence. Criminal psychologists often perform research and use the resulting statistical evidence to inform a case by estimating the probability of a certain event occurring or making recommendations as to whether a criminal is likely to repeat the crime, which is called recidivism.
When law officers and legal teams are uncertain as to how to proceed with a case, they may request that a criminal psychologist serve in an advisory capacity as a consultant. The psychologist can help determine whom to interview, how and when to interview the individuals, or how to encourage an individual who is reluctant to talk, such as a victim. They can also predict how the suspect will act during the case and advise as to the best treatment of the person.
Criminal psychologists spend much of their time in offices and courts. While a case is going forward to trial, they may be constantly on hand to inform legal teams or to provide expert testimony. Between cases, criminal psychologists expand upon the offender’s profile by conducting research, examining evidence from crime scenes, and interviewing people with whom the suspect has interacted. They spend the greater part of their day at police stations, assisting with state and federal investigations, as well as in correctional facilities and mental health centers.
Many criminal psychologists work for local, state, or federal institutions. While some psychologists are employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), this is not as common as television may make it appear. Some criminal psychologists go into business for themselves in a freelance or consulting capacity. Others work as teachers or professors, helping train new psychologists. They may educate aspiring psychologists at colleges, universities, or specialized training centers.
In any position, criminal psychologists are likely to spend at least some of their time profiling criminals. This ever-growing field of investigative analysis is beneficial to successfully resolving cases and apprehending criminals. The psychologist must have a thorough understanding of human psyches, behaviors, and mental processes. The psychologist is charged with answering specific questions, including:
- Was intent behind the crime?
- Does the offender understand the charges leveled against him or her?
- Is he or she fit to stand trial?
- Was the offender in his or her right mind at the time of the crime?
- How much planning and forethought went into the perpetration of the crime?
- What types of emotions was the offender experiencing before, during, and after the committal of a crime?
- Is the offender likely to commit the same crime again?
- Is the person a sex offender?
- Is the criminal still at large, and if so, how can the offender be identified?
- Can the criminal help play a role in the larger effort to prevent crime?
- What is the criminal’s level of responsibility for the crime?
- Can the criminal be treated?
The criminal psychologist uses a battery of tests to help answer these questions, speaks to people in the criminals’ lives as well as to the criminal themselves, draws on statistics regarding similar crimes, and weaves together all the evidence to create informed characterizations of the offenders.
Criminal Psychologist Salary & Employment Outlook
Classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) as “psychologists, all other,” criminal psychologists earn an average salary of $99,560 as of May 2022. However, this classification also includes other types of specialists, as well.
Many of these highly specialized psychologists work for the federal and state governmental agencies, where they earn an average salary of $104,870 and $77,750, respectively.
Criminal Psychologisy Jobs & Job Description
A criminal psychologist spends his or her day examining crime scenes, looking at crime scene photos, working with law enforcement officers, advising lawyers, and testifying in court. More specifically, daily duties may include:
- Responding to a crime scene on short notice when a crime has been committed
- Reading through and advising as to legal documentation
- Talking to witnesses before a trial
- Conducting research into the nature of the crime
- Interviewing other people involved with the crime or who know the suspect
- Evaluating the risk that the criminal will commit the crime again
- Communicating findings through writing and speaking
- Maintaining records of the case and its conclusions
- Staying informing on case law and statutes
- Observing details of a case to look for patterns and details
- Administering and analyzing psychological tests
Criminal Psychology Degrees & Education
To become a criminal psychologist, you must first earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field, followed by a master’s degree in psychology. This completes the minimum requirements necessary to use the title “psychologist” and to begin work with patients on a clinical basis or offer clinical opinions. However, a master’s degree is typically not enough to find first-rate employment as a criminal psychologist.
Therefore, many people who want to go into criminal psychology opt to earn a doctorate, either a Ph.D. or Psy.D. During your time as a doctoral student, you may choose to focus on theory or research, or you may take a very hands-on, forensic-oriented approach. Doctoral degrees typically take about five years to complete after the years of study required to earn master’s and bachelor’s degrees. However, at that time, you will most likely have acquired enough expertise to begin working while still in school.
To begin practice, you must take the licensing examination in your state or jurisdiction, then keep it current. Certifications are not required, but you may opt for additional certifications to increase your expertise and credibility.
Ready to start your journey in criminal psychology? Find a psychology degree program near you.
2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for psychologists (all other) are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed July 2023.