September 1, 2010

Forensic psychology at the crossroads

Leading forensic psychologist calls for reform

Alas, summer is over. For my fall forensic overview course, I just read Kirk Heilbrun's new article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law on the future of forensic psychology. He frames it in the context of the National Science Foundation's scathing report on problems with scientific accuracy and bias in other forensic science disciplines.

Psychology's progress in the forensic arena is at least as good as those of the hard sciences such as chemistry and biology, say Heilbrun and co-author Stephanie Brooks, also of Drexel University. The field has come a long way in the last three decades: Texts and journals galore, about three dozen forensically oriented doctoral programs, many doctoral internship sites with a significant forensic component, various sets of practice guidelines, and even a "best practices" series by Oxford University Press.

But we could do better, says Heilbrun, a pillar of the forensic psychology community.

The limited research on field practices finds three levels of competence:
  • Best practice: Forensic psychologists practicing at the aspirational level expected from highly trained and experienced specialists
  • Appropriate practice: Forensic psychologists who practice in a manner consistent with relevant standards and guidelines set by the field
  • Poor practice: Forensic psychologists whose work is so deficient that it is inaccurate, irrelevant, and/or not helpful to the courts.
Unfortunately, as many of us can attest, there is plenty of this poor-quality work, which can not only harm the individuals in the legal system but also damage our field's reputation. Common problems found with poor forensic reports include extreme brevity, an inadequate data base, use of outdated or irrelevant tests, substantial errors in test scoring or interpretation, and failure to grasp the relevant legal constructs.

Recommendations for improvement

In making recommendations to improve forensic psychology practice, Heilbrun and Brooks focus on the areas identified by the National Science Foundation study (which did not include the fields of psychiatry or psychology). These include both the quality of the underlying science and the elements of bias and human error. They recommend exploring the possibility of adding forensic psychology within the proposed National Institute of Forensic Science as one method of improving quality control. Other recommendations:
  • Develop quantifiable measures of reliability and accuracy of forensic analyses.
  • Competitively fund peer-reviewed research on the scientific bases of validity of forensic methods.
  • Develop quality improvement procedures to ensure best practice and minimize error.
Striking lack of diversity

Finally, Heilbrun and Brooks make a strong plea for greater attention to our field's lack of ethnic and cultural diversity, lest forensic psychology become irrelevant by the mid-21st century:
One of the striking gaps in forensic psychology is between those who provide services and those who are assessed and treated, and about whom legal decisions are made, in consideration of these services. It is crucial that this gap be narrowed. The racial and ethnic composition of the United States is changing; by 2040, it is estimated that Latina/Latino citizens will be in the majority. The delivery of services, and the research on their effectiveness, by individuals with a high degree of specific cultural competence is likely to be promoted by increasing the number of forensically trained psychologists of African American, Asian American, Latina/Latino, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and multiracial backgrounds providing such services.

Addressing this goal will require actively encouraging, even recruiting, minority individuals as early as high school. Minority issues within APA are promoted in part through a multigroup council. One potentially effective strategy for the field of forensic psychology would involve closer collaboration with councils like this and with secondary schools and colleges that educate substantial proportions of minority students. The effectiveness of this diversity effort will have a major impact on the extent to which forensic psychology is perceived as providing services that are culturally competent and effective—and the extent to which it actually provides such services.
The article is: Heilbrun, K., & Brooks, S. (2010). Forensic psychology and forensic science: A proposed agenda for the next decade. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 16, 219-253. Correspondence should go to Dr. Heilbrun.

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