Forensic Psychology and Criminology

The use of psychology in prison systems has had two effects and draws two perceptions: one is that it helps to understand why an offender commits a crime and two, that at times it serves to set offenders free who rightfully deserve to be punished. We evaluate the impact this psychology has had on the criminal justice system with the use of examples in terms of psychiatric disorders that affect the offender. Psychological information helps to determine what time of person is most likely to commit a crime and why.

The purpose of psychology in the criminal justice system has extended itself to helping solve violent and vicious crimes. It is important to recognize that the reason for this is NOT to let offenders go free on the basis of mental incapacitation, but to help find a solution to the causes. A study conducted by Rosenhan sought to ascertain whether psychiatrists can actually successfully tell the difference between a sane person and an insane person. The results showed that once a person had been labeled a certain way, it was difficult to shrug off the stigma (Rosenhan, 1973: 253).

This means that once an offender has been evaluated in order toe stand trial, any number of activities can make them appear to be insane when in fact they may be just a little shrewder than the psychiatrist in question. The argument of Spitzer on Rosenhan believes that this sort of experiment is nullified in the sense that even if the person is not insane, the symptoms are still visible (Spitzer, 1876: 460). The impact this has on for instance the criminal justice system is that anyone is able to feign symptoms of psychological disturbance. In other cases there is evidence of severe psychological impairment.

John Wayne Gacy was not what one would call an obvious psychopath because his behavior to the public was genial and friendly (Taylor, 2003). Gacy worked as a clown at children’s parties and did not appear to have any psychiatric disorder to speak of. It was the use of forensic handwriting analysis that the pathology of his nature was noticed, but only after several dead bodies were found (GSSF, 1997). Gacy was obviously not intending to be caught, due in part to the length of time his activity lasted, and the way in which he carefully disposed of bodies.

Like other serial offenders, Gacy did have a specific Modus Operandi that was evident in Gacy stuffed socks and fabric in the mouths of his victims. Gacy is one example of how psychologists postulate the type of person involved in the crime. The sexual preferences of Gacy may have been evident long before the abnormalities were revealed, but the use of forensic personality postulation in handwriting analysis revealed that he was in fact severely deviant in his sexuality. The question is whether Gacy had been assessed at a younger age that he might not have conducted himself in such a manner in later years?

Psychosis is seen also in megalomaniac authoritarian leaders, where psychotic behavior is identified in the way they view themselves and their minions. One of these psychological problems that forensic psychologists have noted is histrionic personality disorders such as Malignant Narcissism. This is a neurotic disorder that reveals itself as a number of the personality disorders rolled into one (Port, 2007). Dr Stein analyzed Adolf Hitler in terms of the narcissistic personalities.

Hitler had a firm belief that he was had a predestined path to take which included freeing the world of ‘impure’ blood (Stein, 1998, Part I). He was openly deviant of all norms and values that society had organized to protect individuals and also in terms of ethnic tolerance (Stein, 1998, Part I). Similar to this was also Saddam Hussein who also came from a single parent home and had a comparatively deprived childhood (Post, 1990). In both cases, the psychologists attempt to understand the reasons behind why an offender of this type functions in such a way.

The problem with this is that at times it can be argued that the atrocities committed by these offenders are being downplayed in favor of their problems. The main reason why forensic psychology has been placed in such high regard is partly in order to prevent the same things from happening again. Yet given previously mentioned issues, there offenders may not in fact have a serious problem. The film Primal Fear explored the idea that psychological issues can be used to misguide investigators and true psychiatric evaluation is necessary in order to sift the difference between a liar and a true psychopath.