Forensic and criminal psychology is a study of the relationships between psychology and the law. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2011) defines ‘Forensic’ as “Of, used in, courts of law”. Criminal psychology primarily focuses on the criminals reasons for committing a crime.
The origins of this field began in the mid-18th century. It has evolved over years of studying, research and analysis to the modern day established discipline that is recognised and respected worldwide.
Until the 13th century mental conditions were generally not recognised and had no bearing on a trial. Over the centuries some recognition began to develop regarding a person’s ability to stand trial, however these were very rudimentary considerations. In 1581 a legal treatise stated that: “If a madman or a natural fool, or a lunatic in the time of his lunacy do [kill a man], this is no felonious act for they cannot be said to have any understanding will” A Crime of Insanity – Frontline
This was extended by the 18th century to the ‘wild beast’ test which held that an insane person is like a wild beast which would be incapable of committing a crime.
In 1764 Cesare Beccaria wrote the treatise ‘On Crimes and Punishment’ where “for the first time the principles of a penal reform were expressed in a systematic and concise was” (Maestro p34). Beccaria detailed “For a punishment to attain its end, the evil which it inflicts has only to exceed the advantage derivable from the crime” Criminology.fsu.edu p.4
It is Hugo Munsterberg (1863 – 1916) who is often considered the founding father of forensic and criminal psychology. His book ‘On the Witness Stand’ put forward a view that psychology could enhance the courtroom setting. Munsterberg particularly studied memory and false testimonies which highlighted the need for forensic psychology within the courtroom.
In the case of Daniel M’Naughten 1843, the insanity rule was clarified that the defence was required to demonstrate that the accused had a ‘disease of the mind’. The Legal Dictionary defines “a defendant is legally insane if he/she cannot distinguish between right and wrong in regard to the crime which he/she is charged”. This became the basis of the law governing legal responsibility in cases of insanity in England.
The M’Naughten rule came under criticism, significantly due to the fact that it does not reflect the issue of self-control. Also the definition of ‘disease of the mind’ is a very broad classification. Some brain diseases do not prevent a person from knowing right from wrong, whilst some forms of mental illness do not stem from brain disease.
Due to the limitations that the M’Naughten rule presented, expert witnesses were called on to determine a person’s mental state. From the middle of the 20th century opinions regarding a person’s mental condition were increasingly provided by psychologists.
Once psychologists were accepted into the courtroom their involvement and wider assessments of offenders became recognised as a significantly important contribution to the management of criminals. By the 1970’s forensic and criminal psychology had developed significantly and is now involved in areas such as witness testaments and jury selection.
As changes happen in law, there are also changes in society, forensic and criminal psychologists have been able to contribute towards materially shaping impact that the changes have upon the law. For example the social impact that feminism caused and the awareness of child abuse.
Perception of crime and it’s affects in society is of great interest to forensic and criminal psychologists and their desire to understand the concept to therefore deal with it better. Patterns and trends within the perception of crime that affects behaviours are studied. For example there is a high fear of crime in women and old people despite the actual low risk rate. In contrast there is