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Criminal Psychology

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What is Criminology ?

Criminology examines why people commit crime, these are the pivotal questions in the ongoing debate of how crime should be handled and prevented. It is an area of law that deals with victims of crime, theories explaining illegal and/or deviant behaviour, the social reaction to crime, the effectiveness of anti-crime policies and the broader political terrain of social control.

Areas of expertise of Criminologists(small example)

Anomie, Social Control Theories
Labelling Theory and Critical Criminology
White Collar Crime

What is Forensic Psychology?

(The science of Behaviour)

Forensic Psychology is used within the justice system to assess offenders, identify criminal capacity in young people and to characterise psychopaths. Identify fitness to stand trial and finally they can be used to determine the likelihood of future violence. Can be used to assess the future criminality of offending minors

Areas of expertise of Forensic Psychologists (small sample)

Criminal Responsibility and Psychiatric Defences
Mental Disorder as a Defence
Eyewitness Testimony

What is Criminal Psychology?

Criminal Psychology (The study of criminal minds)

Criminal Psychology is in plain English, the study of why criminals do what they do. In essence, it is the study of the mental processes, motivational patterns, and behaviour of criminals.

Areas of expertise of Criminal Psychologists (small sample)

Offender Profiling
Geographical Profiling
Eye witness testimony


Introduction to Criminal Psychology

Ever since Cain killed his bother Abel, which was the first recorded murder, people have been fascinated by crime. (Bartol and Bartol, 1999). Since its introduction into mainstream society Criminal Psychology has become an integral part of criminology. (Bartol and Bartol, 1999).
Professionals over the centuries have come up with explanations as to the concepts of crime, Aristotle said:” poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.” Sir Francis Bacon said in (1600’s): “Opportunity makes a thief”. Voltaire & Rousseau said (1700’s);”free will, hedonistic decision making, and the failure of the social contract in producing criminal behaviour”. Classic theory suggests; “people choose to behave wrongly when they believe the benefits outweigh the costs”.
Criminal Psychology is the use of methods, theories & concepts of psychology within the legal and criminal judicial system. These methods are mostly used for predicting the personality, behavioural, and demographic characteristics of an individual based upon an analysis of the crimes he or she has committed. Criminal Psychologists are used in the assessment of offenders prior to sentencing, i.e.

The prosecution and defence may wish to know:

• Whether the offender is competent to stand trial
• Whether the offender was sane at the time the crimes were
They may also be responsible for the management of offenders during sentence and in the community upon release; they may be required to undertake risk assessment for sex offenders in treatment programmes. – Characteristically Criminal Psychologists are used in low volume serious crimes such as serial murder, serial rape, and serial arson. Criminal psychologists also act as expert witnesses and give evidence in court.

Insanity or Incompetent?


Relates to the defendants mental state at the time the offense occurs.

Competence refers exclusively to the defendant’s mental abilities at the time of the proceeding.

An insanity defence is based on the theory that most people can choose to follow the law; but a few select persons cannot be held accountable because mental disease or disability deprives them of the ability to make a rational/voluntary choice.

What is insanity?

The state of being mentally ill, insane, suffering from a separation from reality. Fantasy and reality are often interchanged or intertwined. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein.
In order to give legal standing to a decision on insanity in Court, a definition of insanity for criminal defences was needed. This is used for centuries and is know as the M’Naughton rule.

M’Naughton Rule
The insanity defence traces its roots back to the 1843 when Englishman Daniel McNaughton shot and killed the secretary of the Prime Minister, believing that the Prime Minister was conspiring against him.
McNaughton was acquitted “by reason of insanity,” and his sentence was to spend the rest of this life in a mental asylum. This verdict caused a public outcry, and Queen Victoria ordered the court to develop a stricter test for insanity.

States that, in order to establish insanity, it must be proven that at the time of a crime, the accused had a mental defect (i.e. such as a mental disease) so that she/he did/could not know the nature or quality of their crime at the time of offense–or if the accused did not know that what she/he did was wrong.

History of Criminal Psychology
Psychological Tests that were applicable in Judicial proceedings were originally developed by Alfred Binet and Sigmund Freud their tests proposed that the time taken by the person to answer questions could be an important factor in estimating whether the person is the real culprit or not.

People who influenced Criminal Psychology
In 1901 Dr. William Stern enlisted the aid of a criminologist in staging a test. The setting was a class on law. Stern staged a fake argument without the knowledge of assembled Readers. At the climax of this experimental argument one of the parties drew a gun. At this point the law professor steps in breaking up the fight. This test was the forefront in the research undertaken by Munsterburg in the assessment of eyewitness testimony.

The forefather of criminal Psychology has always been believed to be Hugo Munsterburg
One of the first people in America to recognize and publish concerning the application of psychology to the justice system was Hugo Munsterburg (1863-1916). (Dye. S, 2012)

Munsterburg argued on the basis of psychological research that eyewitness testimony was unreliable & shouldn’t be used by the legal system to give credence to criminal convictions. This was further backed up by other prominent professionals who claimed that eyewitnesses would not be trusted and in fact was successful in approximately 12% of convictions. . (Buckhout, R. & Regan, S. (1988)). Humans are fairly unreliable in how we process information. We are heavily influenced by our emotions at the time of the crime (e.g., rape, assault), may focus our attention on salient features of the crime (e.g., weapon), unsuitable environmental conditions (e.g., darkness; rain) & stress may impair recollection. (Kline. K 2008). Munsterburg published a book called;”on the witness stand”, in this book he noted that eyewitness testimony can be unreliable and how witnesses can be talked into false memories through the power of suggestion.
The first psychologist to testify in a civil trial was Karl Marbe in1922. He offered testimony on the psychological issue of reaction time in a train accident case. In the case the train’s engineer was accused of drinking alcohol prior to the accident.

William Marston
Another former student of Munsterburg. His studies drew the link between blood pressure and when a person is lying. These insights would later lead to polygraph testing. His testimony in 1923 would also become the basis for expert testimony in America.

Donald Slesinger
The first psychologist to be hired as a professor in a law school was Donald Slesinger. In 1929 he was hired by Yale Law School as an associate professor. Slesinger taught the psychology of evidence. Later in 1930 he became the dean of the University of Chicago’s Law School. (Dye. Sarah (2012))

Define Criminal psychology
Criminal psychology in simple words is – the study of human behaviour of criminals and the motivations behind committing a crime. The wills, thoughts, intentions and reactions of criminals are observed keenly and then a report is prepared on this basis. The study also observes the reactions after the crime, on the run or in court. Criminal Psychology is the study of criminal behaviour (Howitt, 2009) or the application of psychology to criminal investigations.

The experience and qualifications of a Criminal psychologist can be requested in determining the fitness of an offender to partake in the criminal trial and they can also be called as witnesses in court cases to help the jury understand the mind of the criminal. Criminal psychologists can engage in activities ranging from creating profiles of offenders or victims based on available information to conducting psychological testing of people on trial for various crimes. Forensic/Criminal psychology is used to apply psychological insights, concepts and skills to the understanding and functioning of the legal and CSJ.
The insights of someone trained in criminal psychology can be valuable in a criminal investigation. These psychological professionals can utilize a variety of clues to gain an insight into the nature of a crime and the person who committed it.

The work of criminal psychologists, while they may be true for a small number, do not represent the wide variety of roles that those trained in criminal psychology can, and do, work.

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