How do criminals think? Is their behaviour calculated or impulsive? And what role do psychiatric pathologies play? These are just some of the questions legal or forensic psychologists must answer while carrying out their work. There are many others related to the victim’s viewpoint, reliability of witnesses, social context, workings of the legal system and rehabilitation capacity of the correctional system. The answers may come from psychology, but also from other disciplines like sociology and law. Overall, the profession of legal psychologist is of a distinctly multidisciplinary nature requiring special training.
The most obvious starting point to qualify as a legal or forensic psychologist is to get a master’s degree in criminal and forensic psychology. A number of Italian universities have been teaching courses in these subjects for some time now (for example Turin University). Alternatively, you can take a master’s degree in psychology and tailor your studies around courses, workshops, and specialist research in criminology. Training courses and internships are an extremely important steppingstone, and it is advisable to choose projects in penitentiaries or institutes specialising in victim support. Choosing the subject of your thesis is also crucial, because it will help you focus more clearly. Specific further education courses and university master’s degrees are also available providing further opportunities for studying and gaining experience. Regardless of what theory they have studied, legal or forensic psychologists must have an excellent basic understanding of cognitive, social, developmental, dynamic and personality psychology. Other subjects to be studied in greater depth include decision-making, the accuracy of eyewitness reports, the reliability of information analysis, the influence of personal-situational factors on memory, false beliefs, confessions, legal reasoning, and the impact of expert testimony.
Legal and forensic psychologists intervene in everything concerning the enforcement of law and implementation of justice. Typically, they may be technical advisors at trials in ordinary, penal, civil and young offenders’ courts, i.e. official technical advisors, technical advisors for the prosecution or technical advisors for the defence. But they usually work in penitentiaries and rehabilitation institutes or, on the other hand, all those associations providing support to victims of crimes like, for example, domestic violence. They may also work for Health Care Agencies or law firms working on legal issues related to families, insurance claims and the workplace. Another career path is research work at universities or public-private study centres.
A legal or forensic psychologist studies and works in as many fields as there are motives for committing a crime. They mainly work in the realms of criminal, forensic, penitential and legal psychology. Criminal psychology focuses on the perpetrator of a crime, regardless of whether it is violent, manipulatory, individual or organised. Forensic psychology deals with issues related to people involved in legal proceedings: not just the accused but also the victims, witnesses, lawyers and even the judge. A penitentiary psychologist studies and works with people who have been convicted of a crime, are already in prison or recovering in a rehabilitation institute. Finally, legal psychology deals with the psychological mechanisms controlling the understanding, enforcement and implications of laws.