There are four roles of the psychologist in the criminal justice system: the applied scientist, basic scientist, policy evaluator, and advocate. There is a clear distinction between each role and a clear venue for each persona to come through for the psychologist. Similarly, each role of the psychologist corresponds to different services that psychologists can serve in the community and in the criminal justice system. Psychologists have, for decades, served as expert witnesses, witnesses of fact, researchers, assessors, and advocates (Krieshok, 1987). In settings such as law enforcement, corrections, and court systems, psychologists must balance these roles and serve within them to the best of their ability.
The first role is that of the applied scientist. An applied scientist is one who applies specific knowledge to solve practical, real-world problems (Greene et al., 2007). Unlike the basic scientist, the applied scientist does not acquire knowledge simply for knowledge’s sake (Greene et al., 2007). The applied scientist seeks to solve a problem that is afflicting a particular population and conducts research that is designed to mimic and better understand the effected population, the problem, and possible solutions (Greene et al., 2007). For example, in court cases and correctional facilities, psychologists often conduct research to determine whether or not certain suspects or defendants are capable of standing trial or if they have a relevant mental health diagnosis. Psychologists frequently conduct psychological evaluations for the purpose of solving problems that arise in the legal process of charging suspects, sentencing criminals, and housing convicts (Miller, 2013). In the court system, psychologists are commonly called upon to verify or refute the basis of an insanity defense, for instance (Miller, 2013). By conducting applied research, the criminal justice system is able to make well-informed decisions for the good of the community and apply appropriate punishments to those who violate the law.
The second role is that of the basic scientist. A basic scientist is one who seeks knowledge for the sake of satisfying one’s own curiosity or for learning more about a particular field (Greene et al., 2007). A basic scientist generally studies phenomena to increase his or her understanding of the event for the purposes of contributing to a specific field or area of expertise (Greene et al., 2007). The basic scientist seeks to become more familiar with a particular topic or event, not to solve a problem (Greene et al., 2007). In the criminal justice field, many psychologists study phenomena such as recidivism and common personality traits or repeat offenders for the sake of better understanding those they may encounter in the correctional facilities, in law enforcement, and in the community at large (Miller, 2013). The natural curiosity many psychologists have lends itself well to the ultimate purposes of the community and the criminal justice system.
The third role of the psychologist in the criminal justice field is that of the policy evaluator. The policy evaluator is one who methodically assesses how well a given policy is serving its purpose (Greene et al., 2007). Policy evaluators typically work with data reports and first-hand accounts of experiences with a given policy and the expected outcomes (Greene et al., 2007). Policy evaluators are extremely valuable in criminal justice programs such as parole and probation, for example. One of the most difficult aspects of being a policy evaluator is the utmost importance of impartiality. Policy evaluators must set aside their own desires for a specific outcome and judge the policy based on the given data and results (Greene, 2007). Policy evaluators inevitably make difficult decisions. For example, a policy evaluator may be obligated, based on the data presented and the results of a given program, to recommend that only a certain number of parolees be eligible for a transitional treatment facility in order to make the program as beneficial as possible to those who are able to partake in the program (Greene, 2007). Policy evaluators are valuable pieces of the criminal justice system as they ensure that all criminal justice programs and entities are serving their populations as efficiently and ethically as possible.
The final role of the psychologist is that of being an advocate. When a psychologist is serving as an advocate, he or she speaks on behalf of a particular population and speaks from the authority of one who has the populations best psychological well-being and mental health in mind (Greene et al., 2007). The advocate is responsible for supporting movements, policies, and services that will improve the psychological welfare of the community at large (Greene et al., 2007). Advocates are not concerned with monetary gain or notoriety (Greene et al., 2007). In the criminal justice field, many psychologists are called into the court system to state their professional opinion on whether or not a defendant or plaintiff has any psychological backing for his or her assertions (Krieshok, 1987). As a psychologist, one must state one’s professional opinion free of bias or judgment on the defendant or plaintiff and state the facts of what is beneficial to both the client and to society. At times the best interests of the client will be in conflict with the best interests of the community, and vice versa, which makes the role of being an advocate one that requires a great deal of ethical training and decision making skills (Rogers, 1985). Lyon and Levine (1982) address this issue by posing to psychologists the question of: “Who is the client?” Determining who the client is – the defendant, plaintiff, defense lawyer, community organization, etc. – can facilitate counselors’ ethical decisions as advocates. By better understanding their own roles in the various settings of the criminal justice system, psychologists can serve their communities to their fullest potential and make use of the myriad skills and resources psychologists today have at their disposal.