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Ethical Issues in Forensic Psychology


Psychologists face many moral dilemmas in law due to the field’s nature. They are responsible for deciding people’s fates, which puts pressure on them. Sometimes lives depend on their fair assessment, such as when a death sentence is available. While ethical codes and regulations may be functional, they do not cover every case and may not consider external circumstances. The academic aspect also has certain issues in research, which then affect real-life outcomes. Professionals can mitigate ethical problems with varying success, and each area requires specific tools.

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Law Enforcement

Criminal profiling presents a complex ethical issue, with some professionals doubting its validity. In law enforcement, the process is generally informal and experience-based (Turvey, 2018). While it facilitates investigation, such forms of malignant miscommunication as negligence and fraud are common (Turvey, 2018). The media image of criminal profiling negatively influences people’s perception, leading to ignorance and bigotry (Turvey, 2018). Mitigation measures typically include systemic and organized thinking, and enriching one’s experience is also useful (Turvey, 2018). Dishonesty has legal consequences, established in such cases as California v. Caleb Madsen and California v. Raymond Lee Jennings (Turvey, 2018). The International Association of Forensic Criminologists makes one eligible to conduct criminal profiling, and professional transparency, including methodology and code of ethics, is necessary.

Courts System

Empathy bias in court testimonies is a considerable objectivity concern. One’s professional experience may negatively impact evaluation, as being empathetic in therapy is encouraged (Mulay et al., 2018). Conversely, the absence of empathy is equally detrimental, making one desensitized to certain materials (Mulay et al., 2018). Surprisingly, the mental illness stigma is prevalent among psychologists while they perform evaluations, being harsher to such individuals (Mulay et al., 2018). Potential mitigation measures include setting boundaries, using method effects, and performing countertransference management to control one’s reactions. The American Psychological Association (APA)’s guidelines cover impartial and unbiased evaluation (Mulay et al., 2018). Additionally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s policies combats the mental illness stigma.


Labeling in corrections remains a significant ethical challenge, as some may not consider it a problem. Yet, labeling stigmatizes people and hinders rehabilitation, even if what they did (a sexual offense) is particularly heinous (Willis, 2018). Names of correctional programs, such as a Sex Offender Treatment Program, send a certain message (Willis, 2018). The issue is mitigated by using the therapeutic relationship, which is established between a client and a psychologist, and the Pygmalion effect, which may facilitate positive reinforcement (Willis, 2018). Some laws contribute to the stigma through the terminology; meanwhile, the APA discourages labeling and advocates for neutral terms.


A major academic issue is the inability to identify personal biases. Everyday activities may affect one’s perception of the studied phenomena; consequently, any conflicts of interest remain undisclosed (Allan, 2020). Mitigation is possible through peers, editors, and critical thinking, but the first two are also subject to bias (Allan, 2020). One should follow Justice, Fidelity, Care, and Responsibility principles, which are present in the APA’s Code of Ethics (Allan, 2020). Moreover, the organization promotes bias-free language, inclusivity, and ethics, which partially alleviates the issue.


All areas have their forensic psychology-related issues, some of which coincide. Bias is very common, affecting the objective assessment used in law enforcement and court. Mitigation measures exist and help resolve the problems, although not everyone is aware of them. The APA tends to cover potential ethical aspects, so one is forewarned about what not to do. Sometimes, laws inherently stigmatize a specific group and hinder its rehabilitation, but beneficial policies and regulations are also present. Much depends on a specialist’s personal and professional integrity, as sufficient disincentives exist in the field.


Allan, A. (2020). Structuring the debate about research ethics in the psychology and law field: An international perspective. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 27(3), 397-411.

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Mulay, A. L., Mivshek, M., Kaufman, H., & Waugh, M. H. (2018). The ethics of empathy: Walking a fine line in forensic evaluations. Journal of Forensic Psychology Research and Practice, 18(4), 320–336.

Turvey, B. E. (2018). Criminal profiling: Evidence, experts, and miscarriages of justice. In W. J. Koen & C. M. Bowers (Eds.), The psychology and sociology of wrongful convictions: Forensic science reform (pp. 11-46). Elsevier.

Willis, G. M. (2018). Why call someone by what we don’t want them to be? The ethics of labeling in forensic/correctional psychology. Psychology, Crime & Law, 24(7), 727–743.

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