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Forensic Psychology: Important Issues

Why is it difficult to determine “insanity” from a psychological perspective? What is the difference between “insanity” and “psychosis?”

Forensic psychologists consider that task of determining insanity extremely difficult. There is a difference between insanity as a psychological condition and a legal concept (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2008). That way, an individual recognized by the doctors as having a mental illness may (and in most cases – will not) be eligible for the insanity defense. An example of such a case is that of David Tarloff, who attacked and murdered a psychologist in her office by stabbing her with a knife (Buettner, 2013).

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The defense of Tarloff never plead “not guilty”, his crime was never in question. Instead, the defense was based on the report of Tarloff’s mental assessment. The accused was found guilty as the defense was unable to prove that his state of mind at the moment of committing a crime prevented him from acknowledging that his attack was wrong. A person may be recognized as psychotic and be sentenced, to plead NGRI one is to be insane. The legal insanity is characterized by the absence of connection with reality and understanding of one’s own actions at the moment of committing a crime. In all the other cases, an individual will not be found NGRI.

How does a forensic psychologist assess competency? What is the difference between competency to “plead guilty” and to “stand trial?” How is the competency of juveniles determined?

The prohibition to conduct trials against people who do not understand their meaning is one of the primary principles of American criminal justice (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2008). Therefore, prior to putting an accused individual under a trial, they are to be recognized as fit to stand the proceedings and represent themselves. The assessment may be conducted at any stage of the criminal justice process, and its purpose is to make a statement of the ability of an accused person to understand how to trail works and be in cooperation with their defense attorney (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2008). To evaluate one’s competency, a psychologist conducts a screening test, a fitness interview, or uses the competency assessment instrument.

To be able to plead guilty, an individual is to be determined “knowing, intelligent, and voluntary” (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2008, p. 123). While to be recognized fit to stand trial, one needs to understand how it works and cooperate with the defense, to be able to plead guilty, the accused is to be educated about the range of punishment, the charges, and to testify in a manner that is relevant to the trial and appropriate in the courtroom (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2008).

Competency of juveniles is in question when a child is 12 years old or younger when he or she has a mental illness history, a learning disability, or low intellectual functioning (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2008).

How does a forensic psychologist make a prediction of violence? How do they predict sexual offending?

There are 3 groups of violence predictors – static (unchangeable settings and situations, personal traits, illnesses, conditions), dynamic (changeable environments), and risk management predictors (based on the potential future situations and events) (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2008). These factors are considered the main contributors to violent behaviors. VRAG (Violence Risk Assessment Guide) is a tool that allows psychologists to determine the likeliness of potential violent recidivism.

A sexual offense is predicted based on “serious sexual offense histories, higher scores on measures of psychopathy, and more phallometrically measured sexual interest in violence against women (phallometers measure penile erection)” (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2008, p. 139).

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Buettner, R. (2013). Mental Illness Is No Guarantee Insanity Defense Will Work for Tarloff. Web.

Fulero, S. M., & Wrightsman, L. S. (2008). Forensic Psychology (3rd ed.). New York, N.Y.: Cengage Learning.

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