Help is at hand

A man was walking in the street when he was badly beaten and robbed. As he lay bleeding, a psychologist, who happened to be passing, hurried over to him. The psychologist looked carefully at the victim’s injuries and said, “I know exactly why they’ve done this to you.” Unfortunately for the victim, it was a forensic psychologist, and a bad joke.

Dr Clarke

But more seriously, in this article, Dr Annabel Clarke (Forensic Psychological Services) discusses how forensic psychologists can offer a range of services to assist you in advocating for your clients.

What exactly does a forensic psychologist do?

Forensic psychologists specialise in applying psychological knowledge to legal matters. In practice, this means we focus on assessment, treatment and management of offending behaviour.

We provide reports for the courts and the New Zealand Parole Board giving opinions and recommendations, including providing structured assessment of future risk, elucidating mitigating factors or making recommendations with regard to sentencing, parole, rehabilitative treatment or management.

The involvement of a forensic psychologist can benefit a wide range of clients, from prolific and entrenched sexual and violent offenders, through to those on their first charge.

We frequently add understanding to offending behaviour in the context of mental health difficulties, intellectual challenges or other special circumstances. This may include cases where the offending behaviour is unusual or out of character, or where it is repetitive and fresh ideas are needed.

So, how can a forensic psychologist help your case?

Independent reports and opinions

An independent report could be useful in several ways, including identifying new and relevant information, or highlighting areas of weakness or dissidence in official reports. In some circumstances, it may be beneficial to confirm the official evaluation with an independent report as a second opinion. In most cases, there will be minor differences between reports which will likely provide you with assistance for your case.

Case example: Your client is due to finish sentence for child sex offences and you have been advised the Department of Corrections is seeking an Extended Supervision Order. Your client is legally-aided. You instruct a forensic psychologist to write an independent report which highlights some weaknesses in the Department’s case. The forensic psychologist appears in court as an expert witness to explain his or her findings.

Promoting and achieving best outcomes

Achieving best outcomes for your clients can sometimes be difficult within a sometimes inflexible justice system. Your client may have extenuating circumstances or context surrounding his or her offending – factors which make him or her vulnerable or different – or mental health issues or low intellectual capacity. Utilising a forensic psychologist could contribute to achieving the best outcome.

Case example: Your client with an extensive mental health history and persistent suicidality committed a serious violent offence against someone that had previously abused him. He is fit to stand trial, fit to plead and legally-aided. You instruct a forensic psychologist to provide a pre-sentence report which elucidates the circumstances of the offence and makes recommendations with regard to his sentencing given his vulnerability and suicidality.

Early intervention and engagement

Early intervention and engagement with rehabilitative treatment may assist in mitigation for your client at the time of sentencing. A forensic psychologist could provide individual treatment to address the client’s offending behaviour and risk of re-offending. This is likely to include enhancing the client’s understanding of his or her pathway and triggers to offending behaviour, and utilising alternative strategies and self-management techniques.

Case example: Your client has no previous criminal record and is charged with non-contact child sex offences. The client is self-funded. You instruct a forensic psychologist in the provision of a psychological pre-sentence report. The client attends six individual treatment sessions prior to his sentencing date. The forensic psychologist provides a treatment letter to update the court on treatment progress prior to sentencing.

Internal knowledge and experience of the justice system

Forensic psychologists have excellent experience and knowledge of the internal workings of the justice system. This could assist you as an advocate for your client in several ways, including recommending the most effective rehabilitative treatment or identifying the opportunities available to your client that can contribute towards his or her progression.

Case example: Your female client is serving seven years’ imprisonment for drugs offences when her family experiences a significant crisis. You refer to a forensic psychologist to discuss early release on parole. The forensic psychologist advises on accessing appropriate rehabilitative treatment. Post-treatment, your client applies for an early parole hearing and you instruct the forensic psychologist to provide a New Zealand Parole Board report elucidating the circumstances of family difficulties.

How much will it cost?

As a rough guide, I would suggest the following:

  • Pre-sentence or New Zealand Parole Board report $3,000;
  • ES report $6,000;
  • individual hourly sessions for private assessment or treatment $180;
  • expert witness testimony charged separately.

How do I find a forensic psychologist?

You can locate a forensic psychologist by using the “find a psychologist” function on the NZ Psychological Society or the NZ College of Clinical Psychologists websites and specifying the “criminal behaviour” or “forensic” field.

Alternatively, you could utilise an organisation such as The Forensic Group Ltd which provides an independent forensic science consultancy service.

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