Forensic psychology is where the science of the mind meets criminal justice. More specifically, it is “anything psychology-related having to do with the criminal justice system and/or the psychology related to homeland security,” says Justin Ramsdell, faculty member in the Department of Psychology. This aptly describes the new forensic psychology minor and concentrations being offered at George Mason University in fall 2016.
Since the passage of the Community Mental Health Act in the 1960s, state mental hospitals have closed and community-based mental health care facilities have taken their place. But resources to care for those affected by this change have not followed the shifts, and individuals diagnosed with mental illness have landed in the criminal justice system. Police officers, as the first point of contact with the system, need an understanding of severe mental illness to perform their jobs effectively. In fact, notes Ramsdell, every local law enforcement agency has instituted mandatory training on issues related to mental health for all officers.
Ramsdell is a licensed clinical psychologist and the architect of the new forensic psychology program. Describing himself as a “forensic generalist,” he brings his considerable experience to the curriculum, drawing on his background as an expert witness consultant and a trainer for government law enforcement agencies and local police crisis intervention teams.
“I try and bring in everything that I’ve done,” he explains. “Luckily, I’ve had maximum security prison, maximum security mental hospital, jail, homeland security, and private-sector [experience]. The content of the minor is drawn from that experience.”
Forensics has become a growing field for psychology majors as well, as it provides knowledge on assessment of mental competency, criminal responsibility, and risk of recidivism, and aids in child custody cases or jury selection consulting.
“If you’re a psych-minded person and you want a job in parole, probation, or in a jail, or you want to go into social work but you like community mental health work, then you need to understand forensic psychology,” he says.
The program requires introduction to psychology and abnormal psychology courses that serve as a base for understanding future concepts. An introduction to forensic psychology and a course on mental illness in the criminal justice system are also requirements. The program rounds out with electives, including an introduction to criminal justice, lab opportunities, a course in the psychology of the victim experience, a course on the use of pseudoscience in forensic psychology, and neurobiology of criminal behavior.
The minor is designed for students to encounter and learn from real-world experience. In the course on mental illness and the criminal justice system, students meet with various participants in the system: a police officer trained in crisis de-escalation, mental health staff from a local jail, a public defender, a prosecutor, a victims’ sentencing advocate, and parole and probation personnel. They comment on the cases discussed in class and exchange views with the students. In the course on the psychology of the victim experience, students hear interviews from survivors of such crimes as child abduction, assault, domestic violence, and murder, and apply psychological theory directly to these cases. The program is designed for students to understand real-world issues of the court system and how mentally ill people function within it, explains Ramsdell.
“I wanted our graduates to solve a problem,” he says. “I want them to be able to go do something."
This article originally appeared in the 2016 edition of Cornerstone.
June 24, 2016