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Law and Crime

The Psychology of Crime

The question of why people choose to commit crimes—often in the face of severe consequences—is at the root of criminal psychology, a branch of study that focuses on the intentions and behaviors of those who plan and carry out criminal acts.

Criminal psychology does more than provide a glimpse into a criminal's psyche. It also plays a role in how the law is applied. In the courtroom, legal practitioners require a grasp of defendants' motivations and actions in order to render fair judgment. Forensic psychologists, as well as other mental health professionals, are often called upon to help clinically evaluate the mental states of people who break the law.

Psychology plays a role in police work as well. Criminal profilers—who aim to determine likely suspects through a mix of crime-scene analysis, investigative psychology, and other behavioral sciences—are often forensic psychologists or criminal anthropologists. Law enforcement agencies often rely on these experts to get inside the head of a potential culprit by identifying the perpetrator's likely personality type, lifestyle habits, and quirks.

How Psychology Influences the Law

Over the years, a greater understanding of psychology, psychiatry, and human behavior more generally has engendered significant changes in how legal experts think about the law, as well as changes in how the mentally ill are treated by the criminal justice system.

Among significant changes include the push towards deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, which coincided with the development of more advanced psychiatric medications and a greater understanding of the causes and potential treatments for mental disorders. In addition, the decriminalization of homosexuality in the U.S. was likely significantly influenced by the growing psychological acceptance that homosexuality—and more recently, being transgender—are not mental disorders.

In addition, legal professionals—including lawyers, police officers, and judges—now regularly consult with psychologists to assess defendants’ state of mind and provide treatment if necessary. This branch of psychology, known as forensic psychology, has grown exponentially in recent years.

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