Psychological Tests in the Courtroom Essay

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Psychological tests are used to infer information about  the psychological  functioning of clients that  is not directly observable  or reported by them, or may be occurring outside of their own awareness.  While many  forms  of psychological tests have been developed, those commonly used for courtroom applications generally relate to indirect measures of brain functioning (i.e., neuropsychological tests) or those that assess general patterns of thinking, feeling, and relating to others (i.e., personality tests).

These tests can have particular importance in the forensic client, who may—for various reasons—be motivated to present differently than they actually are. Moreover, steps must be taken to ensure the tests are used appropriately, given the influence psychology has on the legal system and the many potentials for abuse. Ethical psychological assessment  involves appropriate test use (i.e., administering, scoring, and interpreting the test in the standardized manner set forth by the test developer) and appropriate test application (i.e., for its intended purposes, on its intended population, using appropriate normative data) by trained and qualified mental health professionals. Furthermore, strengths and weaknesses of tests must be acknowledged, and decisions should not be made using only one assessment tool.

Psychologists are asked by the courts to make conclusions  about  defendants’  mental  status at various points before, during, and even after court proceedings. The most common referral questions addressed by forensic psychologists are criminal responsibility and competency to stand trial. Psychologists also are challenged with determining whether or not the defendant is truly suffering from psychological impairment, or if the defendant is malingering. Finally, psychologists are asked to conduct evaluations for very extreme situations, such as the competency for execution.

Consistent Use of MMPI and WAIS for Various Referral Questions

Research demonstrates that the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) are consistently recommended and frequently used throughout forensic psychology, and specifically during court proceedings for various referral questions.  The MMPI has regularly been used in various court and other forensic assessments, including criminal responsibility, competency to stand trial, malingering, and competency to be executed. Research on the MMPI continues to find high levels of validity and reliability. The MMPI functions  as an important tool in many court evaluations. The Wechsler Intelligence Scales are also consistently used for forensic evaluations. It is necessary by law for defendants to maintain a certain level of intellectual functioning to proceed with court cases, and the most commonly used IQ test is the Wechsler scales.

The WAIS is needed for various referral questions including criminal responsibility and competency to stand trial. Survey studies of diplomats in forensic psychology indicate these measures are often used and recommended for forensic evaluations involving criminal responsibility and competency to stand trial. The MMPI and WAIS can be used for various referral questions and serve as a good foundation for determining the mental capacities and functioning of a defendant on trial. It is important to reiterate, however, that these tests should never be used unaccompanied by various other assessment tools for a sound and ethical decision to be drawn.

Assessment for Criminal Responsibility

Assessment for criminal responsibility, or mental state at the time of the crime, involves evaluating the intellectual,  emotional, and psychological faculties at the time the offense was committed. Several psychological assessments have been used in court to make conclusions about criminal responsibility, including the MMPI, WAIS, Halstead-Reitan Neuropsychological Battery, Luria-Nebraska Neuropsychological Battery, Personality Assessment Inventory (PIA), Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI), and Rogers Criminal Responsibility Assessment Scales (R-CRAS).

The Halstead-Reitan and the Luria-Nebraska are both  very popular standardized neuropsychology assessments. In a 1991 survey, researchers found that over half of psychologists surveyed preferred the Halstead-Reitan over the Luria-Nebraska. Additionally, in 2003, 71 percent of psychologists surveyed found the Halstead-Reitan to be an acceptable assessment tool to determine criminal responsibility, and 58 percent found the Luria-Nebraska to be acceptable for this specific referral question.

The PAI is another tool used to determine mental state at the time of the crime. The PAI was found  to be acceptable  for this referral  question by 69 percent of psychologists surveyed in 2003. K. L. Mullen and J. F. Edens  found that in the first decade of the 21st century the use of this assessment tool increased, especially in legal cases. However, as stated before, the use of only one assessment tool is unacceptable, and the PAI is most often used with other instruments including the MMPI, the MCMI, or other intellectual assessment measures.

The MCMI was deemed acceptable during consideration of criminal responsibility by 54 percent  of psychologists  surveyed.  The use of this assessment in forensic settings, however, has been debated. One topic in this debate is that the MCMI is a self-report measure, which makes it susceptible to response bias. However, the MCMI is also found to have high levels of reliability and validity. While only 54 percent of psychologists surveyed found the MCMI acceptable in determining mental state at the time of the crime, 94 percent of psychologists found the R-CRAS to be acceptable for determining criminal responsibility. The R-CRAS allows for a less general assessment of clinical symptoms and instead offers assessment of more distinct and separate psychological functions.

Assessment for Competency to Stand Trial

A defendant’s competency to stand trial is called into question when he or she cannot assist in their own defense due to intellectual or psychological impairment. Several assessments that are used in determining criminal responsibility are also used for assessing competency to stand trial including the MMPI and WAIS, as well as several others. For example, a survey of psychologists found that 64 percent found the Halstead-Reitan acceptable for measuring competency to stand trial, 52 percent surveyed found the PAI acceptable, and 50 percent found the Luria-Nebraska acceptable for this referral question. However, there are some assessment tools that are specific to competency to stand trial, including the Macarthur Competence Assessment Tool (MacCAT),  the Georgia Court Competency Test (GCCT), and the Competency Screening Test (CST).

The MacCAT helps measure both intelligence and psychopathology. It was recommended by 56 percent of psychologists and found acceptable by 90 percent of psychologists surveyed for determining competency to stand trial. The MacCAT is unique in its assessment of not only general intellectual comprehension and appreciation, but also the comprehension of specific legal aspects.

The Georgia Court Competency Test and the Competency Screening Test are two other assessments that are specific to competency to stand trial. Both the GCCT and the CST have high interscorer reliability. In a 1988 study by R. A. Nicholson et al., in 97.1 percent of cases, separate scorers agreed on competency or incompetency using the CST, and in 94.3 percent of cases scorers agreed when using the GCCT. A survey of psychologists in 2003 also found that 77 percent of psychologists found the CST to be an acceptable tool when determining competency to stand trial.

Assessment for Malingering

Malingering is feigning or faking mental illness, oftentimes in order to avoid negative consequences. Determining malingering is a very challenging task for psychologists. There are several assessment tools that are used for other forensics evaluations that can also be used to determine feigning of mental illness, including the PAI and the Halstead-Reitan, which was found acceptable by 53 percent and 51 percent (respectively) of psychologists  surveyed. However,  there are also assessments that are specifically designed to assess malingering. One such tool is the Test of Memory  Malingering (TOMM), which allows psychologists to see malingering of specific cognitive deficits.

The Structured Interview of Reported Symptoms (SIRS) is another tool designed specifically for malingering evaluation. The SIRS has been found very effective in determining feigning of mental illness in defendants. In a survey of psychologists, 58 percent recommended the SIRS and 89 percent found it an acceptable tool for determining malingering. In one study it was found to have a hit rate of 90.8 percent in determining malingering. The SIRS and SIRS-2 are very valuable tools in determining whether a defendant is feigning mental illness; however, it is important to reiterate that it is not to be used in isolation.

Competency for Execution

Finally, several previously mentioned assessment tools are used during competency for execution evaluations including the MMPI, WAIS, MCMI, SIRS, and Halstead-Reitan. However,  there are few  instruments available  specifically  for  the referral question of competency to be executed. The Competency for Execution Research Rating Scales (CERRS) is a tool that research has shown to aid professionals in the legal and clinical aspects of such an extreme evaluation.


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