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Ethical Dilemmas Faced by Forensic Psychologists

Ethical Dilemmas Faced by Forensic Psychologists

In the complex system of criminal justice, officers and personnel are often faced with ethical dilemmas. They are forced to make decisions that could sometimes go against their morals or even makes decisions that go against the law to protect their morals. Forensic psychologists are often confronted with ethical dilemmas in practice.

Ethical dilemmas do not just come up in the lives of professionals involved in the criminal justice system. Ethical issues arise in the lives of all people. A person is facing an ethical dilemma when he or she decides “to accept responsibility and make a decision involving ethical considerations” (Banks, 2013). According to the text Criminal Justice Ethics, Theory, and Practice, “An ethical dilemma arises only when a decision must be made that involves a conflict at the personal interpersonal, institutional, or societal level or raises issues of rights or moral character” (Banks, 2013). Therefore, an ethical dilemma is different from just an ordinary dilemma.

Ethical Dilemmas in the Field

A major issue that Forensic Psychologists face is the differing goals of their profession and the rest of the criminal justice or legal system. Forensic psychologists focus more on rehabilitation and curing criminals of their bad ways, while the justice system is more focused on the criminal paying a debt to society (Dickie, 2008). The legal system runs on more of a political scale and what looks good to the public instead of focusing on the real underlying problem.

Often within the corrections system, psychologists are forced to change their focus from the inmates who need help to the inmates who cause problems. The psychologists’ main goal in prisons is to be there to help the inmates who have mental illnesses (Kieliszewki, 2011). What typically ends up happening is that the inmates who cause disturbances are sent to the psychologists to figure out why they are causing a problem so it can be solved. Psychologists have to focus on these inmates because the prison system needs the psychologists’ help to keep order, so the inmates who are mentally ill and need treatment sometimes get pushed to the back burner.

Forensic Psychologist Paul Reitman has been facing an ethical dilemma within the Minnesota justice system. The program set in place for the sex offenders in the area requires them to be restricted to a facility (Reitman, 2010). The original goal was supposed to be three years, but people are not being released from the facility at all. Politicians in office do not see a problem with this because the neighborhoods are safer (Reitman, 2010). Dr. Reitman sees little positive results in the offenders’ behavior and thinks it is ethically wrong to keep them captive for such a long time. One question that could be raised is if it would be ethical to release the sex offenders and possibly danger the community (Reitman, 2010).

Psychologists often have to choose between what is right for a criminal versus what is right for the public. Most professionals of the criminal justice system do not think twice about the rights of a criminal if it could possibly endanger the surrounding community. Psychologists’ minds are framed to think differently in these types of situations. To them, these people are not just criminals; they are also patients who need help. Some might view them as the devil’s advocate, but some people fail to realize that these criminals are just humans who are mentally ill and have made mistakes. With some effort, it is possible for them to change and for future criminal activity to be prevented.

Another example of an ethical dilemma that involves public safety versus patient’s rights is a scenario involving a schizophrenic man (Sen, 2007). The man is in a maximum security hospital and is prone to attacking other patients in the facility. To stop him from attacking other patients, he is put in solitary confinement (Sen, 2007). Seclusion is not good for a patient in his condition so many Psychologists want to bring him out of confinement and possibly restrain him with a waist band so he can still interact with the patients (Sen, 2007).

The problem arises here. Restraints are not exactly considered the usual treatment and are questions ethically. On the other hand, the solitary confinement of a schizophrenic patient is also questioned ethically (Sen, 2007). The dilemma that the psychologists are faced with is whether or not the restraints could be considered ethical, but also, the safely of the other patients have to come first. Something has to be done to stop him from hurting others (Sen, 2007).

Ethical dilemma scenario number three focuses on a man with severe treatment-resistant schizophrenic illness. He often has depressive periods where he refuses to eat or drink and becomes dangerous to the staff at the hospital he is contained (Sen, 2007). The only way the staff can help him recover from these episodes is through Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). They have to forcibly restrain him and give this treatment to him against his will under legal guidelines (Sen, 2007). He is anesthetized, and then nutrients are injected through his veins while the anesthetic is in his system (Sen, 2007).

The problem the staff often faces is that they do not feel as if it is right for them to forcibly give him this treatment against his will and to inject him with nutrients without him knowing (Sen, 2007). They have a caring relationship with him and feel as if this kind of activity compromises that. On the other hand, this is the only way that they can keep him alive until he gets out of his depressive periods (Sen, 2007). Sometimes, what can seem unethical is the only thing saving a person’s life.

Possible Solutions to the Dilemmas

In the first dilemma, the forensic psychologist is faced with choosing between the majority’s decisions which seem to be the best for the public, and what seems best for the criminal and helpful to the public. I believe a solution to this problem would be to choose what is best for the criminal. The criminal justice system is also supposed to be focused on justice for the criminal involved. That could include help for mental illness which could prevent the individual from participating in future criminal acts. In this situation, I would work on a program that would be less restrictive and more effective in helping individuals deal with their problems. This way, they can be released into the community without much concern regarding whether or not they will strike again.

In the second dilemma, I believe that it is ethical to restrain the schizophrenic man by using a waste band restraint. It is obvious that the man cannot be allowed out and about without some kind of restriction because he has attacked other patients. It is dangerous the other patients, as well as the staff to allow him to move freely around the hospital. Also, we have to look at the patient’s health and what is best for him. Although putting him in solitary confinement makes it safe for the other patients in the hospital, it is not healthy for him. Locking a patient with schizophrenia in a room by himself could possibly make the patient’s condition worse than it already is. It would do more harm to him than good in that situation. Therefore, the best option should be to use restraints, although it is not possible to get the patient’s consent because of his state of mind.

Finally, the third scenario involved the choice of giving a person free will versus saving his or her life. The staff felt guilty and felt as if they had ruined the type of relationship they had with the patient because they were giving him a particular treatment against his will. I believe that the treatment may be a little harsh, but it is necessary to keep the patient alive. If the staff does not continue to force this treatment on the individual, their lives could be in danger as well as his. Without this treatment, the patient would not be getting the nutrients he needs to live because when in his depressive period, he refused to eat or drink anything. Although the decision to continue this force of treatment would weigh heavy on their hearts, it would be easier to bear than the fact that they let the patient die in order to assure he could exercise his freedom of not having to eat.


Forensic psychologists in these scenarios were faced with situations that caused them to have to make difficult ethical decisions. Forensic psychologists are often faced with having to make difficult ethical decisions, such as in court evaluations. A book published by American Psychological Association and co-authored by three psychologists named Ethical Practice in Forensic Psychology suggests an eight-step model helps with the decision-making process (Wettstein, 2008). The model begins with identifying the problem and ends with assessing the outcome and implementing changes that are necessary (Wettstein, 2008). This process can be used to help when ethical dilemmas arise in any field of the criminal justice system (Wettstein, 2008).


Banks, C. (2013). Criminal Justice Ethics, Theory and Practice. Washington D.C., United States of America: Sage Publications, Inc. 11-12.

Dickie, I. (2008) Ethical Dilemmas, Forensic Psychology, and Therapeutic Jurisprudence. Thomas Jefferson Law Review. 30, 455.

Kieliszewki, J. (2011). Forensic Psychology in Correction: Roles and Ethical Dilemmas. Current Perspectives in Criminal Psychology. Retrieved from corrections.html

Reitman, P. M. (2010). Ethical Decision-Making Challenges for Psychologists. Minnesota Psychological Association. 33- 35.

Sen, P., Gordon, H., Adshead, G., Irons, A. (2007). Ethical Dilemmas in Forensic Psychiatry: Two Illustrative Cases. Journal of Medical Ethics. 33(6), 337-341.

Wettstein, R. M. (2008) Ethical Practice in Forensic Psychology: A Systematic Model for Decision Making Forensic Ethics and the Expert Witness. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 36(4), 595- 598.


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In a well-written discussion, address the following:

One common dilemma faced by child psychologists is determining who th” “clie”t” is. Given that children are typically brought to treatment by their parents, how would you handle a child who confides in you some illicit behavior and asks you not to tell his or her parents?

Ethical Dilemmas Faced by Forensic Psychologists

Ethical Dilemmas Faced by Forensic Psychologists

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