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The case of India's missing forensic psychologists

Forensic psychologists have previously been called upon and provided their opinions on many high-profile cases. Photo: iStock 
Forensic psychologists have previously been called upon and provided their opinions on many high-profile cases. Photo: iStock 

“Forensic psychology is an emerging field in India” is what one usually hears while speaking to professionals who deal with crime in the country. A cursory Google search for forensic psychology in India will tell you just as much. While it can be agreed upon that crime investigation agencies are indeed adopting more measures which come under the domain of forensic psychology, there is still considerable scope for development. 

Forensic psychologists make up an integral part of criminal investigation systems, as well as prison systems in countries like the UK and Australia. Their profiles are diverse, and comprise taking up roles such as criminal profilers, expert witnesses in courts, suspect interrogators, prison rehabilitation officers and victim counselors.

Unfortunately, their counterparts in India lack such varied, well-defined roles. Indeed, the country's criminal investigative and justice systems would benefit from opening up more domains to forensic psychologists, and using their expertise across various platforms. 

Various governmental and non-governmental agencies involved in crime investigations have separate departments dedicated to psychology. However, these departments see a greater use for clinical psychologists qualified in diagnostics and psychotherapy, as compared to qualified forensic psychologists. The reason behind this remains unclear.

Personal communications with some such psychologists have revealed that they fulfil the roles of undertaking polygraph examinations and narco analyses. While these are some of the tasks that forensic psychologists commonly undertake, their overall profile is not (and perhaps should not be) limited to that. 

Forensic psychologists are usually equipped with basic know-how about the legal framework of their respective country. This enables them to effectively assist courts in cases related to various populations. This could perhaps aid in fast-tracking investigations, through use of systematic interrogation techniques, and the scientific profiling of crimes.

Forensic psychologists have previously been called upon and provided their opinions on myriad high-profile cases. For instance, S.L. Vaya, a renowned forensic psychologist from Gujarat, provided expertise in the Aarushi murder case. While her testimony was largely disregarded by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) at that point, it comes close to the actual turn of events, as revealed by polygraph tests by some of the suspects, which were inadmissible in court as per the law. 

Further, experts have also been assimilating data on types of crimes and criminals, in order to create behavioural profiles for crimes in the Indian context. However, these affiliations and initiatives are non-governmental. Having such expertise within governmental agencies would facilitate rapid dissemination of larger details of crimes, and forensic psychologists could undertake systematic compilation of such data for improving criminal investigation efficiency.

Agencies such as central forensic labs, the CBI and even the police could employ forensic psychologists to undertake such tasks of compilation, analysis and extrapolation from crime data. Various studies, and reports in the Netherlands, Australia and the US, have provided evidence for success of such profiling, and it would be a step in the correct direction for Indian agencies to adopt the same on a more formal level. 

While these investigative benefits of forensic psychologists persist, their role in prison systems is also imperative.

Indian prisons fall behind significantly when it comes to offender interviewing and rehabilitation policies after sentencing. There is minimal structure in place when it comes to remanding offenders. While in countries such as the UK, forensic psychologists conduct objective interviews of offenders and then suggest a basic treatment plan to a clinical psychologist, who delves into the subjective issues, no such hierarchy prevails in India, where a prison psychologist is largely unheard of.

Prisons in India have a hosting capacity for over 366,000 offenders. However, there is more than 110% overcrowding, and an appropriate offender-psychologist ratio would be required in order to understand the perpetrators' mind sets and guide them through their issues. While the idea that prison systems are supposed to be rehabilitative in nature is often stressed upon, much needs to be done in order for that to be put into practice. 

Indeed, Indian prisons would benefit the most from usage of forensic psychologists. Prison psychologists may be required to prepare offenders, specifically first-time offenders, for life in prison. Doing time can become stressful due to the strenuous ways of prisons, groupism, potential threat to life or other forms of bullying by hardened criminals. These facets may result in severe stress levels among prisoners, and this may take a toll on their daily functioning.

 In light of such scenarios, forensic psychologists may intervene so that they can help inmates deal with stress and adapt to prison life in a healthier manner. Inmates often suffer from various mental health issues, which get overlooked (unlike physical health concerns, which are emphasized). 

Further, many might suffer from suicidal ideation, or intend to hurt someone within the prison boundaries or an ex-victim. Many might get attacked themselves, and being victims of such assault inside prisons may induce or aggravate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In such cases, prison psychologists may provide them with immediate attention, encourage them to speak out about their distress and provide them with aid to manage such distresses. Interventions dealing with mental illnesses affecting offenders have been found to be effective in reducing psychiatric recidivism. 

Many inmates are found to be on spectrums of various personality disorders such as antisocial or borderline personality. Further, they may have issues ranging from schizophrenia to drug abuse, all of which require varied assessments and treatment plans. We are no strangers to cases of criminal recidivism, particularly in instances of rape. In such cases, there is a higher likelihood of offenders suffering from personality disorders.

Prison psychologists can undertake assessments for such issues, and tailor treatment plans via group and individual therapy, in order to equip the inmates to adeptly cope with their issues. Such therapy sessions have widely been proven to be effective, and often readied inmates to be released back in society without posing a threat to it.

Thus, working on the perpetrators' mindset through individual and group therapy, and providing an assessment before they are released, might control for reoffending. There are no hard-and-fast interventions that work on all offenders, and therefore appropriate assessment is needed in order to effectively deal with prisoner issues. 

Another aspect of crime that often gets overlooked, or is inappropriately dealt with, is the victim's counselling. Officers who are only trained in finding perpetrators are often unaware about how to deal with the victim, and this responsibility often falls to various NGOs dealing in betterment of victims of crime. In cases of sexual abuse, victims are subjected to rigorous medical examinations and interrogations, which may further take a toll on their mental health. In such instances, psychologists can preliminarily ease their pain by empathizing towards their issues and preparing them for the procedures to follow. 

Moreover, many individuals are victims of communal, caste-based or hate crimes. In such cases, even though the assailants get nabbed, the victims may still undergo trauma from the crime, thereby depicting symptoms of PTSD, helplessness or self-loathing. In such cases, forensic psychologists may aid by communicating with the victims, making them understand that they were not responsible for the occurrence of the crime. Further, they can empower the victims in unconditional self-acceptance and encourage an uninhibited functioning back in the society. 

As a country with one of the highest crime rates in the world, India faces several challenges when it comes to dealing with different aspects of crime. While applying these interventions may sound good in theory, there is a long way to go before these can be successfully implemented. The key is to solve this case of missing forensic psychologists, and make optimum the use of their expertise to strengthen the criminal investigation and correctional processes in India. 

For those interested in studying crime from a psychological perspective, India offers very limited courses in forensic psychology. Some institutes that offer a degree or a diploma in the area are the Gujarat Forensic Sciences University, the Raksha Shaki University (Gujarat), the Institute of Forensic Science, Mumbai, and the Lok Nayak Jayprakash Narayan National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Science. Varied modules are offered at these institutes, ranging from training in suspect interrogation to criminal profiling. 

An individual with a bachelor’s degree in psychology (and sociology for criminology-associated courses) would be eligible to pursue any of these courses. However, many foreign universities offer a wider range of courses for the psychological study of crime and criminal behaviour. While

there aren’t many professionals with these qualifications in India, that is perhaps due to the lack of field opportunities or failure to return to the country after pursuing the pertinent education in foreign countries. The trick would be to create lucrative career opportunities for professionals in this area while simultaneously improving the quality and scope of the field.

Sampada Karandikar is senior research assistant at the department of psychology, Monk Prayogshala. She has a master’s degree in forensic psychology from the University of York, UK.

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