Throughout my career I've always had a great deal of respect for forensic and clinical psychologists. Although sometimes extra-ordinarily expensive in terms of report writing and like hens teeth in terms of community provision, they've always been worth their weight in gold in my experience. This has been especially so in relation to extremely damaged and/or dangerous offenders. As a result, I've always been an enthusiastic supporter of probation services employing their own, but cost has always been stated as a reason for precluding this option.
Unlike the Probation Service, there has been a considerable expansion of psychology provision within the Prison Service and I've previously made mention of the fact that most staff seem to be young female trainees. I've also become aware of the high degree of suspicion with which the psychology department seems to be held in by some inmates. Contributors to the prison magazine 'Inside Time' often make reference to 'snake oil' when discussing the topic.
Now ordinarily I would not be that surprised by some prisoners objecting to any process by which they are assessed, but until I read about it in the latest edition of 'Inside Time', I was not aware of a piece of research by Professor Jane Ireland of the University of Central Lancashire into the quality of psychology reports prepared in Family Law cases. Her findings are extremely worrying, including the fact that two thirds were found to be either 'poor' or 'very poor' and that one in five 'experts' were found to be inadequately qualified. Now although this research did not involve work in criminal cases, the article goes on to make several worrying observations that may well be highly relevant to the Criminal Justice System:-
A significant number of prisoners have remarked on how some of the Report findings echo the experience they are also having, at hearings of the Parole Board. Complaints range from wildly inaccurate risk assessment and psychology reports written by trainees, to occasions when offender management reports are written about prisoners whom the probation officer has never actually interviewed or even met.
Matters are not helped by current legislation that allows a person who is wholly unqualified in psychology to use the title ‘psychologist’. That unqualified people can and do refer to themselves as ‘psychologists’ can clearly lead to gross injustice for the family involved and cause confusion among the public, other concerned professions and the legal system generally. But unless these people openly transgress such boundaries, laws concerning misrepresentation of qualifications,
deception or fraud, they can continue to use the title legally and without hindrance.
Now I'm probably as guilty as most in being a little sloppy in the use of professional titles and descriptions where psychologists are concerned. Over the years I've tended to use the term 'psychologist' on the basis that the person was indeed suitably qualified and regulated by some professional body. No doubt most have been, but I must admit it comes as very disturbing news that in effect anyone can call themselves a psychologist at the present time and Professor Ireland understandably feels that this situation requires urgent attention. This seems pretty obvious to me, not least because of the increasingly important role this discipline is gaining within the Criminal Justice System. The full report can be accessed here.