The ‘Incredibly Humanizing’ Field of Forensic Psychology:
At the junction of criminal justice and health care lies the field of clinical forensic psychology — which applies psychological skills related to research, assessment and treatment to the legal field. One common aspect of clinical forensic psychology is the assessment of criminal defendants in order to find the proper course of action, including treatment. The hybrid approach of a forensic psychologist — such as Sara Millspaugh, PhD ’21 — aims to suss out, understand and treat the root causes of criminal behavior.
For Dr. Millspaugh, her decision to pursue this field was made her senior year of high school after an impassioned psychology teacher brought it to her attention. From there on, the academic path she followed — including undergrad at the University of Georgia, employment with the University of Virginia (UVA) and graduate studies at RFU — was lined with professors and mentors who encouraged her.
Because of that same high school teacher, Dr. Millspaugh said, she began taking and “fell in love with” criminal justice-related classes. Because of a teacher’s assistant, she found a love for researching, a core pillar of her career. Because of the work she did with people she described as her “most crucial mentors” — Dr. Janet Warren of UVA and David S. Kosson, PhD, who was “the reason I came to Rosalind Franklin” — she cemented her passion for the career.
Now, Dr. Millspaugh — originally from Baltimore — is living in New Mexico and working with Gold Standard Forensics, LLC. A plus to her career thus far has been the opportunity to move around and see firsthand the differences between states’ legal systems — though regardless of location, the bulk of Dr. Millspaugh’s work revolves around competency to stand trial evaluations.
“Because of a client’s cognitive or mental health issues … does that impact their ability to stand trial? Can they learn about court proceedings?”
“Because of a client’s cognitive or mental health issues … does that impact their ability to stand trial? Can they learn about court proceedings? Can they rationally take the information they know and apply it to their case? Can they work with their lawyer and defense?” Dr. Millspaugh said. “Typically, it’s just an interview with the person. Sometimes we’ll do testing if we think there’s a cognitive issue, like intellectual disability or anything like that.”
Other types of evaluations Dr. Millspaugh conducts are mitigation and diagnostic/treatment evaluations — which involve assisting defense attorneys to ensure their client receives a certain sentence or a specific type of treatment. These evaluations may include discussing clinically relevant matters, such as the impact of trauma on the defendant’s functioning or the effects of incarceration of a parent on a child.
This type of consultation and intercession on behalf of the client reveals a part of the criminal justice system that is often stifled: humanizing those who have committed crimes.
“It’s really about talking to them. We go through their full background: Where were you born and raised? How was your relationship with your parents? … Everything. What’s your mental health treatment? What are their current symptoms? Also, what do we observe by our interactions with them, and what do other people observe? So it really is kind of the human side,” Dr. Millspaugh said. “I’ve worked in jails, prisons and various other (institutions), but I loved working in corrections, because you really got to know the person instead of their crime.”
She added that in these circumstances, one must be aware of their biases and check them, because for Dr. Millspaugh, these experiences “really changed the way I view the world. … That’s really what forensic psychology is, and I’ve found it should be incredibly humanizing.”
Margaret Smith is a Chicago-based freelance editor and writer whose work largely focuses on current sociopolitical happenings.