Study: Psychology tests in courtrooms may not be effective


SALISBURY, Md. – Psychology and the courtroom, that’s the focus of one new study by the Association for Psychological Science that says the two may not mix very well.

The study, which was published last week, suggests that the science behind psychological tests is not as strong as it could be.

“I do think they’re beneficial, they’re what we would do in general practice, just to have a better understanding of people,” Dr. Samantha Scott, a psychologist in Salisbury, said.

Despite the recent study that said the tests aren’t as effective as they should be, Dr. Scott says the science in the tests is strong.

“We use measures in the field that are, what we call, reliable and valid,” she said.

Luke Rommel, a criminal defense attorney, says there are two situations where these tests would be admitted into a courtroom.

“Either you’re establishing that a criminal defendant is legally incompetent, so in other words you’re having an expert saying the person is incapable of defending himself or herself at trial,” he explained.

Or, he says, the tests could be admitted during the sentencing phase of a trial.

“When you’re trying to determine what type of sentence is appropriate, the psychological report can really influence the sentence or what the judge feels is appropriate after the trial,” Rommel said.

It’s during those two instances that it becomes a lawyer’s job to make sure the tests are measuring exactly what they’re supposed to measure.

“Sometimes you might have a report that doesn’t take into consideration the factors that might cause hardship upon a person that might be really probative as to problems in the background, difficulties that they’ve confronted in their upbringing,” Rommel said.

But Dr. Scott says these tests are designed to be effective and informative, and that these tests are beneficial to proceedings.

“I think information in a court of law, especially for lots of different types of cases, but psychological functioning impacts how people behave and so I think it’s an important piece to the puzzle,” Dr. Scott said.

Dr. Scott adds that sometimes if a criminal defendant has been through the process before, they can attempt to manipulate the tests or the results. But, she says the tests are standardized, so psychologists are generally able to tell when a person is not being truthful.
She says that helps them make sure their findings are valid and helpful to the court.

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