In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychiatry, Psychology, and Crime: Historical and Current Aspects

  • Introduction
  • Defining Forensic Psychiatry
  • Defining Forensic Psychology
  • General Texts
  • Key Journals
  • Origins
  • Development of an Insanity Defense
  • Institutions
  • Classification
  • Assessment and Measurement
  • Treatments
  • Controversies
  • Women Offenders
  • International Perspectives and Cross-Cultural Issues

Criminology Psychiatry, Psychology, and Crime: Historical and Current Aspects
Jennifer Brown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0170


Psychiatry and psychology can explain crime, account for criminal behavior, and treat the criminal. Historically psychiatry and psychology have been intertwined with the development of law. Medicine, and its later subdiscipline, psychiatry, was particularly involved in helping to advance the concepts of guilty intentions (mens rea) and responsibility for the criminal act itself (actus reus), thereby refining the insanity and diminished responsibility defenses. As knowledge developed and the law became more sophisticated, distinctions were made between those criminals with a mental illness or those who were born with a mental impairment (now termed “learning disability”). Psychology, in particular through its work on personality disorder, introduced the idea that psychopathic behaviors that were aggressive or seriously antisocial while carried out rationally nonetheless contributed to diminished responsibility. Dominant among the preoccupations of psychiatry has been diagnosing and classifying mental illness while psychology has a wider brief, engaging in aspects of the investigation and prosecution of crime as well as searching for causes and treating offenders. The questions for psychiatry have centered on how mental incapacities come about (organically, genetically, constitutionally, dispositionally) and how to assess or measure their symptoms to help decide whether an individual acted rationally or irrationally in order to determine what to do with them (imprison or hospitalize). As medical experts, psychiatrists have assisted the courts where the insanity defense has been argued. In terms of treatments, should such a defense prevail, early interventions were segregation from other prisoners, physical restraint. Later, surgical treatments and the inducing of shock prevailed, while in the 20th century the discovery of psychotropic drugs served as a great breakthrough. Psychology emerged from a philosophical tradition likewise in the 19th century. Psychologists have only lately been employed to provide expert evidence in the courts. As psychology’s focus is more toward behavior and personality (and also deals with non-mentally disordered offenders), their role in courts often have to do with competency assessments while interventions tended to be designed to improve reasoning, social skills, or adjustments in thinking in order to facilitate re-incorporation into society. Psychologists also were instrumental in developing psychometric and other measures to predict risk of future criminal behaviors or recidivism. Both psychiatry and psychology have broader remits than purely an interest in crime, thus the term “forensic,” meaning “of the courts” identifies that particular concern such that forensic psychiatry and forensic psychology have developed as specialisms within their parent disciplines. A theme of this bibliography is to reflect the differences in approach between psychiatry and psychology. In doing so reference will be made to pioneers, key cases, and also the role played by institutions, notably Bedlam, the York Retreat, and Broadmoor, in the development of theory and practice.

Defining Forensic Psychiatry

Forshaw and Rollin 1990 describes the first use of the term “psychiatry” in 1808 by Reil, a German professor of medicine whose practitioners became known as “alienists” until the 20th century. Mohr 1997 explains how forensic psychiatry emerged as a professional activity in the United States during the latter part of the 19th century with the introduction of new theories about insanity together with the concerns of early state governments about mental health. Bowden 1991 clarifies the situation in the UK, where forensic psychiatry did not develop as a subspecialty until the 1970s (although textbooks on the subject had appeared much earlier, such as Norward East’s Medical Aspects of Crime). Prior to that, general psychiatrists catered for and were invited to court proceedings to deal with mentally disordered patients. Hollin 2013 defines forensic psychiatry as the application of psychiatric knowledge to offender populations with respect to the juxtaposition between mental disorder and criminal behavior and provides a helpful explanation of mens rea and actus reus. One of the roles of forensic psychiatrists is to inform the court whether the accused is mentally disordered. Barboriak 2003 describes a further role in terms of psychiatrists’ involvement within correction settings, including lock-ups, jails, detention centers, and community correctional programs.

  • Barboriak, P. N. 2003. The history of correctional psychiatry. In Principles and practice of forensic psychiatry. 2d ed. Edited by R. Rosner, 475–483. London: Arnold.

    This essay describes the movement in the United States from punitive treatment of inmates toward treatment and rehabilitation alternatives charting trends from biological theories, application of psychoanalytic principles and evaluation of treatments.

  • Bowden, P. 1991. Pioneers in forensic psychiatry: William Norward East. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology 2:59–78.

    DOI: 10.1080/09585189108408617

    Recounts the life and work of Sir William Norwood East (b. 1872–d. 1953) who advocated separation of mentally disordered prisoners. He wrote several books on what was to become recognized as forensic psychiatry.

  • Forshaw, D., and H. Rollin. 1990. “The History of Forensic Psychiatry in England.” In Principles and Practice of Forensic Psychiatry. Edited by R. Bluglass and P. Bowden, 61–102. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.

    Notes the first appearance of the term “psychiatrie” in 1808 attributed to Johann Reil, who systematically distinguished between mentally disordered inmates and other prisoners. The chapter describes early classificatory work by Pineal and Lombroso.

  • Hollin, C. R. 2013. Forensic psychiatry. In Encyclopedia of Forensic Sciences. 2d ed. Edited by J. Siegal, P. Saukko, and M. Houck, 188–191. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    Outlines the meaning and explains the significance of the legal concepts of mens rea and actus reus for the practice of psychiatry and psychiatrists’ responsibilities to the courts.

  • Mohr, J. C. 1997. The origins of forensic psychiatry in the United States and the great nineteenth-century crisis over the adjudication of wills. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 25:273–284.

    Discusses factors in the development of forensic psychiatry in the United States: the medico legal vision of early American physicians, the introduction of new theories about insanity, the concern of early state governments with mental health, and the advent of marketplace professionalism.

  • Thompson, L., and L. Robinson. 2010. The relationship between crime and psychiatry. In Companion to psychiatric studies. 8th ed. Edited by E. Johnson, D. Cunningham Owens, S. Lawrie, A. McIntosh, and M. Sharpe, 731–768. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.

    This commentary provides a succinct overview of forensic aspects of psychiatric disorders, the roles played by psychiatrists and psychologists in risk assessment and management as well as assessable accounts of major theoretical underpinnings.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.