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 Assessing a Court Psychological Evaluation Program

M. Allan Cooperstein, Ph.D.

In Cooperstein, M. A. (2004, May). Assessing a Court Psychological Evaluation Program. Pennsylvania Psychologist Quarterly, 64(5), pp.12, 19.

An Administrative Judge contracted my services to evaluate the psychological assessment process used in his court system.  The aims were to examine the goals and review the program, its methodology and staffing to determine how it could be approved in accordance with standard regulations and procedures in the field. Recommendations should include the number of cases that  Psychological Evaluators (PEs) could perform daily, an analysis of the content of reports, and what recommendations it should provide to judges prior to sentencing alleged offenders (AO) and, if necessary, after commitment.  The unabridged report is 43 pages.

Data for the evaluation was gathered through multiple sources within and without the Court, including PEs, Probation Officers (PO), Judges, vendors of forensic materials, and researchers.

Ideally, preliminary information for a psychological evaluation should consist of social and criminal backgrounds for an assessment strategy. The Evaluator conducts a clinical interview and can implement any or all of the following: intellectual, personality, and projective testing. Written reports should contain mental status, test results, data interpretations, DSM-IV –TR diagnoses and treatment recommendations. Conclusions reached in an evaluation are only as valid as the assessment process which is a function of the validity of the testing and other materials.

Statistics & Court Structure

Information was gathered from National and State reports compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Uniform Crime Reporting Program.  The overall organizational structure of the Court system was mapped; this was made up of the director, management and staff, supplementary services, clerical and medical units (including psychology), record room, probation, court liaison officers, and the judiciary.

Statistics on psychological evaluations between January 1997 and December 1999 showed that the total number set appointments were 12,182; those kept were 7,241.  Forty percent of the appointments were not completed due to cancellations, no shows, lack of transportation, etc. 

Psychological Evaluators’ View

Of 2,500 evaluations performed annually, 20% required in-depth studies.  PEs were unlicensed psychologists who had performed services for at least eight years.  Licensing was not an ethical issue as the federal government utilized unlicensed personnel, but could be a legal issue as these individuals operated without licensed supervision and only under a non-professional director. 

Evaluators viewed the director as aligned with clerical staff.  Secretaries scheduled and informed Evaluators how many evaluations they would perform, creating confusion and stress, as PEs could not structure their workday.  Additional assignments often came from judges and POs. 

There was difficulty getting time approved for continuing education.  PEs complained that non-professional staff did not understand their needs, that they were disrespected in the department and felt isolated throughout the court.  They reported a lack of in-service training and questioned departmental and court priorities.

Preliminary social information was to be provided by POs, but the quality was uneven; at times, none was received, forcing PEs to rely on the AO’s report.  POs’ assessment forms were often incomplete and did not ask the PEs specific questions.  Evaluators felt distance from judges from whom they should get feedback.

Evaluations were triaged. Time spent with the AO ranged from 45 minutes to 2 hours. In contrast, the Arizona Supreme Court (2003) allows 1 to 2 hours for interviewing and a report alone. Evaluators were expected to perform three assessments per day. Typically, the AO was given a brief interview and mental status, sometimes the Slosson Intelligence Test, the House-Tree-Person Drawing Test, the Bender Gestalt, Wide Range Achievement Test and another projective drawing test.  PEs said there was little time for anything else.  Selected Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale Subtests were given at times.  The Rogers Criminal Responsibility Assessment Scales, a respected approach to evaluating criminal responsibility, was available but rarely given due to the time required.

PEs wanted clinical directorship under a licensed psychologist, control over scheduling,  departmental professionalization, improved intradepartmental communication, in-service training (Arthur, Bennett, Edens & Bell, 2003), better background and social histories, increased communication among psychology and other divisions, specific questions from POs and judges, increased involvement of court liaison officers, recognition of their limits in performing screening evaluations, provision of background records well before testing, general staff meetings, reduction of evaluations to two per day, and a stepped system for evaluations.

Conclusions and Recommendations

My evaluation found confusion over questions to be answered and the responsibility for preliminary information. Without comprehensive and accurate information, appropriate decisions regarding charging, and plea agreements are difficult for criminal justice professionals, as are decisions regarding disposition and service referrals which must be made by judges, service providers and policymakers impacting such issues as AO’s understanding of Miranda Rights (Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 1966)  and competency to stand trial (Dusky v. United States, 362 US 402, 1960; Heilbrun & Collins, 1997, Lewis, Simcox, David, 2002, Melton, Petrila, Poythress, & Slobogin, 1997).

Psychological services are a necessary and integral part of the court system. However, the Psychology Department has not been fully integrated into, upgraded, or kept abreast of current, empirically-based measures according to Daubert standards (Boccicciani, & Brodsky, 1999; Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 1993; Dixon, L. & Gill, B., 2002; Grisso, 1986; Lally, 2003).

Demands to perform 3-4 evaluations per day is excessive and PEs are not provided with sufficient staff, tools, education, supervision or preliminary data to adequately perform their duties.  Using unlicensed individuals lacking in continuing education indicates that the court system has not kept abreast of the increased education and training criteria of the profession.  Although unlicensed personnel are used in civil service situations, continued operation without supervision of a licensed professional may be considered inappropriate. 

One consideration to resolving this problem has been outsourcing.  Considering the need for all forensic divisions to work harmoniously and share information at the same site, displacing this responsibility outside of the courthouse does not appear to be an adequate solution.

I suggested the formation of a screening unit for AOs entering the system that would enable the gathering of demographic and background information earlier in the legal process. Demographic and other data would be entered into the AO’s database preliminary to evaluation. This would be given to the PE who could then screen. Using computerized screenings, a multi-tiered approach could be used to identify AOs in need of in-depth evaluations or required multicultural or gender considerations and appointments would be scheduled.

Of substantial significance was the lack of psychiatric services available to meet diagnostic, treatment and referral needs.

At the time of my research, PEs performed with insufficient input, time, materials and support.  In the absence of clinical supervision, a methodology evolved to meet court needs. This did not comprehensively or accurately address contemporary assessment standards. Testing emphasized projectives to conserve time; objective testing was minimized due to time constraints and lack of computers, screening programs, and support staff.  Too much information was sought too broadly within too short a period of time.  As a result, reports were produced under pressure, were global and court questions—when supplied--may not have been answerable considering these conditions.

Proffered recommendations would establish a multi-tiered evaluation approach starting with a fundamental, comprehensive screening (including risk assessment, substance abuse, collateral interviews, psychosocial history), branching out as needed towards more comprehensive, selective evaluations.  Use of more clerical support and computers in this process was inevitable.  This would decrease time, scoring and provide empirical, interpretative reports.

Computerized practice manager programs enable psychologists to better plan their day and week, offering menus for mental status examinations and interviews as well as DSM- IV-TR classifications.  The data stemming from computerization would be highly valuable in assessing the effectiveness of the screening process and the need for full assessments resulting in a process that could more efficiently address current deficits.


Arizona Supreme Court (2003). Administrative Office of the Courts. Contract Year 2004 – 2005. Service Specifications: Psychological/Psychoeducational Evaluation

Arthur, W. Jr., Bennett, W. Jr., Edens, P. S., & Bell, S. T. (2003).  Effectiveness of training and organizations:  A meta-analysis of design and evaluation features.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 88 (2), 234-245.

Boccicciani, M. T. and Brodsky, S. L. (1999).  Diagnostic test usage by forensic psychologists in emotional injury cases.  Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 30 (3, 253-259).

Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 113S.  Ct. 2786 (1993).

Dixon, L. & Gill, B. (2002).  Changes in the standards for admitting expert evidence in Federal          civil cases since the Daubert decision.  Psychology, Public Policy and Law, A, 251-308.

Dusky v. United States, 362 US 402 (1960).

Grisso, T. (1986).  Evaluating competencies: Forensic assessments and instruments.  NY:
              Plenum Press.

 Heilbrun, K., & Collins, S. (1997) Evaluations of trial competency and mental state at time
             of offense:  Report characteristics.  Professional Psychology:  Research & Practice, 26
             (1, 61-67).

Lally, S. J. (2003). What tests are acceptable for use in forensic evaluations? A Survey of
            Experts. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 34 (5, 491-498). 

Lewis, J. L., Simcox, A. M., & David, T. R. (2002).  Pre-trial psychological evaluations for
                competency to stand trial or criminal responsibility.  Psychological Assessment, 14 (2,

Melton, G. B., Petrila, J., Poythress, N., & Slobogin, C. (1997).  Psychological Evaluations for
               the Courts (2nd Edition).  NY: Guilford Press. 

Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

Medical Disclaimer: This website is underwritten completely by Dr. Cooperstein.

The purpose of the content is to educate, inform and recommend. Under no circumstances is it meant to replace the expert care and advice of a qualified professional as rapid advances in medicine may cause information to become outdated, invalid or subject to debate. Accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Dr. Cooperstein assumes no responsibility for how information, products and books presented are used and does not warrant or guarantee the content, accuracy or veracity of any linked sites. Dr. Cooperstein  makes no guarantee to any representations made by listings in professionals or support services directories.

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Last updated: June 26, 2011 12:55 PM