Legal issues and mental health issues are often related, and forensic counselors are working at the precise point where they overlap. Forensic counselors work with the families of people who are incarcerated; they offer substance abuse treatment to people on parole; and they develop strategies for teasing out the root causes of someone’s placement in the criminal justice system. In this way, being a forensic counselor means understanding that people in the criminal justice system don’t require simply punishment—they need help.
Forensic counselors aren’t just social workers, though. Their expert understanding of psychology as it relates to criminal justice allows them to work on many facets of the legal system. Forensic counselors can provide testimony as an expert witness, sit in on parole meetings, or process inmate evaluations. A forensic counselor’s decisions can drastically alter the course of someone’s life and that’s one of the reasons why rigorous academic and licensure requirements are in place for this profession.
Forensic counselors can specialize in a number of different fields, including substance abuse, group therapy, child psychology, or mental health law. They may work in hospitals, correctional facilities, or domestic violence shelters. In any event, this is emotionally heavy work and it requires the compassion of a social worker, the objectivity of a legal professional, and the scientific rigor of a psychologist.
With the average salary of a forensic counselor coming in at just over $40,000 a year, this isn’t a profession that’s motivated by money. But, interestingly, a PayScale survey with over 1,000 respondents found the vast majority of forensic counselors to be highly satisfied with their job. That might have something to do with the fact that their day-to-day lives involve being guardian angels for some of the least fortunate members of society.
But it’s not easy to become a guardian angel. In each area of forensic counseling, there are unique pathways that can validate a forensic counselor as an expert in their subject and make them eligible to practice. Read on to get our step-by-step guide to becoming a forensic counselor.
After graduating from high school, aspiring forensic counselors will need to earn a bachelor’s degree. Majors that revolve around psychology are the ideal choice for aspiring forensic counselors, as well as programs that focus on forensic psychology specifically. Admissions requirements vary from school to school, but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive high school GPA (3.0 or greater); SAT and/or ACT scores; letters of recommendation; and a personal essay.
Arizona State University has an online bachelor of science in psychology with a concentration in forensic psychology. Going deeper than some bachelor of arts degrees in the subject, students take lab courses and advanced statistical training to gain a greater understanding of the neuroscientific aspects of forensic psychology. Courses cover topics such as abnormal psychology; criminology; substantive criminal law; and data visualization. The program consists of 120 credits and costs anywhere from $561 to $661 per credit.
Maryville University offers an online bachelor of arts in forensic psychology that lays the groundwork for graduate-level education. The curriculum covers the intersection of three distinct areas: psychology, criminal justice, and social science. Courses include subjects such as criminal behavior; juvenile delinquency; abnormal psychology; investigations; and policy psychology. The program consists of 128 credits and costs $500 per credit.
After earning their bachelor’s degree, aspiring forensic counselors need to earn a master’s degree in an area like forensic psychology or mental health counseling. This isn’t an optional step for those seeking credentials in the field; state licensure (see step four below) requires forensic counselors to have a master’s degree.
Admissions requirements vary from school to school but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive undergraduate GPA (3.0 or greater); GRE scores; undergraduate coursework in psychology; letters of recommendation; and a personal statement.
Marymount University offers an on-campus dual-degree program that awards a master of arts in forensic and legal psychology (MAFLP) and a master of arts in clinical mental health counseling (MACMHC). Graduates of the program meet all requirements to sit for state licensure exams. Courses cover topics such as legal and investigative psychology; forensic assessment; substance abuse assessment and intervention; multicultural counseling; and crisis intervention. The program consists of 75 credits and costs $1,090 per credit.
The John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan has an on-campus master of arts in forensic mental health counseling program that prepares graduates for state licensure. In collaboration with the staff of the psychology department, students learn how to interview, counsel, and assess individuals in the legal system. Courses cover topics such as criminal behavior and aggression; juvenile delinquency; alcohol and crime; victimology; and crisis intervention. The program consists of 60 credits and costs $920 per credit for non-resident students.
After earning their master’s degree, a forensic counselor will need to start putting theory into practice by gaining early work experience. Since forensic counseling is tailored to each individual situation and since the consequences of error can be so high, it’s at this stage that new forensic counselors work in supervised conditions. Only once a certain number of supervised work hours have been completed can forensic counselors begin to pursue state licensure (see step four below), which will allow them to practice as fully-licensed professionals.
After gaining early work experience, forensic counselors will need to be licensed by the state they wish to practice in. Licenses will vary in requirements, terminology, and structure from state to state. Common eligibility requirements include a master’s degree and a certain amount of both supervised and unsupervised work experience. And all states require forensic counselors to pass examinations before becoming licensed. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) administers the licensure examinations used in all 50 states and maintains a directory of state licensure information for those who wish to clarify their status.
While it’s not a requirement in order to practice, many forensic counselors pursue professional certification as a way to demonstrate their commitment to the profession. Many such certification options exist, each with its own requirements and specialties. But common requirements like work experience, graduate-level education, rigorous examinations, and ongoing professional development ensure that professionally certified forensic counselors go above and beyond their non-certified peers.
The National Board of Forensic Evaluators (NBFE) allows state-licensed counselors to prove their expertise in forensic health evaluation through its Certified Forensic Mental Health Evaluator (CFMHE) designation. Eligibility requirements include a state license to independently diagnose and treat mental health disorders; one year of post-licensure experience; and 40 hours of substantiated forensic documentation. Applicants must pass a written exam, submit a sample forensic evaluation, and then defend their evaluation in an oral exam. Exam fees vary. CFMHEs must renew their certification every year with a fee of $80 and proof of three hours of continuing education.
The National Association of Forensic Counselors (NAFC) has multiple optional certification methods for state-licensed professionals who become clinical-level members of the NAFC. Specialized tracks are available in mental health, criminal justice, law, corrections, and addictions. The addiction specialties certification, for example, requires applicants to have a valid state license; a master’s degree in a relevant subject; three years (or 6,000 hours) of supervised professional experience in addiction specialties; and 270 hours of formal training in addiction specialties. Once deemed eligible, applicants have six months to take and pass a multiple-choice exam that covers common-core knowledge in addiction specialties. Exam fees are $325. NAFC members can renew their membership by paying an annual fee of $125.
The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) offers optional board certification as a National Certified Counselor (NCC) through its flagship program. In order to be eligible, applicants must be able to present: a master’s degree in an area relevant to counseling; 100 hours of postgraduate counseling supervision over the last two years; endorsement from a similarly qualified mental health professional; and 3,000 hours of postgraduate counseling work over the last two years. Do note that some of these requirements may be waived for fully state-licensed professionals.
Once deemed eligible, applicants must pass either the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examinations (NCMHCE)—exams which are also used by states to determine licensure. Once earned, the NCC designation must be recertified every five years through continuing education and annual fees. Those who have earned the NCC designation may pursue further specialized board certifications through the NBCC as a Master Addictions Counselor (MAC) or a Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC).
Forensic counseling has many different sub-disciplines, each with its own vast body of knowledge and best practices. But, as any good forensic counselor will tell you, a holistic view of each individual case is critical in ensuring the best possible outcome. If you’d like to get a view of what professionals in forensic counseling are talking about, check out some of the resources below.
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @oregon_yogini).