Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado

“It is better one hundred guilty Persons should escape than one innocent Person should suffer”

–Benjamin Franklin

I first heard about Unfair via NPR (not sure which program the author was speaking on) and was amazed at the idea of using Avatars and recorded testimony to better present information to a jury at a trial. Turns out that this book is full of a lot more than just this idea for reforms.

This book looks into the science behind why people do what they do: the perpetrators, the judges, the lawyers, the witnesses, the jury, the public. While reading it, I started wondering which of my extended family members (a group that succumbs to many of the fallacies listed here) would most benefit by reading this. My conclusion was probably none. Even if they were able to finish reading it, they’d still probably label it “liberal rubbish”. What I find ironic is that these types are covered within: the ones who when presented with overwhelming evidence that their beliefs are misguided (at best) they will still find a reason to reject the evidence.

I don’t know if I’m simply more educated than the general public, but a lot of what I read in Unfair seemed to be common knowledge now. I thought people were aware that eye-witness accounts are more often than not limited if not completely incorrect. Benforado makes it seem like no one in the public sector knows this, but I can imagine that in especially a trial setting, lawyers will overstate the importance of eye-witnesses and other facts.

I certainly will forever question the validity of an eye-witness after reading about at 74 year old woman who identified the wrong man even though the actual rapist was also in the line-up (put there simply as filler by the police). Especially when you look at a photo of the line-up and only the real rapist looks like the original description, given 5 weeks prior.

In this era of what appears to be more police brutality, I thought that there were a few quotes that maybe some folks should take to heart.

The first comes during the chapter on why the public seeks to find someone to blame when a crime is committed, even if that means taking a pig or dog literally to court, or the public thinking it’s okay for a pitcher to hit an innocent player during a baseball game in retaliation for one of his own teammates getting hit. “[W]hen a harm has been committed, our desire to find a culprit and reset the moral scales by inflicting punishment may sometimes override out commitment to fair treatment.” I was immediately reminded of watching the latest video evidence of the shooting of Walter Scott. Officer Slager claimed that it was in self-defense or otherwise was in defense of the public, because they’d just emerged from a scuffle on the ground when they got up and Scott started running again so Slager used his gun. You see, when I hear that story (of a scuffle and the retaliation), I picture me acting in “hot blood” to hurt the person who just hurt me. Officer Slager had just (probably) gotten hit in the nose (or somewhere else that resulted in injury or at least insult) and in anger pulled out his weapon and fired. I suspect this “hot blooded” approach to justice occurs in more cases of police brutality than anything else (Unfair does touch on the Rodney King case, but only from the perspective of the expert witnesses).

The second quote that stuck out to me was “Numerous studies have shown that those who have murdered a white person are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who have murdered a black person.” Well, this is a statistic that the Black Lives Matter cause should pick up. Currently the debate seems to be centered on police brutality towards black suspects with opponents saying “well, what about Black on Black violence?” It seems to me that the Justice Department is making a statement that White Lives are more important than Black Lives simply because they go after harsher punishments when the victim is white rather than black.

The third quote is “In one recent experiment, researchers had two groups of participants read about a fourteen-year-old with seventeen prior juvenile convictions who raped an elderly woman. Participants were then asked to what extent, in general, they supported sentences of life without parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases. The texts given to the groups were identical, aside from one word: for the first group, the defendant was described as black; for the second group, he was described as white. Participants who had read about the black teenager expressed more support for the severe sentence and for the notion that kids are as blameworthy as adults.” I think this should give EVERYONE cause to stop and reflect on their own preconceptions. Of course, this is also discussed in Unfair: jurors are told repeatedly that they are completely capable of being impartial and most of us want to believe that even though there is mounting evidence that at least some amount of bias skews our judgments. People are so certain that they would never discriminate that they are blind to the fact that they do it daily.

I think this is one of those books that should be required reading. Even if it doesn’t have an effect on the Criminal Justice department, at least it will shed more light on the social issues that cause crime. Armchair politicians like to admit that lack of education and poverty contribute to the crime problem, but when it comes to saying where tax dollars should be spent, it’s usually on a bigger prison rather than a new school. I’ve heard more people talk about the waste of throwing money at education, but not the same about the waste of throwing money at jails. Except when some new jail can’t be used because of a wonkie law–then the complaint isn’t that the jail was built, but because it cannot be used.

I received this book for free via Blogging For Books, but as always the review/commentary is all mine.

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