Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado is one of those important books with the capacity to change our direction, if only enough people read it and are inspired by it to agitate for criminal justice reform. It is one of those books you want every person in elective office to read, that you want every prosecutor, ever police officer and every judge to read—not to walk away with tricks to trigger our biases to win more often, but to actually focus on creating a justice system that makes sense.
The book is organized by the different actors in the drama of justice, from the Investigation, to the Adjudication and Punishment and the need for Reform. Each chapter looks at individual actors, the Victim, the Detective, and the Suspect; the Lawyer, Jury, Eyewitness, Expert and the Judge;the Public and the Prisoner. He then concludes with the challenges of reform and the way forward. In each section, Benforado presents compelling evidence that we are not making sound, fair, logical decisions, but are under the influence of all sorts of biases that can be exploited or that happen just as a matter of course. For example, if during noir dire the jurors are asked if they can remain impartial if it is revealed the defendant is a member of a gang, they will be far more likely to convict, even if no such thing is true. By asking that in jury selection, they already put a bias in place against the defendant. Mentioning race-associated words like Harlem, dreadlocks, or even, of all things, basketball, can increase the likelihood of getting a conviction. That’s nuts.
Did you know that the angle of a camera determines how you interpret the video you watch? If the video is shown from the perspective of the police, people are more inclined to believe the police, if it’s from the perspective of the suspect, they suspect has more credibility and only from a side angle are people more likely to be neutral. That puts a wrench into the idea that body cams will increase accountability.
I want people to read this book. While it is an academic book with copious sources and notes (some of which are on the internet to make the book smaller), this is a book written for lay readers. The point of the book is to inform the general public about the problems in our criminal justice system, so it’s easy to read and engaging. I am someone who follows criminal justice news, and yet learned new things that surprised me, and even further downgraded my already low opinion of our policing, adjudication and prison systems.
There is book coming out in November by Tommie Shelby that explores what it means existentially when our system is unjust. He argues that the state’s right to punish crime is compromised by injustice. The State loses its moral right condemn defiance of its authority. We have this word, scofflaw, for the people who mock the law and flout it carelessly. An unjust system will make scofflaws of us all if its injustices are such that we have no respect for the law.
Is there an American who has not said “It’s a free country” at least a few times in their life? Yet, my objective measurements, that’s a strange claim to make. After all, we imprison a greater percentage of our population than China, Iran and every other country on earth. How free is that? We spend small fortunes pampering our children at home while defunding schools so we can spend even more locking children up in jail, even trying youngsters as adult.
We are not a free country. We aren’t even close. This book has some good suggestions for making it better. I particularly like the idea of forensic labs automatically providing results to both the prosecution and the defense, a clearinghouse for both, not for the prosecution. There have been far too many examples of prosecutorial misconduct and even cases of forensic scientists faking results to further the prosecution. They should not be allies. Forensic should be a resource for both sides, not part of the prosecution team.
I was also intrigued by the idea of virtual trials, particularly since appearance plays such a big role in whether or not someone is convicted and how severely they are punished. As to judicial reform, judges can be a hot mess, but the unconscious problems are staggering. A person’s fate should not hinge on how long it’s been since their judge ate a cookie.
Read this book. It does not matter what political persuasion you hold, we all have a vested interest in a fair, effective criminal justice system. We all lose when the system is perceived as unfair and unjust, not only with people losing faith in and respect for the law, but because bad policy results in bad outcomes, poorly spent resources and a less safe society.
I received a copy of Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice from Blogging For Books.