Unfair | Adam Benforado

Summary of: Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice
By: Adam Benforado


In ‘Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice’, Adam Benforado sheds light on the deep-rooted flaws in the American justice system. The book delves into how our inherent cognitive biases and interpretations of situations, often based on superficial evidence, shape the outcomes of criminal cases. Benforado also indicates how mental processes, as well as various psychological, social, and environmental factors, influence human behavior and consequently impact the criminality of individuals. Through this enlightening exploration, the book provides readers with a fascinating study of the workings of the human mind and its intersection with the justice system.

The Power of Labels

Labels can impact how victims are treated and how we perceive them. In a neurological study, participants displayed no brain activity associated with human interaction when presented with photos of homeless people and addicts. This underscores the phenomenon of moral distancing where we may view substance abusers as making voluntary choices. We need to avoid such destructive labeling and instead, engage our deliberative process to give victims the attention they need. This is illustrated by the case of New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum, whose serious injuries went unnoticed because of a vomit stain (wrongly presumed to be from intoxication) on his jacket. While our automatic process helps us make quick conclusions, our deliberative process orders our brain to work through information with more diligence and override initial impressions.

False Confessions

The prevalence of false confessions in the criminal justice system is a concerning issue that needs addressing. Many suspects confess to crimes they didn’t commit due to a flawed interrogation process and their erroneous faith in the criminal justice system. Vulnerable and mentally ill suspects are often subjected to grueling interrogations and police-coerced false confessions are still happening. The Reid Technique of interviewing and interrogation is widely used by police in the United States, where the suspect is urged to confess in exchange for leniency. This dysfunctional plea bargain practice needs reform.

The Brain and Criminal Behavior

Many factors, including brain abnormalities and situational pressures, can lead people to criminality. The brain’s complexity means that various parts contribute differently to our behavior. The prefrontal cortex, for example, can cause impulsive crimes, while the amygdala can lead to calculated and emotionless ones. Many criminals also have a history of traumatic brain injury. However, situational factors can also make people more susceptible to criminal behavior, as shown by the Milgram experiment where participants were willing to administer electric shocks to a fake learner. Ultimately, this suggests that criminals are not so different from the rest of us, and that criminal behavior is often the result of environmental and medical factors rather than simply innate evil.

The Lying Game

Dishonest behavior is prevalent, and individuals justify their unethical actions to maintain a virtuous self-image. We often convince ourselves that we are not causing any harm and that our actions are justifiable. This justification is due to downplaying the connection between dishonest actions and the harm they cause. In a study, 93% of high school cheaters considered themselves ethical, despite admitting to theft and lying to a teacher. Lawyers are no different, and even when they engage in prosecutorial misconduct, they don’t believe they are cheating defendants. The story of lawyer Gerry Deegan showcases how individuals distance themselves from their unethical actions to maintain a positive self-image. Deegan withheld evidence that would have cleared a suspect of charges for armed robbery; he believed the suspect was also guilty of murder. To maintain his self-image, he distanced himself from the possibility that Thompson would receive a death sentence. Deegan eventually confessed nine years later, illustrating the haunting effects of justifying unethical behavior.

Climate Change Denial and Our Background Perspectives

Climate change denial often generates a negative reaction towards politicians who reject it. However, it is not always fair to dismiss individuals who differ in opinions from our own. Different backgrounds shape our perspectives, leading to various interpretations of evidence, sometimes challenging widely accepted conclusions. The US Supreme Court once refused a jury trial because of varying perspectives on a video showing the police pursuing a 19-year-old, who became paralyzed after a deadly intervention. Research revealed that backgrounds, ideologies, and cultures mainly influenced how viewers interpreted the video. The less affluent, left-leaning, highly-educated African American woman standing for egalitarianism was more inclined to blame the police, while conservative white men supporting existing social hierarchies were likely to accuse the 19-year-old. Cameras that capture events can also create bias depending on how evidence is presented. It’s easier to attribute a confession to police coercion when a video only shows the suspect’s responses to interrogation. Such biases compounded with our diverse backgrounds, make it imperative to have a varied and inclusive jury to ensure justice is served and correct judgments are made.

The Unreliability of Eyewitness Testimonies

Eyewitness accounts are a primary source of evidence in the US criminal justice system, yet they are extremely unreliable. John Jerome White’s story is an example of how mistakes can happen even after a witness spends a significant amount of time with the attacker. Every year, 77,000 innocent people are charged with crimes simply because an eyewitness picked them out of a lineup. Erroneous eyewitness identifications are one of the primary causes of wrongful convictions. The justice system doesn’t take the limitations of human memory into account, which is a serious flaw. Our own motivations, expectations, and experiences also shape our memories. One study showed that eyewitness identification accuracy fell by 50% between a week and a month after an incident. The Horror Labyrinth tour demonstrated that fear can affect a person’s memory. This highlights the need for a reform in the current criminal justice system to take into account the frailty of human memory.

The Fallibility of Experts

We often believe that experts are capable of detecting lies and revealing the truth. However, studies show that both regular people and experts often fail to spot lies. Many of the conventional wisdoms such as aversion and fidgeting are misleading. People tend to rely on arbitrary cues such as facial structure and eye color to determine falsehood. Even professional expertise doesn’t improve accuracy much. Jurors’ blind deference to experts is called white-coat syndrome. Techniques like polygraph tests and thermal imaging are not reliable or scientific. Blind faith in science can have grim consequences. A man was charged with raping and murdering his daughter due to an inaccurate polygraph test. Hence, experts are just as fallible as the rest of us, and we should be cautious about blindly trusting them.

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