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Unfair

The New Science of Criminal Justice

By Adam Benforado
21-minute read
Audio available
Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Justice by Adam Benforado

Unfair (2015) outlines the major flaws inherent to the United States’ justice system. In addition to the unreliability of eyewitness testimony or the arbitrary nature of many judges’ decisions, every actor in the entire justice system – cops, lawyers, jurors and judges alike – is fundamentally, yet unconsciously, biased. Ultimately, the author argues that addressing these blind biases is the key to reforming our justice system.

  • Anyone interested in law, ethics and society
  • Lawyers and law students curious about the foundations of the US justice system
  • Anyone with aspirations to change the world for the better

Adam Benforado is an associate professor of law at Drexel University. He served as a clerk on the United States Court of Appeals and worked as an attorney at Jenner & Block. His scholarly articles, op-eds and essays have appeared in various publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Emory Law Journal.

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Unfair

The New Science of Criminal Justice

By Adam Benforado
  • Read in 21 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 13 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Justice by Adam Benforado
Synopsis

Unfair (2015) outlines the major flaws inherent to the United States’ justice system. In addition to the unreliability of eyewitness testimony or the arbitrary nature of many judges’ decisions, every actor in the entire justice system – cops, lawyers, jurors and judges alike – is fundamentally, yet unconsciously, biased. Ultimately, the author argues that addressing these blind biases is the key to reforming our justice system.

Key idea 1 of 13

Hastily assigning the wrong labels to people can lead to unfair treatment.

Can a vomit stain make the difference between life and death? It did for New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum. After he was attacked on the street, passersby who found him lying unconscious on the curb spotted a vomit stain on his jacket. They thus assumed he was just another drunk and not in critical condition.

Tragically, David ultimately died from head injuries, and things might well have turned out differently if he hadn’t been mislabeled.

Unfortunately, these kinds of mistakes aren’t rare. Humans are quick to jump to conclusions based on scant evidence, largely due to the interplay between two main processes that order our brains.

First, the automatic process takes in a scene and forms rapid conclusions based on the evidence presented, disregarding missing pieces. Second, the deliberative mental process works through information more diligently and can override these initial impressions.

In David’s case, firefighters, cops and hospital staff all attributed the vomit stain to drunkenness via the automatic process. Without deferring to the deliberative process, they all discounted the possibility that he was actually in need of urgent medical attention.

This story demonstrates the fact that how we label victims affects how their cases are handled.

Consider this neurological study: when people looked at photos of Olympic athletes, middle-class Americans or the disabled, the region of their brain involved with human interaction was activated. But, when asked to look at photos of homeless people and addicts, participants registered no activity in that area; instead, their brain activity corresponded with feelings of disgust.

This study confirms a sad fact: most of us don’t regard those who are desperately down and out as human beings with feelings and needs. Instead, we tend to view alcoholism and similar disorders as choices, or voluntary behaviors. This tendency is called moral distancing, and it leads us to treat substance abusers differently.

Clearly, we need to avoid assigning damaging labels to others. In the next blink, you’ll find out how.

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