Books

'Unfair' Shows How Ordinary Human Failings Can Lead to Failures of Justice

Judge image from Shutterstock.com.

Drexel law professor Adam Benforado argues that the root causes of many criminal justice failures lie in misunderstandings of human psychology and behavior.


Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice

Publisher: Crown
Length: 380 pages
Author: Adam Benforado
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-06
Amazon

Recent events have spotlighted multiple failures in the American criminal justice system. In North Charleston, South Carolina, Walter Scott is shot and killed while running away from a policeman, who then plants a stun gun by Scott’s body to provide a motive for the shooting. In Cleveland, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed while playing with a toy gun, and his 14-year-old sister is handcuffed and threatened with arrest after she ran to her brother’s aid. In Baltimore, Freddie Gray dies while in police custody, and it becomes clear that his “rough ride” in a police wagon (the apparent cause of his fatal spinal injury) was not an aberration but an unofficial but regularly-used police procedure.

These incidents are just a few among the many that have drawn attention to problematic aspects of how the criminal justice system operates in the United States. Theoretically, we are all equal before the law, police serve the communities in which they work, and preservation of human life is among the highest priorities of the system. The reality is often quite different—for instance, in the incidents named above, all the victims were black, and black Americans have disproportionate numbers of police encounters, arrests, and convictions, as well as a much higher probability of being shot by a policeman.

There's no lack of evidence to underline the fact that, although Lady Justice may be blind, the actual criminal justice system is anything but. While it may be convenient to attribute this problem to individual failings such as racial prejudice or corruption, Adam Benforado, a law professor at Drexel University, believes the problem has a systemic basis. Two related facts are key to his explanation: first, that the people who operate the criminal justice system have all the shortcomings and failings of people in general, and second, that the criminal justice system is based on misunderstandings about how people think and act. Together, in Benforado’s view, these two facts can explain the kind of inequalities and injustices seen on a regular basis, without the need for any individual actor to be evil, corrupt, or prejudiced.

Benforado makes a compelling case, backed with reference to extensive scientific research, for this point of view in Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice. While much of what he has to say is not new (Elizabeth Loftus has been publishing on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony since the '70s), it's not common knowledge for the general public, or, apparently, for many who work in the criminal justice system.

Unfair presents its arguments in four main categories, the first three of which represent stages in the criminal justice system: Investigation, Adjudication, and Punishment. The fourth, Reform, offers suggestions of how the American system might be modified to take into account current knowledge about psychology, and discusses alternative practices that have been successful in other countries. Benforado introduces his key points with stories of particular cases intended to make the reader question his or her own assumptions, a useful technique that also makes this book more appealing to a general audience.

Over and over again, Benforado demonstrates that basic assumptions underlying the criminal justice system are not supported by scientific evidence. For example, we tend to believe that we can tell when someone is lying, a power we also attribute to jury members and policemen but, as Benforado shows, this assumption is sadly mistaken. We also assume that only a guilty person would confess to a crime, but Benforado shows that the Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation, commonly taught to police officers, can actually encourage false confessions.

The adversarial system is meant to produce justice, but may in fact encourage dishonesty and an exclusive focus on winning, as if a football match rather than a person’s fate were at stake. Eyewitnesses to a crime are often treated as the gold standard of evidence, but they are often wrong, in systematic and predictable ways. Even video evidence is subject to interpretation, and factors such as the direction the camera is pointing can play a crucial role in how people view the events recorded.

Benforado also reminds us how far the practice of criminal justice has drifted from its ostensible goals. The legal system is meant to dispense justice, not revenge or retribution. Police officers are supposed to keep communities safe, not terrorize their members. The penal system is intended to rehabilitate prisoners and restore them to society, not merely to lock them away and punish them. He is hopeful, however, that the system can be reformed, and the information in this book is offered in part toward that end.

Unfair offers an excellent overview of an important body of information. My one quibble is with the presentation of the sources cited in the main text. There are no in-text references or endnotes, only an alphabetical list of sources for each chapter, making it more difficult than necessary to locate the studies supporting a particular point. Benforado states that, in the interests of creating a more readable text (and saving money by keeping the page count lower), he chose not to include endnotes in the book, but that detailed endnotes are available online. This is a disappointing decision—why should we have to depend on something as ephemeral as the Internet for what should be a basic part of a book?—and ignores an obvious solution, which is to list the sources in order by page number, with a brief textual lead-in for each. Many nonfiction books written for a general audience use this system, and in fact Benforado uses it in the online notes; the failure to include this information in the printed book is a misstep out of keeping with the otherwise high quality of this book.

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.