Thursday, November 12, 2015

Book Review: Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice

Benforado, Adam. Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice. New York: Crown, 2015. 379 pages.
Unfair is a broad survey of current psychological research relevant to the US criminal justice system. Underpinning it is a terrifying reality: the criminal justice system, as it has grown since the foundation of the USA, is not founded in reality, but rather in a series of guesses about human thought and behavior. Life and death issues are being decided by unchecked, often invalid, methods. I have read other books that cover some of this material, but I have not seen any other book that brings together so much of it.
The book is twelve chapters grouped into four major sections: Investigation, with chapters on victims, detectives, and suspects; Adjudication, on lawyers, juries, eyewitnesses, experts, and judges; Punishment, on public attitudes and prisons; and Reform, broken into “The Challenge” and “The Future.” Each chapter is a monograph, addressing a single aspect of the problem.
The chapters are written more-or-less as legal arguments addressed to the court of public opinion, and therefore in plain, easily accessible English, with striking examples — I bet Professor Benforado is a kickass trial lawyer — but there is a huge amount of research behind them. The printed bibliography, which is abbreviated, is 75 pages long, and the full bibliography, available online, runs 304 PDF pages.
The book goes from evaluation of victims, through interrogation and the idea of criminality, and on through the system of trials and sentencing, giving horrifying examples of failure at each stage. For instance, we have this on parole board judging:
An analysis of more than a thousand rulings [of two Israeli parole boards] showed that the judges were significantly more likely to grant prisoners parole at the beginning of the workday or after one of the two food breaks — ruling in favor of prisoners about 65% of the time — than they were at the end of the day or right before a break, when favorable rulings dropped almost to zero. Moreover, factors like the severity of the crime and the amount of time the prisoner had already served — which should influence the judges’ decisions — tended not to have an impact on rulings. The time of day seemed to be the important thing.
I have only two quibbles with the book: (1) the very accessibility of the language and the design of the book conceals the erudition behind it and (2) the reform suggestions are very thin. There are no footnotes for the reader who wants to follow up on particular examples, though a search of the online bibliography will bring them up. There are not even running chapter heads, which makes it more difficult to refer back to particular arguments. This probably explains why the book has gotten few editorial reviews; it is not taken seriously enough.
The final chapter of suggestions for reform is a scant 29 pages, and very thin. Problems without solutions make many readers uncomfortable, and any courtroom case wraps up with an argument for action, but I wish, nonetheless, for a different conclusion. That chapter could easily be another book, and perhaps it should be.
These quibbles notwithstanding, this is an important and well-researched book: go read it.

·      Buy the book at, which treats its workers decently.
·      NPR interview with Benforado
·      Book page at Benforado’s own site

No comments: