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The unconscious bias problem in criminal justice: Part I

As human beings, many of us like to think of ourselves as rational and reasonable. We make decisions based only on facts, uninfluenced by emotion or bias. Unfortunately, a growing body of research continues to prove that this simply isn't true.

The problem is especially pervasive in the criminal justice system, where outcomes for defendants are heavily dependent upon the unconscious biases of jurors and judges. In today's post, we'll discuss some of these findings, which are detailed in a book by law professor Adam Benforado in his book, "Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice."

In an interview with the Washington Post, Benforado discusses the unsettling results of some sociological, psychological and neuroscience studies. These studies reveal that:

  • In lineups and photo lineups, victims and eyewitnesses end up identifying innocent "filler" suspects about one-third of the time
  • Eyewitnesses and victims who have previously seen a suspect's photo (on Facebook, for instance) are more likely to choose that person in a lineup, regardless of guilt or innocence
  • Defendants who have more stereotypically African-American features are more likely to receive a death sentence than those who don't have those features
  • Witnesses who are considered attractive are more likely to be believed by jurors
  • Jurors are more likely to treat overweight women harshly, compared to thinner women
  • Jurors often make decisions based on the mannerisms of witnesses and suspects, even if those mannerisms are not good predictors of whether someone is lying or telling the truth
  • Whether or not a convicted offender is granted parole can be heavily swayed by what time of day they appear before the parole board
  • African-American suspects receive higher bail amounts, on average, than suspects of other races

It's important to note that these problems are usually not the result of explicit racism or conscious biases. Most of us are unaware that we have biases, much less that they could be influencing these important decisions. In many cases, these problems occur to honest people with the best intentions.

Thankfully, there are ways to both reduce bias and reduce the effect that bias can have on a criminal trial. Please check back as we continue this discussion in our next post.

Source: The Washington Post, "The U.S. court system is criminally unjust," Ana Swanson, July 20, 2015

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