Several years ago I took a class on social psychology and, after learning about some “classic” experiments and the damage done to the participants I wrote the field off as, well, evil. Adam Benforado forced me to rethink that with his constructive use of that science in supporting the arguments in his book “Unfair: the new science of criminal injustice”. Benforado is a law professor, after reading his book I have to imagine he is a good one. He is an insider and I expected him to be more supportive of the current state of the American criminal justice system than I am but, no, it seems that the view on the inside is even worse than it is from the outside.
Benforado divides the book into four parts. Investigation, where he looks at the victim, police, and the suspect. Adjudication examining lawyers, the jury, the eyewitness, the expert witness, and the judge. Punishment, both popular views and the real effects on prisoners. He explains what our system gets wrong and provides evidence to support his claims. In the final part, Reform, he discusses possible solutions to those problems.
Personally I am proud to call myself a bleeding heart liberal. I think that admission should lend a little credibility when I say that Benforado in not a liberal, bleeding heart or otherwise. Some of his major concerns are not wasting taxpayer money, convicting the right person and administering just punishment. I agreed with almost everything he said even some solutions that I believe to be beyond our current capability. Change the focus of our criminal justice system from punishment to rehabilitation? Not going to happen.
Blame and punishment is to deeply imbedded in our Judeo-Christian culture. When discussing blame Benforado said “When a dangerous virus overwhelms a town, causation is relevant, but blame isn’t. We don’t treat someone who has contracted Ebola or dengue fever as sinful. We get to work restoring the person’s health, preventing new cases, and trying to eliminate the root cause.” I am not so sure I can agree with that. I am old enough to remember when AIDS first made the news. It took an innocent child, someone who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion, to slow done the blame the victim attitude. “Christian” preachers can’t resist the chance to label a disease as “God’s revenge” for sinfulness. We even blame the victims of natural disasters for causing the destruction through their sinfulness.
I have to recommend this book to everyone. If you live in the US it will help you understand how and why our criminal justice system is failing and if you live in Europe you can see what your systems are doing right. I expect to hear about this book quite a bit over the next year as Benforado’s suggestions are debated in the media.