The Psychological Forces That Undermine Our Criminal Justice System

9780770437763by Adam Benforado, author of Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Justice (Crown, June 2015)

The death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and his killer’s subsequent acquittal, led many to condemn our criminal justice system as fundamentally broken. And in the wake of high-profile cases in New York, Cleveland, and Ferguson, questions about how the law reflects—and exacerbates—racial and economic disparities have continued to dominate the national conversation. As a society, we are desperately trying to make sense of rampant gun violence, police brutality, overcrowded prisons, and widening inequality.

Indeed, crime and the responses to crime define our lives—the paths we walk, the rules we follow, the taxes we pay, the novels we read. And there is something about criminal law stories that hold us by the edge of our seat, whether we are listening to a serial podcast or watching True Detective. The cases I explore in Unfair have all the drama of Law & Order or CSI, but they’re real, and they raise compelling questions: What could lead an otherwise upstanding attorney to conceal a critical piece of evidence from the other side? Why would a person confess to a crime she didn’t commit? Is it possible to tell whether someone is guilty by looking at a scan of his brain?

Emerging evidence from psychology and neuroscience is beginning to provide answers. Drawing on my own empirical research and the studies I teach at the graduate level, Unfair reveals the hidden forces that distort our criminal justice system and cause people to lose faith in its power to safeguard our fundamental freedoms. With an interdisciplinary approach—bringing together history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, ethics, public policy, neuroscience, and law—the book is a perfect choice for the first-year orientation experience, introducing students to fields they may wish to pursue in the years to come.

But my broader aim is to provide readers—and students, in particular—with a new, more sophisticated perspective on society’s most pressing problems. I wrote Unfair to encourage civic engagement and active citizenship—to prompt people to think about how to reform our legal system so that it lives up to our ideals. And I’m always excited when I speak about my work to see how readily people see the connections to other fields outside of law—from business to public health to education. Hearing about this behavioral research inevitably leads people to think about ways it can be applied. Many of the dynamics I discuss—from the origins of dishonesty to the benefits of diversity to the biases people bring to reviewing evidence—are of special interest to universities.

I would love to help students navigate these critical issues. And as an experienced teacher and lecturer, I’m well-positioned to do so. One of my greatest joys is showing young people how to look at topics they think they know with new eyes. That’s what college is all about. If you have any questions about the book or about me, please contact me through my website,

ADAM BENFORADO is an associate professor of law at Drexel University. A graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School, he served as a federal appellate law clerk and an attorney at Jenner & Block. He has published numerous scholarly articles, and his op-eds and essays have appeared in a variety of publications including the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Legal Times. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter.

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