This is a Review: Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice, by Adam Benforado

October 28, 2015

"We enjoy magnificent advantages over our forebears in the quest to remedy unfairness. We know much more than they did about human behavior, we possess amazing technologies to track, address, and prevent problems, and we have a greatly enhanced capacity to coordinate actions that affect millions of people.
But for it to matter, we must act.
The arc of history does not bend toward justice unless we bend it."
- Unfair, pg. 286  

In his nonfiction debut Unfair, Drexel law professor Adam Benforado brings together a wealth of psychological research findings to argue that the potential for injustice lurks not only inside "the dark heart of a bigoted police officer or a scheming D.A. but within the mind of each and every one of us" (Unfair, pg. xiv). This relatively slim volume covers tons of experiments, from the classic to the more modern (fun fact: my boss's PhD advisor helped develop the IAT!), and all of them focus on how our cognitive tendencies work against us: we're far worse at identifying faces, reconstructing memories and making unbiased judgments than we'd like to believe. Benforado was dedicated enough to making his case to have created a 300-plus page set of endnotes, available online for free without book purchase. This is a social justice nerd after my own heart.

As a staunch champion of using social and behavioral science to cure social ails, I'm obviously biased (haha, bias joke in a review about a book on bias), but I found Benforado's syntheses to be cogent and many of his policy suggestions compelling. However, I do have one rather large bone to pick with him. While it is not a question that many prisoners have or have had mental health problems and that American prisons serve as de facto mental health care centers, I couldn't help but cringe every additional time he drove home the point that many prisoners suffer from mental health problems. As someone who's devoted significant time to mental health promotion and care advocacy, the "criminal = mentally ill" framework rankles because of how easily it can be reversed and how untrue the reverse really is. Mental health problems aren't a significant predictor of criminality, and individuals with severe mental health problems are, in fact, far more likely to be victims of violence than the general population. While I'm almost certain, based on the rest of the book, that Benforado did not intend to promote this paradigm, it didn't sit right with me, and I worry how it would come off to those without a deeper understanding of mental health and illness.

Despite this, Unfair is refreshing in its willingness to address how we all—not just the racist and sexist, not just the callous—have blindspots that prevent us from being 100% fair and just. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of how the brain functions and why humans as a whole are ill-suited to passing objective social judgments.

I received Unfair from Crown Publishing's Blogging for Books program for review consideration.

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