Human Bias in the ‘Justice’ System

The mental shortcuts we use to navigate our world may be incriminating the innocent, what shortcuts are these and how can we reduce their impact?

Written by: Wouter van de Klippe

Art by: Mayra Salazar Volkmann


Walking from UCL’s main campus toward Euston station, the familiar noise of a police siren steadily increases in volume. Thinking nothing of it, you continue. Thoughts of your assignments, friends, and plans for the weekend casually flick through your mind. Gradually, the siren demands more and more of your attention, having drawn nearer and nearer, suddenly halting a mere couple of feet away from you. As you’re being driven away, cuffs around your wrists, the triviality of your prior concerns becomes laughably apparent.

The social sciences have illustrated unquestionably that we, as people, are fallible. This limitation of objectivity does not disappear in the ‘justice’ system. This article will navigate through various stages of this system, introducing several consequential biases along the way. One simple misunderstanding heading towards Euston station and you can find yourself at the mercy of this skewed arrangement.

Biases make their presence felt at the welcome gate of the justice system: the police. Much like the rest of us, police are fallible, susceptible to the many cognitive biases influencing every decision made. In fact, because of the stressful environment officers confront regularly, they might be even more vulnerable. It has been shown that in cases of high cognitive load, we are even more likely to resort to mental shortcuts, biases, and stereotypes. This means that in the times in which mental lucidity and accuracy are most crucial, we’re even more defenceless against our implicit biases.

Unfortunately, human fallibility plays a damning role further downstream in the judicial system as well. The cross-race effect has demonstrated that humans are worse at identifying individuals of a race other than their own. Could one’s race differing from the witness’s play a role in their decision when faced with a line-up? Additionally, the Innocence project has convincingly argued that by providing directions in such a manner that makes the witness believe that the true culprit is present within a lineup, they may feel pressured to choose a culprit even in the face of uncertainty.  Whatever the cause may be, one’s race or police pressure, the innocent again find themselves failed by the justice system.

On to the next performance on this stage of false-objectivity.

Surely in the courtroom, safeguards must be in place to limit the role of human bias? Shockingly, the opposite is true.  For example, take a successful lawyer for the prosecution repeating claims of one’s guilt. Here, they are appealing to the ‘truth-effect’, the fallacy that the more often a claim is repeated, the more this claim is subjectively felt as true. Additionally, the out-group in-group bias makes its presence felt. No longer are you perceived  as just a minority, and hence in the outgroup. After being arrested and put on trial, you’ve entered the group of a criminal, and as a result, have gained every stereotype and bias accompanying this classification. Finally, confirmation bias results in jurors who initially doubted your innocence further solidifying their existing belief, regardless of new information. Confirmation bias is the tendency for individuals to appraise new experiences as confirming their beliefs, whatever the new information may be. Initial implicit biases nudged you into the cell, confirmation bias has locked the door.

Faced with the knowledge of these biases, reform is needed within the judicial system. Changes must be made from the first contact with police to the final sentencing provided by judges. This is not to say that all mistakes of the judicial system are due to implicit biases; some individuals truly are malicious in their intent. Nevertheless, by reforming the judicial system with an awareness of biases and heuristics, their effects can be reduced. One pioneering group, the Innocence Project, has published various recommendations for policy changes. These tackle eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, and various other forms of inadequacy in the judicial system. The social sciences have conclusively revealed to us the flaws in our perceptions; by liberating us of our assumed perfection, we can prevent the wrongful conviction of the future’s innocent.

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