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The psychology of the criminal justice process
by Dan Simon
EVERY day, innocent people are wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit, while real offenders are falsely acquitted. The error rate in the US has been estimated at 3 to 4 per cent, but it could be much higher. Sometimes mistakes are only revealed years later, when technologies such as DNA fingerprinting are employed. These, while not infallible, have so far exonerated hundreds of falsely convicted people.
In In Doubt, Dan Simon, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Southern California, puts the criminal justice system on trial, revealing the many flaws in how it operates. In his comprehensive look at the underlying cognitive science, he highlights the many potential pitfalls that might trip up the people involved at each stage of the judicial process.
Simon shows, for example, how police investigations can be skewed by biases, how interrogation techniques can promote false confessions and how eyewitnesses can wrongly identify criminal suspects. He also analyses case studies of criminal investigations, laying out recommendations for how they could be improved.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the book is devoted to memory, which plays a central role in criminal investigations but is also the biggest source of potential errors. Simon tells how psychologist Frederic Bartlett's work in the 1920s showed that our memories are highly error-prone, and how, more recently, cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has shown that memory can be influenced, unintentionally or otherwise, by leading questions and other techniques.
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