We have mentioned confirmation bias from time to time. To some it may sound like some esoteric concept, not applicable to the real world. On the contrary, it could not be more relevant in extremely fundamental and formidable ways.
It’s bad enough when we allow our biases to affect our own lives but when they negatively impact others, we have crossed an unacceptable line. This is perhaps no more starkly revealed than in the criminal justice system. From the lawmakers to the judges to the prosecutors to the jurors and anyone else involved, our preconceived ideas can wreak havoc on justice.
How Confirmation Bias Affects Justice
This is more than idle musings. Too many real world examples reveal how costly such tunnel vision can be, and how common. In a recent study, case after case uncovered how injustice had been done in the courtroom, sending innocent defendants to prison, often for decades. Only after such horrific treatment did much belated examination of the facts reveal the innocence of those who had been wrongly convicted.
“While cases like these often feature wrongdoing by individual prosecutors and police officers, a new study suggests the problem is deeper. After analyzing 50 wrongful convictions and other investigative failures, Texas State criminologists Kim Rossmo and Joycelyn Pollock found that confirmation bias, reinforced by groupthink and strong incentives to quickly identify the perpetrators of highly publicized crimes, figures prominently in the mistakes that send innocent people to prison.
“Once police decide they have the right suspect, Rossmo and Pollock report in the Northeastern University Law Review, they tend to develop ‘tunnel vision’ that obscures other possibilities. They become focused on building a case against the person they’ve decided is guilty, ignore or minimize countervailing evidence, and interpret ambiguous evidence in a way that supports their initial conclusions.”In a recent study, case after case uncovered how injustice had been done in the courtroom, sending innocent defendants to prison, often for decades. Only much belated examination of the facts revealed their innocence. Click To Tweet
Examples of Injustice Due to Biases
Just a few examples:
When a 15-year old high school girl was raped and strangled to death, police found a viable suspect quickly enough. Once they had done that, their tunnel vision would not allow them to consider any other suspects. The expended their efforts on getting a confession from their target. Only after DNA test results ruled him out, did they begin to look elsewhere.
In another case, a suspect was coerced into confessing but quickly recanted. Despite repeated requests to check DNA records, the district attorney refused to grant him this. Finally, when another D.A. agreed to it, the results proved the man innocent. He had been in prison for 16 years. Another similar case, also based on a false confession, was also overturned with DNA evidence, thanks to the work of the Innocence Project.
In yet another case, a 17 year old was pressured into accepting a plea bargain to avoid a much stiffer sentence (a much maligned practice). The conviction consisted of false evidence, including testimony from a jailhouse snitch, known to be unreliable. Not to mention ignoring exculpatory evidence and a more likely suspect. A judge finally set him free. Twenty-six years later.
We can do better. We should do better. But, that will only happen if we hold those responsible accountable. That requires all of us to be better informed and then to be willing to take action.
Read more about this at How Confirmation Bias Sends Innocent People to Prison.