A child is gunned down by a police officer; an investigator ignores critical clues in a case; an innocent man confesses to a crime he did not commit; a jury acquits a killer. The evidence is all around us: Our system of justice is fundamentally broken.
But it’s not for the reasons we tend to think, as law professor Adam Benforado argues in this eye-opening, galvanizing book. Even if the system operated exactly as it was designed to, we would still end up with wrongful convictions, trampled rights, and unequal treatment. This is because the roots of injustice lie not inside the dark hearts of racist police officers or dishonest prosecutors, but within the minds of each and every one of us.
This is difficult to accept. Our nation is founded on the idea that the law is impartial, that legal cases are won or lost on the basis of evidence, careful reasoning and nuanced argument. But they may, in fact, turn on the camera angle of a defendant’s taped confession, the number of photos in a mug shot book, or a simple word choice during a cross-examination. In Unfair, Benforado shines a light on this troubling new field of research, showing, for example, that people with certain facial features receive longer sentences and that judges are far more likely to grant parole first thing in the morning.
Over the last two decades, psychologists and neuroscientists have uncovered many cognitive forces that operate beyond our conscious awareness. Until we address these hidden biases head-on, Benforado argues, the social inequality we see now will only widen, as powerful players and institutions find ways to exploit the weaknesses of our legal system.
Weaving together historical examples, scientific studies, and compelling court cases—from the border collie put on trial in Kentucky to the five teenagers who falsely confessed in the Central Park Jogger case—Benforado shows how our judicial processes fail to uphold our values and protect society’s weakest members. With clarity and passion, he lays out the scope of the legal system’s dysfunction and proposes a wealth of practical reforms that could prevent injustice and help us achieve true fairness and equality before the law.
Adam Benforado is a Professor of Law in the Thomas R. Kline School of Law at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His undergraduate degree in History is from Yale University and he graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School in 2005. He has taught at Drexel University since 2008. In addition to Unfair, he is the author of numerous articles in legal and cognitive science publications as well as major newspapers and magazines including the New York Times, Washington Post and Atlantic. He has been interviewed on CNN, PBS, and other radio and TV shows across the country. Website:
A New York Times Best Seller A #1 Audible.com Best Seller An Amazon Best Nonfiction Book of the Month
A Goodreads Best Book of the Month
2016 Media for a Just Society Awards Finalist
A 20th Annual Books for a Better Life Awards Finalist
A Greater Good Favorite Book of 2015
Green Bag Exemplary Legal Writing Honoree
A 2016 Science in Society Journalism Awards Honorable Mention
“In this important, deeply researched debut, [Benforado] draws on findings from psychology and neuroscience to show that police, jurors, and judges are generally guided by intuitive feelings rather than hard facts in making assessments...The new research challenges basic assumptions about most key aspects of the legal system, including eyewitness memory, jury deliberations, police procedures, and punishment...An original and provocative argument that upends our most cherished beliefs about providing equal justice under the law.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred
“This book suggests that criminal justice in the United States is not a system at all but a set of dysfunctional units that deliver biased decisions that make society less safe. Benforado deftly analyzes actual cases and recent studies in psychology and neuroscience to argue for broad-based reforms...A stimulating critique of today’s criminal justice system with applications to recent cases in Ferguson, MO, and elsewhere...Authoritative and accessible.”—Library Journal, starred
“...a well-documented eye-opener.”—San Francisco Book Review (5/5 stars)
“As gripping as a Grisham novel, only it isn’t fiction. With captivating cases and razor-sharp science, Adam Benforado puts the justice system on trial and makes a bulletproof argument that it’s fundamentally broken. This extraordinary book is a must-read for every judge, lawyer, detective, and concerned citizen in America.”—Adam Grant, Wharton School of Business, and author of Give and Take
“In Unfair, Adam Benforado makes us aware of all our many imperfections when it comes to the judgment of others in our midst. He does so gently and with astonishing knowledge. Learning so much about our subconscious biases and the judicial system that exploits them is fascinating—and deeply troubling. But he goes further: he offers obtainable solutions, ones that we should race to effect, both within our own minds and in the human fates on which we bring our minds to bear.”—Jeff Hobbs, author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
“Adam Benforado has written a book that will make you rethink everything you believe about crime and punishment. He gracefully blends science and storytelling to make a powerful case that our failure to bring the realities of human psychology into the courtroom has led to profound injustice. Enthralling and unsettling in equal measure, Unfair might be the most important book you read this year.”—Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive
“This thoughtful and penetrating study raises many deeply troubling questions, and even more important, offers humane and very reasonable approaches to cure some of the ills of a system of ‘criminal injustice’ that should not be tolerated.” —Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus, MIT
“Unfair succinctly and persuasively recounts cutting-edge research testifying to the faulty and inaccurate procedures that underpin virtually all aspects of our criminal justice system, illustrating many with case studies.”—The Boston Globe
“In Unfair, [Benforado] argues that most errors in criminal justice stem from the failure to take into account the frailties of human cognition, memory and decision-making…this is a book everyone in the legal profession should read, and the rest of us too, for it is as much about the confounding idiosyncrasies of everyday behaviour as inequity in law.”—New Scientist
“Benforado makes a compelling case, backed with reference to extensive scientific research, for [his] point of view in Unfair… Over and over again, Benforado demonstrates that basic assumptions underlying the criminal justice system are not supported by scientific evidence… [He] also reminds us of how far the practice of criminal justice has drifted from its ostensible goals… He is hopeful, however, that the system can be reformed, and the information in this book is offered in part toward that end. Unfair offers an excellent overview of an important body of information.”—PopMatters “Benforado is part of a rising chorus of academics, politicians, and those of us who work in the criminal justice system who are appalled by the fact that this country spends $60 billion a year on prisons and boasts the dubious honor of incarcerating more persons per capita than any other nation. In Unfair, Benforado does a wonderful job of describing the scope of the problem and of thinking creatively about how we can improve our criminal justice system.”—The Federal Lawyer
“Insightful… one of the most important books written in a very long time.”—Douglas Blackmon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Slavery by Another Name; American Forum
“Benforado’s book is simply chock-full of eye-opening research and practical suggestions for improvement... Hopefully, [Unfair] will push us to take a step in [the right] direction.”—Greater Good
“No one denies that the criminal justice system should be based on reason and respect for our fellow humans, but
Unfair compellingly insists that to do that will require accepting some uncomfortable truths. Every lawyer and judge working in the criminal justice system should read this book. Those who take it seriously will sleep uneasily for quite some time.”—JOTWELL
“Systems of justice are built by human brains. As such, they’re subject to all the foibles of human psychology, from biased decision-making to xenophobia to false memories. With the eye of a scholar and the ear of a storyteller, Benforado marshals the burgeoning research to illuminate the nexus between law and the mind sciences.”—David Eagleman, Director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, and author of Incognito
“Unfair is beautifully written, painstakingly researched, profoundly illuminating, and deeply disturbing. As evidence mounts that our criminal ‘justice’ system abounds with injustices, Benforado lays bare the systemic and psychological sources of its failures, weaving together compelling narrative and recent insights from the mind sciences. Unfair is must reading for anyone who cares about justice and, more important, for anyone who does not.”—Jon Hanson, Alfred Smart Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, and Faculty Director of the Project on Law and Mind Sciences and the Systemic Justice Project
“Unfair is an engaging, eye-opening read. By weaving together the latest findings in psychology and neuroscience with real-world stories of justice gone wrong, Unfair sheds new light on how easy it is for unconscious biases to wreak havoc on the criminal justice system and the steps that can be taken to make the system fairer.”—Sian Beilock, University of Chicago Professor of Psychology, and author of Choke and How the Body Knows Its Mind
“Unfair is an incisive look at the problems that arise in the legal system because of the way people think as well as the prospects for meaningful reform. Adam Benforado has written an engaging and masterful book on one of the most important issues society has to face.”—Art Markman, Professor of Psychology, University of Texas, author of Smart Thinking and Smart Change
“In this provocative critique of the American criminal justice system, Adam Benforado demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that unfair outcomes aren’t tragic exceptions--they’re the rule, and human psychology is to blame. Bringing together cutting-edge research with insights from real life cases, Benforado shows us how our hidden biases undermine our guarantee of fairness and equality under the law, and offers much-needed solutions.”—Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect
“It’s surprisingly easy to look back at high-profile criminal proceedings and see the flaws, while taking the overall system for granted. Adam Benforado looks across the whole canvas, elucidating through empirical data and scientific research how our own legal structures measure up—or, more accurately, don’t—to our values of justice and fairness. Criminal law in the United States is far from perfect, and Benforado’s thorough, thought-provoking examination is a welcome step in identifying and preventing institutionalized injustice.”—Jonathan Zittrain, George Bemis Professor in Law, Harvard Law School “In this fascinating book, Adam Benforado sheds new light from just about every angle on our criminal justice system. Practitioners, policy makers and everyday citizens will learn much about a subject that demands greater public debate.”—Tom Perriello, former Representative, United States Congress.
“Unfair is a beautifully written book that manages to be both engrossing and important—a fascinating blend of psychological insight, legal know-how, and compelling storytelling. If you’ve ever wondered why the legal system doesn’t work as well as it should, Benforado’s intelligent take on the relationship between human psychology and the law will enlighten you—and leave you hopeful that we’re capable of doing better.”—Adam Alter, NYU Stern School of Business, and author of Drunk Tank Pink
“An admirable collection of compelling stories about what is wrong with the criminal justice system.” —Christian Century “Unlike fields such as economics or philosophy, judicial theory and practice has largely ignored relevant findings about the human mind coming out of behavioral neuroscience and social psychology. This timely and important book can help us bring our criminal justice system into the 21st Century.”—Edward Slingerland, Co-director of the Centre for the Study of Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture and author of Trying Not to Try
Reading Guide –
Adam Benforado’s website:
Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison is the true story of a man who went from being a convicted murderer, serving 19 years in prison, to becoming a leading voice for criminal justice reform and an inspiration to thousands.Shaka Senghor was raised in a middle-class neighborhood on Detroit’s east side during the peak of the 1980s crack epidemic. Under difficult circumstances at home, Shaka ran away at age 14, turned to drug dealing, and ended up in prison for murder at age 19. Writing My Wrongs (is his story of what came next.After pleading guilty to second-degree murder, Shaka was sentenced to 40 years in prison, entering the system at age 19, bitter, angry, and hurt. He blamed everybody, from his parents to the system, and he channeled that anger into violence. He ran a black market store, he loan sharked, and, halfway through his sentence, he was sent to solitary confinement for 4½ years for assaulting an officer to the point of near-death.A turning point in prison for Shaka occurred when his 10-year-old son wrote a letter to him recognizing the crucial reality for what he was in prison for—murder. With the cold hard truth hitting Shaka for the first time, his toughness and prison shrewdness wore off, as right there in that moment he realized he failed his son and the other black males in his neighborhood.Clinging on to hope from the letter his son wrote to him years earlier, Shaka continued to pour his time into literature, reading about Malcolm X and Nat Turner, Socrates and Donald Goines novels. He also discovered religion, meditation, and self-examination tools that he used to help him begin atoning for the wrongs he had committed. Shaka was more determined than ever to get a parole hearing. In 2008, he was granted a hearing but quickly denied, and then again in 2009, before he was able to enroll into the Assaultive Offender Program (AOP), a ten-month-long group therapy class required by all inmates with an assaultive case.
Shaka eventually completed the AOP class and was up for parole yet a third time. “If I am released from prison, I plan to work and volunteer at local high schools and community centers,” he announced to a parole board member. He continued, “My ultimate goal is to pursue a career in writing.”On June 22, 2010, one day after his 38th birthday, Shaka was released from prison and was finally a free man. He stood by his words he shared with the parole board member, his family, and friends and became an activist and mentor to young men and women facing circumstances like his. His work in the community and the courage to share his story led him to fellowships at the MIT Media Lab and the Kellogg Foundation and invitations to speak at events like TED and the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Shaka Senghor is a writer, mentor, and motivational speaker whose story of redemption has inspired thousands. He is the author of six books, a former Director's Fellow at the MIT Media Lab, a Community Leadership Fellow with the Kellogg Foundation, and the founder of The Atonement Project, which helps victims and violent offenders heal through the power of the arts. He currently serves as the co-founder of #BeyondPrisons, a #cut50 initiative to share the devastating and far-reaching human impacts of the incarceration industry. In addition to serving as a lecturer at the University of Michigan, Shaka speaks regularly at conferences, high schools, prisons, churches, and universities around the country. Website:
"[A] harrowing [portrait] of life behind bars . . . Gritty, visceral . . . Senghor writes about the process of atonement and the possibility of redemption, and talks of his efforts to work for prison reforms that might turn a system designed to warehouse into one aimed at rehabilitation."
–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"My first glance at the person on the book's cover—a dreadlocked, tattooed, heavyset black male—left me skeptical. Full of judgment. Why should I be interested in the story of a murderer? But as [Senghor's] words unfolded, so did my understanding—of what it means to fall short, to go astray, to lose your way . . . His story touched my soul.”
–O: The Oprah Magazine
“No one has forced us to look at the core questions about humanity and our broken criminal justice system with more authenticity and clarity than Senghor . . . If Senghor’s tale is any indication, redemption, mercy and grace aren’t just emotional ideals or spiritual buzzwords. They are the sharp, effective tools that can be used to rebuild lives and communities, one person at a time.”
–Erica Williams Simon, TIME.com
"Probably the most important book I've read in the past few years . . . Few people, sadly, come out on the end of two decades of hard time and find their way back to the life Shaka is now leading. Here, he tells us why that is, and why it doesn't have to stay that way.”
–Shaun King, New York Daily News
"Senghor’s story, laid bare, forces us to ask: is this not our fellow human being? Does he not deserve a second chance? If he failed himself in the most profound way, how did the rest of us fail him too?”
"Extraordinary . . . You will reconsider everything you’ve ever thought about poverty, the prison industrial complex and the connection between the two.”
“[An] inspiring book that gives hope for those who believe in the redemption of the incarcerated . . . Not the usual ghetto tale.”
"An extraordinary, unforgettable book. Writing My Wrongs is a necessary reminder of the deep humanity, vulnerability and potential that lies within each one of us, including those we view as 'thugs' or 'criminals'. Shaka's story illustrates that if we muster the courage to love those who do not yet love themselves, a new world is possible."
–Michelle Alexander, professor of law, Ohio State University, bestselling author of The New Jim Crow
"Shaka Senghor's terrific and inspiring book affirms that we are all more than the worst thing we've ever done. This beautiful and compelling story of recovery and redemption offers all of us powerful truths and precious insights as we seek recovery from decades of over-incarceration and excessive punishment.”
–Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, bestselling author of Just Mercy
“A profound story of neglect, violence, discovery, redemption and inspiration. Consistently touching and surprising, Writing My Wrongs is, ultimately, deeply hopeful. Prepare to have your preconceptions shattered.”
–J.J. Abrams, director, writer, producer
"Shaka Senghor is a once-in-a-generation leader, championing a cause that will define a generation: mass incarceration. Behind prison walls, Writing My Wrongs is already taking its place alongside the memoirs of Malcolm X and George Jackson as must-read literature. In the broader society, its publication will propel him into the ranks of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander—powerful visionaries whose words are shaking the foundations of our nation's understanding of itself."
–Van Jones, CNN contributor, bestselling author of Rebuild the Dream andThe Green Collar Economy
"I basically read this book in one sitting and wouldn’t shut up about it for months. People would say to me, ‘Good morning. How are you today?’ And I’d just start talking about atonement and solitary confinement and recidivism. Shaka’s book reminds us of the great imperfections that remain in our nation, but his determination to move from community liability to asset reminds us that no life should be written off. We need this story. It isn’t pretty, but it is beautiful.”
–Baratunde Thurston, supervising producer, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, bestselling author of How To Be Black
"Essential reading for anyone who believes in the deeply spiritual and transformational power of redemption. Our nation must confront this concept to reach our own promise as a country. No matter who you are or where you've come from, this book holds strong, inspiring lessons and shows that the difficult pathway to redemption can bear abundant fruit for many. In the end we are all, no matter our path, more powerful agents of service than we realize."
–U.S. Senator Cory Booker
Curriculum Guide for Grades 9-12 –
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