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Sure, we've come a long way since the days of hanging warty women for consorting with the devil, but that doesn't mean our justice system has made it all the way out of the dark ages.

Lots of what you see police doing on Law & Order is based on techniques that are proven to not work so well. But change is hard, so the system stays the same, even though ...

5
Interrogations Can Get Innocent People to Confess

Via News.everest.edu

Remember what it was like to accuse a sibling of stealing a favorite possession? No matter how hard they protested or how strongly they insisted that maybe you should take a peek at that shithole you were calling a bedroom, it didn't matter. Your Jem and the Holograms cassette was stolen, and you knew who took it.

Suspect interrogation is kind of like that. If the interrogator is convinced the suspect is guilty before the interrogation starts, it's hard to change his mind. He or she will assume everything from cries of innocence to constant crotch-scratching is proof of guilt, which leads to a more aggressive line of questioning. But who cares? If the bad guy confesses, the good guys win -- it's the one time you know for sure you got the right guy. That's why just about any confession makes a jury more likely to convict, even if the jury is told that the confession was coerced. After all, no matter what, an innocent person isn't going to confess to something he didn't do.

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"That's right, little Jen. Just confess to selling all that coke and we'll buy you some cotton candy."

Right?

So What's the Problem?

Wrong. It happens all the time. And we mean all the time. In one famous 1989 case of a rape of a jogger in Central Park, five men went to jail after the cops got them to confess to the assault. Then they were released, after it turned out they didn't do it (another guy already serving time for a different assault finally came forward).

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"Only the guilty have anything to fear. And the innocent, if we're having a slow day."

It turns out it's actually not all that hard to get a confession out of an innocent person. The same high-pressure psychological techniques meant to wear down a guilty suspect will make a lot of innocent people confess to something they didn't do. Since innocent people are more likely than criminals to waive their right to remain silent, they're put in a high-stress situation where they're not even clear about what they're being charged with. They also may feel guilt for some unrelated reason (they saw the crime and failed to report or stop it, for example). So, they say whatever they need to say to make the interrogation end.

For instance, one popular interrogation technique has the interrogator give a monologue claiming he already knows the subject is guilty, and then follows nine scripted steps to get a signed confession. It's incredibly effective -- it gets guilty suspects to confess nearly 84 percent of the time. Oh, and it gets innocent people to confess approximately 43 percent of the time. Add hinting at fake evidence, and you can up that false confession rate to about 94 percent.

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"You ever wonder if maybe all these head games and lies get in the way of, y'know, justice?"

It's hard to argue with success! Especially if you're behind bars.

4
Composite Sketches Are Pretty Much Useless

You've seen this in every cop show ever: The victim describes the man who assaulted her, the police have a guy there with a sketch pad drawing up what she describes. Then they can put that "composite sketch" out on the street and find their man. In other words, the composite sketch is created with the hope that a picture like this:

Via Wikimedia Commons

Will get you a person like this:

Via Wikimedia Commons
It's like seeing double!

So What's the Problem?

In reality, victims who assist in creating a composite sketch of their assailants are nearly 50 percent less likely to correctly identify a suspect later.

The first problem is that, as you might have already noticed, sketch artists are usually terrible at their jobs. In one demonstration, an artist was asked to recreate the faces of famous people while looking at their pictures. This was the breathtakingly miserable result:

Via Face Processing
This isn't a joke, from left to right: Bill Cosby, Tom Cruise, Ronald Reagan and Michael Jordan.

These days, instead of old-fashioned pencil and notepad, we have special software to do the job for us. The terrible, terrible job. While human sketch artists are bad, software is even less effective. In one study, hand-drawn sketches led to a 32.8 percent correct identification rate, while computer-assisted sketches ended up correct only 22.4 percent of the time. That kind of success rate is a bummer if you're trying to identify the anonymous stranger who fed your parking meter, but it's a tragedy if you're trying to identify the guy who viciously murdered your best friend and might be coming for you next.

The other problem is that the act of creating a composite sketch confuses the hell out of the victim. Your memory is actually very suggestible, thanks to a phenomenon called source amnesia, which basically means the brain remembers facts, but doesn't remember where we learned them. That means if the artist gets something wrong in the sketch (the suspect's nose is too big, or he has too many eyes), the victim literally starts to think that's what the suspect looks like. The brain doesn't remember if you first saw that feature in the real face or on the sketch. So the cops drag in a guy who looks like the inaccurate sketch and you say, "That's him!"


"Wait, what?"

What we're trying to say is, if you want to stay out of jail, don't have a face that looks like a terrible drawing.

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3
Lineups Are Pretty Useless, Too

Let's say, God forbid, something terrible happens to you, like that you're flashed in the park or somebody drunkenly poops in your swimming pool. Fortunately, you got a quick look at the guy before he ran away. Now the only thing between you and sweet justice is picking the perp out of a police lineup.

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Shouldn't be too hard.

So What's the Problem?

By viewing a bunch of people together, most eyewitnesses use relative judgment to choose a target, which means the brain doesn't quite go for an exact match. After all, you don't want the guy to go free, or to think you've wasted everyone's time doing the lineup. So instead of picking out the guy who is an exact match for your memory (which, as we established, is a little hazy anyway), you're going to pick whichever guy is the closest match of the guys in front of you. Which is kind of a problem if your pool shitter isn't actually in the lineup.

And sometimes the policemen facilitating the lineup aren't helping. Remember, they know which of the people up there were just brought into fill out the lineup (such as off-duty cops) and which one is the chronic pool shitter they're pretty sure did it. So there's one guy up there the cops want you to point out, and humans have a million ways to subtly influence the decisions of other people, whether they mean to do it or not.

Photos.com
"It's #4. Say #4."

For instance, voice inflections, stressing the witness and even unconscious hand gestures can steer the witness toward the cop's preference. Once the "correct" selection is made, the police may lavish praise on you, which artificially boosts your confidence at trial. That's a big deal -- most juries base their judgments largely on witness confidence. So that whole skewed process of first getting you to finger the wrong guy and making you more and more sure about your decision can put an innocent man behind bars.

To give you an idea of how shaky that whole process is, merely reminding the witness that the suspect may not be in the lineup decreases misidentification by about 46 percent (even though that should go without saying -- if they knew for sure, there'd be no reason for the lineup in the first place). You can also increase accuracy just by having the lineup conducted by somebody unfamiliar with the case, so they're not subconsciously steering the witness one way or the other.

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"Guest officer ... Carrot Top!" "Murder? I barely knew 'er!"

We're not trying to paint the police as a bunch of corrupt stooges eager to throw anybody and everybody into prison. They're under enormous pressure to close cases and get bad guys off the street. There's no reason to stop using a technique that helps get convictions, and in fact, all of the pressure is going the other way. And that goes a long way to explaining the last two ...

2
Jails Are Turning Nonviolent Offenders Into Repeat Offenders


Take two guys convicted of a nonviolent crime, like smoking a bong in a parking lot. Now, as a society, you have to make a choice. You can go easy on them with probation or community service, figuring that what they did wasn't that serious of a crime. But you're also making it easier for them to continue to be criminals, right? If you're not taking them off the street, they're free to get into more mischief. And why wouldn't they, if you have basically taught them that crime gets you nothing more than a slap on the wrist?

No, if you are serious about crime, you need to scare those guys straight! Send them to jail, let them feel the consequences of their actions. Once out, they're sure to straighten up, for fear of going back.

So What's the Problem?

It's the opposite.

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"When you came here you could barely roll a joint. But by the time you graduate prison, you'll know how to cook meth and cut bitches with a soap knife."

Let's say with our two hypothetical bong smokers, we give one probation/community service and give the other a short sentence in jail. The first guy, the one who spends his time picking up trash in a garish orange vest and chatting weekly with a police officer, is approximately 20 percent less likely to be in jail three years later.

The second guy, supposedly taught a harsher lesson, has a close to 50 percent chance of showing up in prison again within the next three years. A variety of studies have shown this -- jailing first-time nonviolent offenders is completely ineffective at deterring future crimes. It's weird -- it's almost like prison puts you in a criminal mindset, as if spending all day and all night living with and talking to other criminals, completely immersed in their lifestyle and morals and way of thinking, makes you start to act like them.

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"Told you I'd be back to finish this game. I'm no quitter, man."

So if the data says jail isn't great for keeping nonviolent offenders free of crime, why do we insist on using it? For starters, there's a massive cultural bias in favor of putting people in prison -- we don't want to be soft on crime, after all.

And holy shit do we love to send people to jail. The U.S. jails 743 out of every 100,000 citizens -- 10 times the rate of a country like Denmark (which only jails 71 out of 100,000 people). The U.S. has 1.6 million people in prison right now. The only country close to that number is China ... which has four times the population.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Then again, behind each of these doors is over seven thousand criminals.

It's not because violent crime is rampant in the U.S., either -- the U.S. is average in that category (for instance, the U.S. has fewer violent crimes per capita than the U.K., regardless of how civilized that accent makes them seem). It's because we jail people for anything. The U.S. is the only modernized country to throw people in jail for writing bad checks. In no other civilized (or even pretend civilized) country will someone go to jail because he couldn't pay a $215 fishing license fine. And then we have the perpetual drug war, which has added around 200,000 people who wouldn't see jail time in Europe.

Meanwhile, states are cutting funding to programs meant to keep people out of the prison system and spending far, far more on prisons (where it costs $24,000 per prisoner, per year). Jail is where the bad guys go, and we'll be damned if we'll just let those bong-smoking bastards walk around free.

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Take your gang signs elsewhere, druglord!

While we're on the subject of drugs, we should probably point out ...

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1
Drug Sentencing Is a Vortex of Ineffective Insanity

For those of you who don't remember, the '80s were all about saying "NO!" to drugs, and then reminding everyone else to do the same about three times every minute. This was due to the appearance of crack cocaine, a much cheaper form of the drug that exploded in popularity overnight. So when Congress wanted to draft a law that would punch crack right in the dick, they turned to officer Johnny St. Valentine Brown, nicknamed Jehru, for help.

Using his pharmacology PhD, his decades as a narc and his lifetime of having a name from a 1970s cop show, Jehru concluded that crack was 50 times more dangerous than cocaine. Congress transformed this into the 100:1 rule, which meant that having one gram of crack was as bad as having 100 grams of cocaine. Possession of 500 grams of cocaine or 5 grams of crack was enough to classify a person as a dealer, leading to a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. And 5 grams of crack is a tiny freaking amount.


Ladies and gentlemen, the '80s.

But, hey, we can never be too careful, right?

So What's the Problem?

Too bad the whole thing was bullshit. There is absolutely no difference in danger between crack and powder cocaine. It turns out that Jehru made the whole thing up, just like he made up his academic credentials. That's right: Jehru was convicted of perjury in 1997 for falsifying his degree, plagiarizing letters of reference and being a douche who helped jail thousands of undeserving people.

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It's OK, you can make the "oops" face.

Which, again, maybe a person could justify under the "better to be tough than to let our kids all turn into crackheads" theory. But as you can guess, jail doesn't work -- treating drug users is the most effective way to reduce cocaine use. It doesn't matter. The laws force judges to impose outrageously large, expensive jail sentences on first-time offenders. The minimum drug amounts are so off that the average cocaine dealer gets less of a sentence than the average crack user.

Via Bannedinhollywood.com
Which makes some people incredibly happy.

Fortunately, it only took 15 years of total failure to pass the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing the arbitrary ratio of 100:1 to ... an equally bullshit 18:1 ratio. Even though the White House Drug Control Policy Director acknowledges that there is no real difference between crack and cocaine, the laws are still different because ... we have no idea. We give up.

For more reasons to be scared of everything around you, check out 6 Weird Things That Influence Bad Behavior More Than Laws or The 5 Most Horrifying Things Corporations Are Taking Over.

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