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An exercise in introductions

The legal system is a source of endless fascination. Crime novels, cop shows, procedural dramas – while fiction, all depict the process by which society punishes the bad guys and protects the innocent. Of course, we need not always turn to fiction to be pulled in by compelling stories of crime and legal processes. Real life cases, reported on by the news, true-crime shows, and increasingly deep-dive documentaries, books, and podcasts can be as engaging as the fictional cases. There exist many parts of the justice system that we are drawn to, spanning from how people can commit crimes, to how crimes are investigated, to what happens in trial. But how much do we, as society, truly understand the legal process we have devised to protect and serve us? We often imagine the legal system is made up of rules, regulations, procedures, and a dash of forensic science to make sure that justice is fair. However, in many cases, the design of the legal system is based on weak evidence and harmful misconceptions.

Take, for instance, the growing movement to do away with cash bail. On its face, the bail system makes intuitive sense – the risk of losing money will motivate people to show up for their trial. In practice, however, bail leads to a system that punishes the poor. Those that cannot afford thousands to tens of thousands of dollars don’t get to go home. Instead, they remain in jail as legally innocent people, until they have been convicted or acquitted in court.

This, of course, is but one example. In fact, psychological scientists across the world have dedicated entire careers to identifying problems and solutions in the justice system. This blog is run by two such scientists. Dr. Timothy Luke and Dr. William Crozier both received their PhDs in psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York*. Though we both study psychology and law, we have different specialties. Timothy’s work has focused on police and military interrogation techniques, confessions, and lie detection. Will’s work focuses on how memory, and particularly memory mistakes, impact the justice system throughout the legal process. In our research collaborations, we find examples of where social and cognitive psychology interact in the law, identifying what problems may arise, and how we can fix it.

Briefly, we use scientific inquiry (for example, experiments with human participants) to identify ways in which legal practices may not be as fair as they should be. Equipped with scientific evidence, we take what we learn and try to create new practices for investigations and legal procedures that will not put innocent people at risk for wrongful conviction, while at the same time identifying and bringing the real culprits to justice.

Unfortunately, most psychological research that relates to the legal system is only reported in academic journals, in highly technical language. Or worse, it is translated to the public by non-academic publications that can exaggerate or misinterpret the science. If you’ve ever wanted scientific answers about how memory works, how to tell if someone is lying, how to conduct an effective interrogation, or whether juries can disregard inadmissible evidence – we’ll talk about those things, and more.. If you binged Making a Murderer or Serial, wonder what Criminal Minds gets right and gets wrong, or always react to the dun duun of Law and Order, then this is the place for you Here on this blog, we plan to explore research at the intersection of psychology and law in a style and in formats accessible to people less familiar with scientific reporting. We will approach the legal system from a scientific standpoint, specifically focusing on psychological processes at work in the justice system.

We’ll discuss both current and classic psychology research that shows us legal practices don’t work the way we naively expect them to – like that people will confess to a crime they didn’t commit. We’ll also discuss things we don’t know and need more research on, such as the best ways to interrogate suspects and informants to obtain information. Occasionally, we may get a bit sidetracked by talking about the difference between good science and bad science, or the type of things psychologists can, and cannot, conclude from their work. Overall, we’ll be discussing the things that fascinate us about the legal system, including real-life criminal cases, controversial policies, and implementations of science-based practices.

As our blog title suggests, an overarching theme will be finding exceptions to the rules we often take for granted. The legal system is, to a large extent, built on assumed rules about the way people behave and the way certain legal practices should work. But psychological science tells us these assumed rules often have important exceptions. A detailed confession is an excellent piece of evidence – except when it’s given by an innocent person. Several witnesses giving consistent statements about how a crime happened are highly informative – except when they’ve been speaking to each other and have contaminated each other’s memories. Plea bargains make the criminal justice system operate more efficiently and effectively – except when innocent people plead guilty. Here, we will often take a concept, idea, or process (for example, eyewitness identification), discuss its intended purpose (evidence to catch a perpetrator), and then find ways in which that concept, idea, or process fails to accomplish its goal, like when a very confident eyewitness actually makes a mistake about who they recognize and inadvertently sends an innocent person to prison.

We’ll identify questions, and try to determine if we have the scientific evidence to answer the question. If we don’t have a good answer, we’ll try to figure out what it would take to find the answer. We’ll argue with ourselves and others. We’ll debate and deliberate about what we know about psychology and law and how we know it. We’ll question rules, laws, and assumptions. This is an exercise in exceptions.

*Strictly speaking, our PhDs are from the Graduate Center of CUNY, but we spent the vast majority of our grad school experience working at John Jay. 

Will Crozier and Timothy Luke wrote this post.


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