Archive for December 6th, 2017

How Good are Judges at Assessing Remorse?

posted by Judge_Burke @ 18:22 PM
December 6, 2017

Determining credibility is among the most difficult tasks a trial judge has. Judges make factual findings. But, judges are not necessarily better than others at figuring out who is telling the truth. For example, in a controlled study of 110 judges with an average of 11.5 years on the bench, judges did not do better than chance in telling who was being truthful and who wasn’t. See Paul Ekman & Maureen O’Sullivan, Who Can Catch a Liar?, 46 Am. Psychologist 913 (1991); Richard Schauffler & Kevin S. Burke, Who Are You Going to Believe?, 49 Court Rev. 124 (2013). 

Judge Learned Hand once said, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” So if determining who is telling the truth is problematic, what about determining the sincerity of remorse? 

There is a new paper, written by Professor Eve Hanan, that addresses this issue and is now available via SSRN. 

Here is the abstract:

Whether a defendant expresses remorse at criminal sentencing often has a direct bearing on the severity of the sentence.  But how good are judges at accurately assessing genuine, meaningful remorse?  Research demonstrates that judges hold contradictory and unfounded views about how sincere remorse should be expressed and, as a result, are likely to misjudge remorse.  Legal and social science scholars have grappled with the challenge of accurately assessing remorse, but no one has analyzed whether implicit racial bias skews remorse assessments at criminal sentencing in predictable and systematically discriminatory ways.

In an effort to unmask this mode of discrimination, this Article synthesizes two areas of scholarship not previously compared — (1) scholarship on the role of remorse in criminal sentencing and (2) social science research on implicit racial bias — to argue that unconscious cognitive assumptions about race and criminality causes judges to discredit African American displays of remorse and, as a consequence, sentence them to harsher punishments.  At a time when racial disparity and implicit bias dominates national discussions of criminal sentencing reform, improving our understanding of where our criminal justice system is particularly susceptible to racial bias can help reformers mend these weaknesses in our system to ensure it works equally for everyone.

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