A checklist from Adam Benforado on what makes his Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Justice (Crown, June 2015) ideal for common reading:
√ Student Engagement. It’s impossible to choose a book that all students will find interesting and relevant, but Unfair comes awfully close. Crime and the responses to crime define our lives—the paths we walk, the rules we follow, the taxes we pay, the shows we watch. And there is something about criminal law stories that hold us by the edge of our seat. The cases I explore have all the drama of Law & Order or CSI episodes, but they’re real and they raise compelling questions: What could lead an otherwise upstanding attorney to conceal a critical piece of evidence from the other side? Why would a person confess to a crime she didn’t commit when under no physical duress? Is it possible to tell whether someone is guilty by looking at a scan of his brain? The answers from psychology and neuroscience are often just as riveting.
√ Timeliness. The FYE book presents a rare opportunity to engage the entire university community in a debate over the central concerns of our time. The failure of our criminal justice system has been the defining issue in the United States over the last year. Shows like “Serial,” “The Jinx,” and “Making a Murderer” have riveted the public, while instances of police brutality and resulting protests have dominated news headlines. Lawmakers have rushed to catch up. Every presidential candidate has a criminal justice platform and this is perhaps the only area where bipartisan reform is actually possible. Universities need to be part of the conversation and Unfair presents the perfect avenue for discussion.
√ Academic Rigor and Broad Exposure. A big reason why Unfair is such a great fit for first-year-experience programs is that it’s not a lightweight “pop” book parading as a sober academic work to appeal to university selection committees; this is serious scholarship painstakingly crafted into a “good read.” Drawing on my own empirical research and studies I teach at the graduate level, the book has the appropriate level of intellectual rigor to be included in a college curriculum. And because the approach is interdisciplinary—bringing together history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, ethics, public policy, neuroscience, and law—it’s a perfect book for the orientation experience, introducing students to fields they may wish to pursue in the years to come. An added benefit is that the book can be taught and appreciated on a variety of levels (e.g., the person seeking more depth can consult the 300 pages of online endnotes, while the more casual reader can skip them). It is a testament to the Unfair’s broad appeal that it has already been selected for book clubs, community reading programs, undergraduate courses, and law school classes.
√ Fostering Community and Active Citizenship. It’s unrealistic to expect most books to build a sense of community or shared endeavor, but I think that’s a fair expectation with Unfair. After all, I wrote the book to encourage civic engagement and active citizenship—I wanted to prompt people to think about how to reform our legal system so that it lives up to our ideals. And I’m always excited when I speak about my work to see how readily people see the connections to other fields outside of law—from business to public health to education. It is as if there is something about the behavioral research that shifts people from passive receivers of information to active participants in its application. Many of the dynamics I discuss—from the origins of dishonesty to the benefits of diversity to the biases people bring to reviewing evidence—are of special interest to universities.
√ Experienced Facilitator. I love to help students navigate these critical issues. And, as a highly-rated teacher and experienced lecturer, I’m well positioned to do so. One of my greatest joys is showing young people how to look at topics they think they know with new eyes. That’s what college is all about.
√ Ease of Use. The paperback version of the book (to be released in June 2016) includes a reader’s guide designed to make leading discussions of Unfair simple and straightforward for people with no background in the topic. I’m also more than happy to work with FYE adopters to develop tailored materials to assist with the teaching of the book.
ADAM BENFORADO is an associate professor of law at Drexel University. A graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School, he served as a federal appellate law clerk and an attorney at Jenner & Block. He has published numerous scholarly articles, and his op-eds and essays have appeared in a variety of publications including the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Legal Times. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter.