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August 29, 2023

New research suggests justice delayed results in justice more severe

This new Scientific American article provides a short account by researchers about thier interesting studies on delayed justice.  The article is fully headlined "Why Delays in Delivering Justice Lead to Harsher Sentencing: People want swift punishment and will even penalize perpetrators for delays outside their control," and here are excerpts:

It occurred to us that people in a position to determine justice — whether they are judges or other evaluators — often expect swift consequences.  When this process is disrupted, we reasoned, they may find it unfair. Did they seek to correct for a process that they believed had unfairly benefited the transgressor? In a series of studies, we discovered that is indeed the case.  Delays in arrests or sentencing increased punishment severity.

We began by accessing more than 150,000 felony sentencing decisions from Cook County, Illinois. Cook County, which encompasses Chicago, is the second-most populous county in the U.S.  The data, which were released to offer more transparency into the prosecution process, provided a detailed view of how delays may influence sentencing. Importantly, some of the crimes occurred back in the 1980s, meaning that justice may have been delayed for years or even decades after the crime was committed.

We uncovered a consistent pattern: the more time that passed before the judgment of a crime, the longer the sentence a transgressor received.  This occurred regardless of whether we computed delays from the time span between the crime and the arrest or sentencing or between the arrest and the sentencing.  We also controlled for the number of charges and the severity of crimes committed, which ruled out alternative explanations.

Still, we wanted to replicate these findings in another context.  Instead of looking at civilian sentencing, we acquired a data set of police misconduct cases from the New York Police Department.  These data included such examples as an officer’s use of excessive force and abuse of authority. As before, our results revealed a consistent effect: the more time that elapsed between the report of misconduct and the closure of a case, the more severe the recommended punishment was.  These results held even after accounting for the number of charges officers faced, the number of officers associated with the accusation and the type of accusation.  Together these two studies showed robust support for the effect of delays on punishment.

But we still wanted to understand why time delays seemed to increase punishment severity. We therefore designed a series of experiments with 6,029 adult participants recruited via online panels.  In these studies, people learned about a hypothetical crime, such as shoplifting, and then decided how many months they would sentence the transgressor to prison for.... Once again, we found that participants punished the transgressor significantly more severely in the long-time-delay condition....

Our studies reveal an interesting and important pattern.  We should not assume that the passage of time has healing properties.  In fact, it can potentially exacerbate punishment.  Moreover in cases where the time delay is not the fault of the transgressor — as with the backlog of court cases during the COVID pandemic — people need to recognize that time delays may lead to biased sentencing.  That’s something that should concern all of us.

The full research from the authors of this piece was published earlier this month in the journal Psychological Science under the title "Time and Punishment: Time Delays Exacerbate the Severity of Third-Party Punishment."  Here is its abstract:

Punishments are not always administered immediately after a crime is committed.  Although scholars and researchers claim that third parties should normatively enact punishments proportionate to a given crime, we contend that third parties punish transgressors more severely when there is a time delay between a transgressor’s crime and when they face punishment for it.  We theorize that this occurs because of a perception of unfairness, whereby third parties view the process that led to time delays as unfair.  We tested our theory across eight studies, including two archival data sets of 160,772 punishment decisions and six experiments (five preregistered) across 6,029 adult participants.  Our results suggest that as time delays lengthen, third parties punish transgressors more severely because of increased perceived unfairness.  Importantly, perceived unfairness explained this relationship beyond other alternative mechanisms. We explore potential boundary conditions for this relationship and discuss the implications of our findings.

August 29, 2023 at 11:11 PM | Permalink


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