Reducing wrongful convictions

Close your eyes and tell me what you are wearing today. What is the person next to you wearing? Our memory is capable of incredible things; however, it does not work like a tape recorder, neither when memorising an event, nor when attempting to recall it. In court, eyewitness evidence is regarded to be among the most incriminating type of evidence. However, it is not always accurate and can lead to miscarriages of justice. To date, over 330 wrongfully convicted people have been exonerated in the US by DNA testing, including 18 people who had been sentenced to death. On average, these people had served 13 years each in prison before they were exonerated and released. In the US over 75% of known wrongful convictions, many of them in rape cases, are at least in part due to mistaken eyewitness identification, making it the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions.

Although witness memory is indisputably fallible, it is heavily relied on. And although a wealth of literature exists on eyewitness issues in general, relatively little is known about older witnesses. This is especially concerning as the proportion of the world population that is 60 years or older will rise from 11 per cent in 2011 to 22 per cent in 2050, reaching a total of two billion. Taken with the fact that older adults are found to live healthier and more actively to older ages, this rapid population ageing will likely lead to an increase in older adults being witnesses of crimes and generally being involved in the Criminal Justice System. Bearing in mind older adults’ declining sensory systems and memory, it is most important to get further insights into strategies that can enhance their witness performance.

Person identification decisions are subject to mistakes in general. However, older adults are found to perform even worse in eyewitness situations than young adults, both regarding testimony and person identification. Attempts that have been made to improve witness performance in general have had limited success. Specific interviewing techniques, for instance, are often training-intense and time-consuming. An easy-to-apply and effective method to aid older eyewitnesses could, however, come through a consideration of the witness’ individual circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythms reflect roughly 24-hour cycles in biological and physiological processes, which impact, among other things, on attention processes and memory. These show regular peaks and declines across the day and people who perform at their optimal time of day, i.e. according to their circadian rhythm, are at their peak of cognitive functioning.

Applied to eyewitness research, my PhD supervisor Katrin Mueller-Johnson was able to show that taking elderly witnesses’ optimal time of the day into account substantially improved the quality and quantity of their testimony. To pursue this further, I examined the impact of circadian rhythm on performance in an eyewitness identification task. Again, preliminary results were very promising. In a first study, the overall odds of performing correctly in a line-up were roughly seven times higher if participants were tested at their optimal time of day (80% correct) than at their non-optimal time (37% correct), an effect that was highly significant. This becomes even more interesting when looking only at line-ups in which the perpetrator was not present, which is the research equivalent to situations in which the police have arrested the wrong suspect. Here, the odds of correctly indicating that the perpetrator is not there were eight times higher if participants were tested at their optimal time (33% falsely identified someone) as opposed to their non-optimal time (80% of participants falsely identified someone from the line-up).

Although these are just preliminary studies and there are, of course, limitations to this research, it nevertheless constitutes an important step in the investigation of possible improvements of the person identification process for older eyewitnesses. It shows the importance of studying what influences eyewitness testimony and reveals a promising approach to improving older adults’ person identification. In due course this could lead to more effective police investigations, better access to justice and more successful prosecutions and ultimately to a reduction in the number of wrongful convictions.

*Katrin Pfeil [2012] is doing a PhD in Criminology. Picture credit: renjith krishnan and


Does crime run in families?

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’, ‘Like father like son’, ‘chip off the old block’. Many people agree with these idioms and even more people have ideas as to why crime runs in families: bad upbringing, growing up in bad neighbourhoods, and ‘it’s in the genes’ among them. To some extent these explanations are supported by empirical research and in my dissertation I examine some of these mechanisms. Something people do not generally think about, however, is whether criminal justice policies might nourish this cycle of intergenerational crime.

One way in which the criminal justice system might increase intergenerational transmission is through imprisonment of the parents (see earlier news post and the Gates Scholar Magazine). A less extensively investigated mechanism, however, is official bias. Official bias means that the police and other agents in the justice system such as judges focus their attention on a certain group of people, such as children of criminal parents. This mechanism suggests that such children are seen as ‘usual suspects’ and will get caught more often, get convicted more easily, and appear in criminal records more often. This would then explain why we find a relationship between parental and offspring convictions.

Using English data we investigated whether sons of convicted parents had an increased risk of conviction compared to sons of unconvicted parents. Not only did we have information about their criminal records, but over the years these sons were asked to report whether they had taken part in delinquent behaviour. We grouped sons with similar levels of self-reported offending and found that sons with a convicted parent had an increased risk of having a conviction compared to sons of unconvicted parents. This supports the idea of official bias.

Moreover, we know that a criminal conviction increases criminal behaviour. This process is called ‘labelling’. When people are labelled ‘criminal’, this label or stigma might influence someone’s self-perception; people will act in accordance with the label attached to them by society. Furthermore, the criminal label might block conventional and non-criminal pathways and thereby pushes people into a criminal lifestyle. This label could be a crucial event leading to a more persistent delinquent life course.

These are disturbing results, because it seems that the criminal justice system accomplishes exactly the opposite of what it aims to do: reduce crime. However, it is not surprising that justice agencies focus their attention on what they think will be the usual suspects. Prejudice and stereotypes help us to perceive the world around us, a world with often too much information to readily handle. These stereotypes work, because children from criminal parents do have a higher risk to commit crime. However, it is undesirable that criminal justice policies increase crime. Therefore, it is vital to make criminal justice agents aware of this bias and the impact on future offending. Second, we know that other mechanisms such as growing up in a poor environment also impact on intergenerational transmission of criminal behaviour. Instead of increasing criminal behaviour among children of criminal parents, it would be preferable to try and prevent the development of this behaviour in the first place. Energy and resources would be better spent on family-based prevention programmes, such as parent education and parent management training. Such programmes have been shown effective in reducing offspring offending. If special attention were focused on children of criminal parents, this could be a more positive and effective means of preventing criminal behaviour.

*Sytske Besemer [2008] investigated intergenerational transmission of criminal and violent behaviour at the Institute of Criminology. She has recently been awarded a Rubicon fellowship from NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, and is now doing a post-doc at UC Berkeley in California. This blog is based on part of Sytske Besemer’s dissertation which is shortly being published by Sidestone Press. Picture credit: sakhorn38 and