Justice before Expediency: Robust Intuitive Concern for Rights Protection in Criminalization Decisions

Review of Philosophy and Psychology:1-23 (forthcoming)
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The notion that a false positive (false conviction) is worse than a false negative (false acquittal) is a deep-seated commitment in the theory of criminal law. Its most illustrious formulation, the so-called Blackstone’s ratio, affirms that “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”. Are people’s evaluations of criminal statutes consitent with this tenet of the Western legal tradition? To answer this question, we conducted three experiments (total _N_ = 2492) investigating how people reason about a particular class of offenses—proxy crimes—known to vary in their specificity and sensitivity in predicting actual crime. By manipulating the extent to which proxy crimes convict the innocent and acquit those guilty of a target offense, we uncovered evidence that attitudes toward proxy criminalization depend primarily on its propensity toward false positives, with false negatives exerting a substantially weaker effect. This tendency arose across multiple experimental conditions—whether we matched the rates of false positives and false negatives or their frequencies, whether information was presented visually or numerically, and whether decisions were made under time pressure or after a forced delay—and was unrelated to participants’ probability literacy or their professed views on the purpose of criminal punishment. Despite the observed inattentiveness to false negatives, when asked to justify their decisions, participants retrospectively supported their judgments by highlighting the proxy crime’s efficacy (or inefficacy) in combating crime. These results reveal a striking inconsistency: people favor criminal policies that protect the rights of the innocent, but report comparable concern for their expediency in fighting crime.



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Ivar Hannikainen
Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro

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