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Court Delays Increase Zeal for Punishment, Study Finds

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A series of studies showed that delays in the judicial process consistently result in more severe punishment, and that people pile on more punishment based on the perceived unfairness of the delays. Writing in Scientific American, a team of researchers warned that delays not caused by a foot-dragging defendant can lead to biased sentencing.

"People in a position to determine justice — whether they are judges or other evaluators — often expect swift consequences," the researchers wrote. "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."

Their first study used more than 150,000 sentencing decisions from Illinois' Cook County, which showed how consistently longer sentences were levied where more time passed between crime or arrest and final judgment. The findings controlled for the number of charges and severity of the crimes to rule out other explanations.

Next they examined New York Police Department misconduct cases. These showed the same pattern.

To explore why time delays seemed to increase punishment severity, the researchers then designed a series of experiments with more than 6,000 adults. Once again, long delays in arrest for a hypothetical shoplifting led to longer sentences.

Study participants were asked about a range of influences, from deterrence goals to their personal outrage over an offense.

The researchers write:

Of all these factors, we found that only the perceived unfairness of the delays — the notion that a criminal had unfairly benefited from that extra time — consistently explained why longer time delays resulted in harsher punishments.
Importantly, these effects held even when we presented scenarios where the transgressor was not responsible for the time delay.

This effect can be softened if those passing judgment are told that a judge already accounted for the time delay while deciding punishment, satisfying the urge to ensure that justice is served.

The authors, whose full study appeared in the journal Psychological Science, are professors of organizational behavior, management, and business at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Wharton School, the Indian School of Business, and Harvard Business School.


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