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Thursday, 30 October 2014

contrition gap

Photo of the Asphodel, the flower of "unending regret" from: Bouquet Bridal

“[…] The US Supreme Court has ruled that remorse can determine whether an offender lives or dies, yet we entrust such determinations to ‘know it when I see it’ standards, as if judges and juries can look into the eyes of offenders, intuit the depths of their evil, and punish accordingly.
     This discretionary latitude has predictable consequences. Regardless of their blameworthiness, rich offenders tend to get more credit for their remorse than poor ones, a generalisation that holds throughout the US criminal process. Police officers are more likely to let a warning suffice when the offender is rich. Parole boards are more likely to find that a rich inmate is sufficiently reformed. By contrast, the apologies of minorities, the poor and the mentally disabled often fail to convince.
     Several studies suggest that judges discount apologies from racial minorities, for example, because they find them lacking in credibility. Clothes, speech patterns, posture, class signifiers and so on all create what social scientists call a ‘demeanour gap’ between races and classes. If a person looks and acts in a way that the court associates with criminals, that person must overcome powerful implicit biases before a judge credits her repentance. Similar concerns arise for mentally ill offenders, who make up about half of all of those incarcerated, and whose conditions might well impair their ability to adopt a suitably contrite demeanour.
     Are these biases necessarily the result of discriminatory intentions? They needn’t be. One suggestive study found that the facial shape of corporate executives has a peculiar influence on public relations crises: it seems that ‘baby-faced’ spokespeople evoke better responses during minor crises and ‘mature faces’ produce better results in major ones. Along the same lines, it is easy to imagine how the faces of criminal offenders might influence perceptions of their remorse, leading state agents to exercise in-group bias in favour of those whose high-status lives look most like their own. By allowing officials to render impressionistic judgments on something as elusive as remorse, we open the door to discriminatory effects.
     […] Elite attorneys and $1,000-per-hour ‘apology consultants’ can coach defendants on how to use their remorse, such as it is, to maximal strategic benefit: how to express it, when to manifest it, when to avoid it. Rich offenders can throw money at the problem in other ways: enrolling in state-of-the-art treatment programmes, or providing victims with considerable redress. The repentant poor, meanwhile, languish in jail, unable to make bail, receive treatment or provide much for their victims.
     [… in civil cases] attorneys and legal scholars now commonly insist that an apology is specifically not synonymous with an admission of guilt.”
— Nick Smith, aeon
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