How Just Is Justice? Ask a Psycholinguist
You are a member of a jury. After the trial, the judge reads you and your fellow jurors a set of instructions. One of them begins: Failure of recollection is common. Innocent misrecollection is not uncommon… Confused? Now imagine that your native language is not English or that you never finished high school. Or both. Our justice system depends on jurors making informed decisions to reach a verdict, so when jury instructions are too challenging, jurors not only disengage but return misinformed verdicts. Courtroom practices make jurors’ jobs even harder. Many states don’t provide copies of the instructions and some don’t permit jurors to take notes. Can we make instructions easier for jurors, and in so doing, improve justice? In two studies, we show that jury instruction comprehension significantly improves (a) when subjects read the texts of the instructions while listening to them and (b) when the instructions are rewritten in Plain English, minimizing two linguistic factors: passive verbs and unfamiliar legal expressions, or “legalese”. Improvements were even greater for Study 2’s MTurk subjects than Study 1’s undergraduates. Since these new subjects are closer demographically to jurors, this new data provides even more evidence that current jury instructions need to be rewritten. Taken together, the studies lay the groundwork for reform, psycholinguistics providing judiciaries with the evidence that they need to implement change.
I am grateful to the Massachusetts Bar Association for their initial interest in this project, for sponsoring me as a Research Fellow and awarding me and my team a small grant to get our research going. Since then, we have benefitted from a grant from the Northeastern University Humanities Center and from a series of student research and travel grants from the Provost’s office and the College of Social Science and Humanities. In addition, many individuals played roles in many aspects of this research and to them I extend my personal thanks: the Honorable Gabrielle Wolohojian, Associate Justice, Massachusetts Appeals Court, the Honorable Judith Fabricant, Chief Justice, Massachusetts Superior Court, the Honorable Francis Fecteau, Associate Justice, Massachusetts Appeals Court (Emeritus), Jack McDevitt, Northeastern University Associate Dean, College of Social Sciences and Humanities, and Jeremy Paul, former Dean, Northeastern University School of Law. But my largest debt is to my hard-working research team. These students have earned my deepest thanks: for their dedication to our work, for their comments, suggestions, and thought-provoking ideas, and for keeping things going through thick and thin. This year’s team members were (in alphabetical order): Kathryn Aucella, Leah Butz, Julien Cherry, Avery Isaacs, Shaughnessy Jones, Samantha Laureano, Abbie MacNeal, Matthew Monjarrez, Francielle Reis, Benjamin Rubin, Rachel Smith, and Yian Xu. I am also grateful to our alumni, on whose shoulders our current team is working. A special shout-out goes to two recent ones, Katherine Fiallo and Alexander Jones, for holding up the legal side of this project. And though they all have been invaluable in the work presented here, all errors and omissions are mine.
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