July 3, 2007

Worth talking about...

Q & A with Steven Landsburg, author of More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics.

Q: You argue that jurors should be charged a penalty if they convict a defendant who is later exonerated. By that logic, do you think defense attorneys should refund some of the fees they collect from a defendant who is convicted?

A: Defendants and their attorneys are perfectly capable of negotiating any fee arrangements they want to, including refunds in the case of a conviction. It’s interesting to ask why we don’t often see that kind of contract, but if it’s not arising naturally I don’t see any reason to mandate it.

Jurors, by contrast, are in a very different position. Their compensation isn’t negotiated, and all of society depends on their doing a good job. Yet, as I point out in the book, jury service is almost the only activity I can think of where rewards are 100% divorced from performance. That’s got to be a recipe for disaster.

In the book, I talk about various ways we might spot jurors who are doing a bad job and punish them for it. Along the way, we’ll make the mistake of punishing a lot of jurors who don’t deserve it. That’s unfair, but it’s also okay. Nothing is more unfair than to send an innocent person to jail, or to acquit a guilty murderer who goes out and kills again. If we can make a dent in that kind of unfairness by being occasionally unfair to jurors, that’s a trade-off I can live with.

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