Deconstructing the Simplification of Jury Instructions: How Simplifying the Features of Complexity Affects Jurors’ Application of Instructions

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Abstract

Research consistently shows that techniques currently used to simplify jury instructions do not always improve mock jurors’ comprehension. If improvements are observed, these are limited and overall comprehension remains low. It is unclear, however, why this occurs. It is possible that current simplification techniques do not effectively simplify the features of complexity, present in standardized instructions, which have the greatest effect on jurors’ comprehension. It is not yet known, however, how much each feature of complexity individually affects jurors’ comprehension. To investigate this, the authors used existing data from published empirical studies to examine how simplifying each feature of complexity affects mock jurors’ application of instructions, as jurors can only apply instructions to the extent they understand them. The results suggest that reducing the conceptual complexity and proportion of supplementary information was associated with increased application of the instructions; however, reducing both the linguistic complexity and amount of information, and providing the instructions in a written format was not. In addition, results showed an unexpected adverse effect of simplification—reducing the amount of information was associated with an increase in the punitiveness of mock jurors’ verdicts, independently of the instruction content. Together, these results suggest a need to make jury instructions comprehensible, highlight the key principles in the decision-process, and identify a way to eliminate the negative effect of reducing the amount of information. Addressing these needs is essential for developing a simplification technique that maximizes jurors’ comprehension and application of instructions, while minimizing the previously overlooked negative effects of simplification.

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