Subconscious Biases Could Affect Criminal Sentencing – MDCLC

Kimberly2 1Author:

Kimberly J. Benjamin, Founder & Managing Attorney

Many people in Missouri and across the country have raised concerns about bias in the criminal justice system, and scientific research may do much to back up those fears. Unconscious bias is a manifestation of subconscious ideas and stereotypes that sit below the level of conscious thought. In some cases, unconscious biases may reflect social ideas that actually conflict with a person’s conscious thoughts and beliefs. A major area of inquiry for both social and biological scientists, unconscious bias can have a major effect on how people perceive others’ actions, intentions and motivations. It can change the way that people judge others in either a positive or a negative direction.

The implications for the criminal justice system can be profound, especially if this type of unconscious bias is exercised by judges. Other research indicates that judges often rely far more substantially on their intuition when making judgments than they do on a clear deliberative process. At the same time, judges are also likely to state that they are highly convinced of their objectivity and ability to make fair decisions. Both of these factors create a higher risk for the influence of unconscious bias. Studies show that people who believe themselves to be objective are less likely to question their own subconscious judgments.

In addition, intuition is difficult to define and the results may be severely damaging, particularly for black defendants. Studies have repeatedly shown that black defendants are more likely to spend time in pre-trial detention or be assessed higher bail requirements. They are also more likely to receive harsher sentences, including the death penalty, than white defendants convicted of the same or similar charges.

Bias provides another obstacle for people facing criminal charges. A criminal defense attorney may help clients to navigate an often-unfair system, challenge police allegations and work to prevent a conviction.

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