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Unconscious bias can present a challenge in the courtroom

When scientists examine discriminatory conduct in New Jersey and across the country, they often find that problems are less attributable to overt bigotry than to unconscious bias. Unconscious bias, or beliefs and stereotypes embraced at a subconscious level, can affect the way that people respond to others, judge their behavior or assess their intentions. Unfortunately, many of these unconscious biases reflect racist and sexist stereotypes, putting people and their liberty and even lives at risk if they enter the criminal justice system.

Racial disparity in treatment and sentencing is a long-running problem in the criminal justice system. Although most judges openly espouse non-racist convictions and their commitment to objectivity, black defendants continue to receive heftier bail demands and longer sentences. They have a higher likelihood of receiving the death penalty than do white defendants accused of similar charges. Black defendants can face unfair convictions and lose years of their lives due to this bias, whether it is conscious or unconscious.

Research also demonstrates that those most vulnerable to unconscious bias are also those who may be least willing to interrogate their motivations and decisions. Studies indicate that judges believe strongly in their own good judgment, decision-making and objectivity. However, judges are also more likely to place a higher weight on their intuition than they are on a deliberative process. When people believe strongly that they are objective, they may be less likely to examine their practices for signs of bias or inequitable results. If questioned, they may justify their decisions, which can be particularly problematic for people in positions of authority.

The criminal justice system is often replete with injustice and bias, despite an overt commitment to fairness. People facing criminal charges may work with an attorney to challenge police allegations and aim to prevent a conviction.

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