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Unconscious bias could lead to sentencing inequity

Unconscious bias is a significant area of study for psychology and sociology researchers in California and across the country. Many lawyers are concerned about the role of unconscious bias in the courtroom, especially as it may affect outcomes for defendants in contested criminal cases. Neuroscientists have shown that, in many cases, unconscious reactions may influence people's responses to people, events and circumstances. These reactions may be at odds with the same people's publicly expressed views and convictions. Many have linked disproportionately harsh sentences and bail assessments directed at black defendants with bias in the courtroom, whether conscious or unconscious.

While most judges would describe themselves as unbiased, studies show that black defendants are treated worse than their white counterparts in the criminal justice system. They receive longer sentences and are more likely to be executed in comparison to white people convicted of the same type of crimes. Some research has indicated that people's very beliefs in their objectivity can make them more vulnerable to subconscious bias, and when they sit in a position of power, the consequences can be devastating for marginalized people. Judges convinced of their commitment to equality may produce inequitable results.

Advocates have noted that courts, like other workplaces, must commit to constantly examining their practices and results for potential discriminatory effects. The criminal justice system has the power to take people's liberty and even lives, so the decisions made within it are particularly relevant for scrutiny. Researchers noted that examining for unconscious bias is not intended as a way to call out offenders but to reform the system to avoid inequity.

People who are accused of a crime may face long-lasting consequences affecting their employment, education and housing. A criminal defense attorney can work with a defendant to challenge prosecution narratives and aim to prevent a conviction.

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