What the courts can learn from implicit bias research
The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery last year prompted court leaders around the country to adopt a resolution to “intensify existing efforts” to improve racial equity in the justice system. At the same time, NCSC researchers were working to update a previous report examining implicit bias. The recently released report – The Evolving Science on Implicit Bias: An Updated Resource for the State Court Community – explains how implicit bias fits into broader conversations about equity and fairness; defines commonly used terms originating from the science of implicit bias; and summarizes current research in the psychological and brain sciences, including implicit bias strategies generally found to be effective and ineffective.
In the report, NCSC researchers Jennifer Elek and Andrea Miller write that implicit bias, sometimes also referred to as unconscious bias, is a term often used to refer to the attitudes and beliefs people have about others that they may be unaware of, and it manifests itself everywhere, including in the courts. Removing these biases is difficult because people are not always fully aware of their influence. But there is hope that they can be lessened, according to research.
The report lists three key takeaways from the scientific research on implicit bias:
- One of the most effective strategies for reducing prejudice and discrimination is through positive, meaningful intergroup contact
- Implicit bias interventions that attempt to change implicit associations in memory are not consistently effective
- Implicit bias interventions that bypass or disrupt biased responding show more promise
Funded by the State Justice Institute and NCSC, the report also addresses some implications of this knowledge for state court leaders, lawyers and others, and it defines key terms and clarifies how they’re used.
Research on implicit bias continues to develop, and there are a lot of unknowns. But court leaders must be aware that implicit bias exists and combat against it in order to more effectively provide justice for all.
“In the meantime,” Elek and Miller wrote, “court leaders forge ahead, continuing to make the best decisions they can with the knowledge we have today."
The Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA), with support of NCSC, have launched a national initiative – the Blueprint for Racial Justice – to take immediate and recognizable steps toward improving racial justice, equity and inclusion in the justice system. The Blueprint’s goal is to ensure that all court users, litigants, and community members across the country are heard, listened to, and respected by the nation’s justice system.
The Blueprint supports a resolution recently adopted by CCJ/COSCA that calls for state courts to “intensify existing efforts” to improve racial equity within the justice system and to examine what change is needed to make equality under the law a reality for everyone. The Blueprint will include policies, webinars, bench cards, and other resources to help state court leaders accomplish the goals outlined in the resolution. The steering committee has established four workgroups that will focus on the following issues:
- Equity and awareness
- Systemic change
- Communication and implementation
- Increasing the diversity of the bench, bar and workforce
This effort is being led by a steering committee comprised of four state court chief justices – Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, District of Columbia; Richard Robinson, Connecticut; Paul Suttell, Rhode Island; and Martha Walters, Oregon – and four state court administrators – David Byers, Arizona; Nancy Cozine, Oregon; Laurie Dudgeon, Kentucky; and Tonnya Kohn, South Carolina.