Racial bias poses a continued threat in criminal cases

Many people in Illinois have raised serious concerns about the continuing impact of racial bias on prosecution, conviction and sentencing in criminal cases. One of the most important areas of study has been implicit bias, when people's decisions are affected by unconscious stereotypes and prejudices. Implicit bias rests on the acceptance of socially propagated stereotypes about a racial group rather than a conscious commitment to racist beliefs. Because it is unconscious, it can be more difficult to prove and challenge successfully. However, when implicit bias goes unchallenged, the cost for defendants of color could be substantial, including longer sentences and a higher likelihood of detention before trial.

Some criminal defense lawyers have suggested strategies to address the issue of implicit bias in the courtroom. Jury instructions given before testimony, opening statements or deliberations could instruct jurors to avoid stereotypes and personal feelings of liking or disliking the parties when considering the case. Because implicit bias rests on an unconscious framework, bringing the discussion of racial bias into the open could prompt decision-makers to consider the reasoning behind their beliefs. Other lawyers have even made a full presentation on implicit bias to potential jurors before jury selection.

Implicit bias relies on stereotyping, so making the client an individual in the eyes of the judge and jury may also help to diminish its effects. Sharing family, school or work stories and creating a narrative that presents a client's perspective can help to distinguish the defendant as a unique person rather than a collection of stereotypes.

When people face criminal charges, they already are dealing with a difficult situation and the potential for serious consequences. This only becomes more severe and concerning when potential racial bias is a factor. A criminal defense attorney may help people to protect their rights and develop a strong strategy to prevent a conviction.

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