Glasses with people in the background
Five steps to help mitigate implicit bias on the bench

By Joseph Sawyer
Director of Online Learning & Faculty Development

1. Don’t even start until you can admit this to yourself

No human being is unbiased. You have to acknowledge that you are not the exception to this rule. You also must be highly motivated to overcome your biases. Without strong internal motivation, research tells us that you will not be successful in conquering your biases.

2. Identify your biases

Implicit biases are, by definition, unknown. You can’t hope to dismantle your implicit biases until you discover what they are. Start by taking the Implicit Association Test offered free online by Harvard University. Then review your sentencing patterns for bias. Have a trusted colleague observe you in court and provide feedback on how you treated litigants and defendants of different backgrounds, genders, and ethnicities.

3. Decide which of your implicit biases to address first

Don’t try to tackle your implicit biases all at one time. Focus on the most pressing ones that impact your docket and community.

4. Identify and acknowledge individual difference

Lady Justice wears a blindfold. You can’t. You have to learn how differences in people may affect your thinking. You can do this by…

  • Putting extra effort into identifying the unique aspects of stigmatized individuals
  • Being aware of what you’re thinking when confronted by initial identifying factors that can lead to stereotyping (differences in race/ethnicity, gender, language, etc.)
  • Working on embracing all the diverse members of the human family
  • Appreciating the individual differences in people.
5. Slow down

Your biases are more likely to affect you and court users in times of stress. Focus on conscious decision making. Do everything on purpose by being deliberate. Consider rules carefully. Don’t run your court on auto-pilot.

These are just a few of many strategies for ensuring that judges treat all court users fairly. For more detailed information sign up for the Ethics, Fairness and Security in Your Courts and Community course Oct. 21–24 at the NJC.

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