Opinion: Making the case for implicit bias training in criminal justice

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Credit: File Photo

On January 1, 2017, I assumed the role of District Attorney for the Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit (DeKalb County, Georgia). Like many newly elected officials, I had a long list of goals I wanted to achieve within my first 100 days in office.

I quickly learned that it would take much longer than the first quarter of my first term to accomplish the myriad of goals I had set for my administration, particularly those aimed at addressing violent crime and building trust in my community. In 2019, I was finally able to put a check mark next to my goal of implementing a comprehensive implicit bias training for my entire 200-member staff.

I am proud to lead the first prosecution office in Georgia to require all of its employees, regardless of job function, to complete 8 hours of mandatory implicit bias training. Since its inception, the course has been offered annually and is mandatory for every new employee who joins our team.

Caption
DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston.

Credit: contributed

DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston.
Caption
DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Recently, there has been a great deal of conversation and debate around diversity training in schools and in government agencies.

Let’s take a closer look. What exactly is implicit bias or unconscious bias training? It is training that is aimed at helping people identify their implicit biases and understand how those biases affect their decision-making, both good and bad. And, guess what? We all have biases! That doesn’t make us bad people. It makes us human.

What implicit bias training is not, is race-based training centered upon a philosophy that one particular race is irreparably evil.

So, the question becomes, why do we need implicit bias training in prosecution offices? It is a simple answer, in my estimation. As “ministers of justice” we take an oath to make critical, often life-changing, charging and sentencing decisions without bias, fear, or favor.

We further swear to ensure the safety and protection of all victims without assumptions or judgment. But we can only accomplish these goals if we are willing and able to recognize our blind spots and institute policies and practices that ensure a system of blind justice for all parties involved. Frankly, this is not a novel concept for our profession. We examine and search for jurors’ implicit and explicit biases all the time. Should the same standard not apply to us?

Each year, the State Bar of Georgia requires all licensed attorneys to complete 12 hours of continuing legal education (CLE). Every July, prosecutors from across the state convene in Jekyll Island for an annual conference hosted by the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia (PAC). PAC offers a total of 26 hours of course options from which prosecutors can choose to satisfy their minimum CLE requirements, to include mandated credits in ethics and professionalism.

This year, for the first time in its history, PAC offered a one-hour course entitled: “Bias, Bias, Everywhere: The Good, The Bad & The Strategies to Defeat It,” taught by Douglas County District Attorney Dalia Racine and PAC Traffic Safety Resource Senior Prosecutor Jason Samuels.

The presentation focused on understanding how implicit bias can directly affect how we interface with both defendants and victims in the criminal justice system and encourage trauma-informed and bias-aware practices. More importantly, it promoted an understanding of how distrust of the criminal justice system negatively affects our communities and hinders public safety goals. I want to take this moment to applaud PAC, particularly Executive Director Pete Skandalakis, for recognizing the need to add this optional training to its lineup.

In order to be better, we must do better. We have a responsibility to be the standard-bearers in prosecution and move beyond lip service. Perhaps we can re-imagine the traditional role of the prosecutor and stretch beyond the basic notion of law and order by adapting policies and protocols that help us better serve the needs of our community. We must continue to look at ourselves through a critical lens and examine ways in which we can operate in a more-balanced, fair and just manner, exclusive of our individual biases and limitations.

I am proud of PAC for taking substantive action towards this end and pushing the envelope just a little. It has inspired me to continue to do the type of work that builds upon this platform.

I hope my prosecution colleagues will join me in this commitment. Justice demands it.

Sherry Boston is DeKalb County District Attorney.