Phil Dixon Jr., an indigent defense educator, specializes in evidence, criminal procedure, and constitutionality for juveniles. When I spoke to him for a class assignment, he discussed his advocacy work for people who can't afford regular lawyers and shared anecdotes of his experiences with disproportionate minority contact.
As an indigent defense educator, he teaches lawyers who represent defendants who can't afford a higher quality lawyer; these defendants are often of color. He talked about how he believes these defendants deserve the same rights as someone who doesn't have the money to afford a more prestigious lawyer. "In theory, that person is entitled to the same level of representation," he said, and I agreed.
He trains these lawyers to see working with these defendants as a privilege and to do a great job despite the fact that they're paid less, especially now that the $75 an hour these lawyers were paid has lowered to $55 over time, and therefore typically causes lesser quality work.
Dixon often feels frustrated toward cases in which a judge's implicit bias hurts an individual who comes from a less privileged home. He's seen cases where two children will commit similar crimes, but the one who is dressed nicer, knows the right things to say, and uses manners gets an entirely different disposition — the juvenile word for sentence — than one who comes from an unsupportive, poor home with no way of transportation.
A study in 2013 showed that federal prosecutors are more likely to charge black people than white people, even if they have similar situations and even if the white person committed a crime carrying a higher minimum sentence.
Dixon believes that many judges strive to treat all people fairly, but can make snap decisions or racist assumptions even when they don't realize that their thought comes from bias.
He's also seen cases in which the deck is stacked against someone because a judge will find a child responsible solely because he or she believes the child needs services for being at the courthouse in the first place; the judge may believe that giving children services for being in the courtroom is his or her responsibility.
Dixon also feels frustrated with the arbitrariness of certain factors. For example, he explained that some judges have heard so many sob stories that they become immune. Some lawyers may not research what's best for everyone in the family as well as they should. Luck of the draw with lawyers and judges is also a factor. Some judges have nuanced and narrow ways of seeing the world, depending on where they came from and their previous career work.
In many ways, the justice system needs work and is far from perfect, and it's easy to feel like there's little we can do to change it. However, addressing our own instances of implicit bias — our unconscious attitudes or stereotypes about a person of a certain demographic, that have real-world implications — by taking this quiz, by being intentional in our words and reflective of our opinions, and by educating ourselves through resources such as these — we are making a crucial difference.