Thoughtful judges recognize the inherent risk of unconscious bias, and the difficulty of preventing it.
A wonderful article based on an interview with Federal District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina lays out his approach to sentencing, and perhaps even more important, his personal approach to minimizing unconscious bias.
That morning, as was his routine for more than three decades, the 66-year-old judge, who retains the lean build of a former high school and college track star, sat cross-legged on a blue mat in a sunny second-floor room of his D.C. home and meditated.
His goal was simple, if not always easy to achieve: “I try to see where my biases and prejudices that day are hiding,” he said of a practice he first took up as a young law professor. “If you don’t find them, they have a tendency to come out at the most unusual of times. . . . Your mind is like a murky glass of water, and meditating is like letting the sediment settle until the water clears.”
The article also includes a wonderful example what cultural knowledge and experience can bring to the judicial process. In this case, as woman had pled guilty to faking documents to help her boss steal $10 million from the federal government.
The judge then grew silent and pondered a stack of papers in front of him before locking eyes with [the defendant]. “My parents were immigrants,” he told her. “They came from Latin America. I am very much acquainted with the qualities and characteristics of the Latin culture from a long time ago: ‘The woman obeys the man. Period.’ But this was very bad judgment on your part. The fact that it was a man telling you what to do is not an excuse, but it is a factor.” (bold added)
An important distinction that is sometimes lost. Refusing to accept something as an excuse does not mean that we have to ignore it as a factor in societal response.
I have heard of other judges who consciously spend time with people from the ethnic groups over whose members they may sit in judgement, so that they feel more comfortable in their understandings.
This is a huge and difficult area, and we should honor those who engage it directly and honestly.