January 27, 2019

5 steps to help eliminate socio-economic bias

By now you have heard of implicit bias, explicit bias, racial bias, gender bias and how the unconscious forming of attitudes and stereotypes affects our understanding about and actions related to members of a social group ­-- from the courtroom, to the boardroom and to our everyday walk.

But what is socio-economic bias and why should you be concerned?

Judges and members of academia came together to discuss this relatively new phenomenon during the program, “Better to Be Rich & Guilty? How Implicit Socio-economic Bias Influences Outcomes,” held Jan. 26 at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Las Vegas.

Judge Bernice Donald of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit was joined by professors Michele B. Neitz of the Golden Gate University School of Law and Sarah Redfield of the University of New Hampshire School of Law as they looked at the role socio-economic bias plays in the justice system and offered research-based strategies to mitigate the problem for more equitable system outcomes.

What is socio-economic bias?

Donald says the first thing to understand is that we are all implicitly biased. “It’s not an intentional act. It’s just that we’re wired that way,’’ she says. “We all have these biases and that does not mean that we’re saying that you are racist or bigoted or prejudiced or sexist. It is just a predisposition that we have for looking at things through a certain lens and we all have these impressions and sometimes they are in contradiction with our own value systems.”

Neitz, who first published research on socio-economic bias in 2013, explains the problem this way: “It is looking at a population of people, and because of where you are on the economic ladder, we’re going to make certain assumptions and generalizations about you,” she says.

Neitz says some of these biases come from the media. “News coverage can prime certain perceptions about certain populations you might have, especially if you don’t have a real-life example to counter what you’re seeing on the television,” she explains. “If you see myths about poor people in the media often enough that is how you’re going to see them.”

She says myths surrounding certain groups of people lead to biases. One of the ways to combat them in the courtroom is to make implicit socio-economic bias a part of the Model Code of Conduct just as other biases are listed, Nietz suggests.

“I think we can say that socio-economic bias is more prevalent in courtrooms than we realize,’ Neitz says. “There is no constitutional prohibition on socio-economic bias in the courtroom the way that there is for racial and gender bias. So, it’s little noticed and we’re trying to draw attention to the fact that there is intersectionality between the types of implicit bias that people have heard about, studied and been trained on and this little-known type of bias that is prevalent in courtrooms across the country. Judges have a direct impact on the lives of poor people every day, not just in criminal court but housing court and small claims court as well.”

Addressing socio-economic bias

What’s being done about the problem?

“Well, programs like this one today is a great start,” Neitz says. “We’re trying to bring people’s awareness to it.”

And, as far as specific steps, Neitz says “including socio-economic bias [education] in judicial trainings and legal trainings and judicial codes of conduct might help the courtroom situation.”

The panel outlined four ways to combat implicit socio-economic bias on a personal level:

  • Awareness,
  • Be motivated to be fair,
  • Increase your familiarity with the challenges facing low-income populations, and
  • Improve court conditions.

Donald added a fifth, which is to guard against snap-judgment decisions.

“Slow it down and be reflective will help in interrupting biases.”

Attorney Ron Kramer of Seyfarth Shaw LLP moderated the program, which was sponsored by the ABA Section of State and Local Government Law.