DeKalb DA takes action to rid her office of implicit bias

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DeKalb District Attorney Sherry Boston speaks at a press conference at the DeKalb County Courthouse in 2017. (CASEY SYKES, CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM)

By Bill Rankin

Prosecutors use their discretion at many critical points of a criminal case, such as deciding whether to obtain an indictment, what plea deals should be offered and, while in trial, how to exercise strikes during jury selection.

But this process can be tarnished by a person’s implicit bias — the attitudes and stereotypes that affect everyone’s actions and decision-making in an unconscious way. For this reason, DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston said she is taking steps to educate her staff about it to ensure fairness in the county’s criminal justice system.

“We all know we have biases,” Boston said in a recent interview. “And we know the decisions we make in this office have real-life consequences.”

Boston recently had her entire 200-plus member staff take implicit-bias training from Dr. Bryant Marks, who teaches local governments and law enforcement offices nationwide. Marks, who founded the National Training Institute on Race and Equity, has trained police forces in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle.

Dr. Bryant Marks. (Photo: The National Training Institute on Race and Equity)

Initially, the goal was to have the DeKalb DA office’s supervisors take eight hours of training and the rest of the staff take four hours. But after the training began, Boston decided to have everyone take eight hours.

“It was that impactful,” she said.

Implicit bias affects everyday life but it can be far more consequential when it occurs in the justice system, Marks said. All the more important, he added, is overwhelming research that shows implicit bias leads most often to discrimination against black and brown males.

“Implicit bias is something all of us have,” Marks said. “That’s because all of us are human, we live in society and we have a brain.”

These hidden biases affect even the best of people, Marks said.

“It’s not about guilt or shame or passing judgment,” Marks said. “Implicit bias is more about the machinery of your mind, not the core of your character.”

Boston said her DA’s office is now the first in Georgia in which each staff member has had eight hours of implicit-bias training.

“I’m super excited about this,” she said. “My priority as district attorney is making sure we’re fair and just.”

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