Public Defender

Implicit Bias And Public Defenders…Mental Illness and Violence…Rape Hotlines for Prisoners…and the Budget


In recent years, there has been increased attention on the issue of implicit—or unconscious—racial bias among law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, and school teachers. San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi says it’s also a problem among the public defenders whose job it is to provide poor (often minority) defendants with effective counsel.

These implicit biases may cause public defenders to “try harder for a client that he or she perceives as more educated or likely to be successful because of their race,” says Adachi. And black defendants are more likely to be convicted of more charges and receive harsher sentences, according to preliminary data from an ongoing study of plea bargains in San Francisco.

When Adachi was approached about implementing implicit bias training among public defenders four years ago, he was skeptical that public defenders suffered from unconscious bias. Then, he took the Harvard Implicit Association Test (see image above), and found that even he had unconscious racial bias. Now, San Francisco’s public defenders take bias training twice a year, and have other safeguards to cut down on bias.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Adachi discusses how his office handles recognizing and addressing implicit bias head-on. Here’s a clip:

I also began reading studies on how defense lawyers were affected by implicit bias. One study showed that defense attorneys in death penalty cases paired pictures of white-skinned faces with stereotypically good words; they paired “bad” words with black faces. The study also found that 88 percent of U.S. attorneys are Caucasian and the vast majority of attorneys have “automatic reactions that make associating white with good easier than associating white with bad.” This made me realize that black clients had an extra obstacle to obtain justice because their lawyers’ biases could affect how hard the lawyer pushed for them.

This is also problematic because of the prevalence of plea bargaining. In most jurisdictions, over 95 percent of the cases that are not dismissed or diverted result in a plea bargain. Past studies have suggested that attorneys may consider race in assessing the client’s chances of conviction and may therefore be willing to recommend higher sentences to account for a biased system.

Two years ago, we partnered with social science researchers from the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice Plea to measure racial disparities in our plea bargains, and to determine whether the race of a client — or an attorney — affects outcomes. While the final study has not been released, the preliminary data shows a clear correlation between race and outcomes. Black defendants were more likely to be convicted of more charges and received more severe sentences. Armed with this information, we can now begin comparing outcomes and determining whether there is a rational explanation as to why they are different.

All of this research convinced me that I need to train my staff on how we form biases and how they potentially affect our work. The bias training we now undergo twice-yearly explores the subtle assumptions we make based on race. It forced us to examine who we choose to associate with, and who we choose not to, and how our fears and misperceptions about people affect the way we interact with them and ultimately represent them in court. And it required us to confront our own racism.

We also instituted some practical safeguards: Public defenders are encouraged to seek feedback from colleagues about potential biases and use checklist tools that ask questions such as “how would I handle this case different if my client was another race or had a different social background?” And we combat our own biases by getting to know our clients and their families. It is then they become individuals and not just criminal defendants.


Media attention on high profile shootings has perpetuated a narrative that exaggerates the correlation between mental illness and violence.

Just 4% of documented violence in the US is committed by people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression. In fact, a 1998 study showed that patients released from psychiatric hospitals were not any more likely to commit an act of violence than the general population (unless the psychiatric patients had co-occurring substance abuse issues).

Despite the extremely low rate of violence among the mentally ill, between 1995-2014, more than half of news stories about mental illness covered by several leading news outlets also mentioned violence, according to a new study published in the journal Health Affairs.

Rather than violence against others, people with mental illnesses are far more likely to commit suicide. The majority—60%—of all firearm-related deaths are suicides.

The Atlantic’s Julie Beck has more on the issue and why suicide prevention would have more of an impact on gun fatalities than a focus on the violence among the mentally ill. Here’s a clip:

A new study published in Health Affairs shows how the news perpetuates this narrative, with a look at how several prominent newspapers and broadcast networks covered mental illness from 1995 to 2014. More than half of the stories they looked at during that period—55 percent—mentioned violence in conjunction with mental illness. That proportion was pretty much consistent across the 19 years. But stories connecting mental illness with mass shootings specifically increased from 9 percent between 1994 and 2004 to 22 percent between 2005 and 2014.

Perhaps this can be partially attributed to high-profile shootings like the Tucson shooting in 2011, in which the killer did have schizophrenia. “That’s an event that is newsworthy, but the fact that it was linked to mental illness is not representative of most people who have schizophrenia, or most violence,” says Emma McGinty, the lead author on the study and a professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins University. “[And yet] that link pervades the public psyche.”

It pervades so much so that people speculate about killers’ mental states, even in the absence of any evidence that they were living with any disorder. For example, in an article about the gunman who recently killed a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, New York magazine writes: “Police do not know for sure yet if Sarkar had a history of mental illness.” Why does this particular absence of information bear mentioning? It seems mental illness is so linked to gun violence in people’s minds that we have to address it even when it’s not there.

And when there is evidence that a killer also happened to have a mental illness—like the pilot who crashed a Germanwings plane in 2015, who had a history of depression—the media seize upon it like a bear trap. “We’ve got it now! This is what was wrong with him,” is the message portrayed.

This is a really tricky needle to thread, because something was clearly wrong with him. Of course someone who is perfectly healthy and well-adjusted in every way would not go out and kill a bunch of people.


States and individual detention facilities are increasingly turning to rape crisis hotlines to help prisoners who have been sexually assaulted by staff or other inmates.

In 2003, Congress passed the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which established a set of “zero-tolerance” standards meant to eliminate rape in state and federal prisons. It took a decade to nail down and approve those standards. A 2014 report indicated that the number of sexual assaults behind bars had not changed much from 2007 to 2014 (before and after PREA standards were set in place).

Enforcement of PREA compliance has been abysmal. States only have to say that they intend to comply with PREA to keep the federal funding that’s at stake. And three states (Alaska, Arkansas, Utah) have flat-out refused to comply with PREA standards.

And prison rape is an all-too-common occurrence, there were 200,000 individual instances of reported sexual abuse behind bars in 2011—and certainly a lot more sexual assault that isn’t reported.

A proposed bill, the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, aims to kick PREA-resisters into action, setting a hard deadline of six years for states to achieve full compliance, with regular progress reports and public audits until then.

In the meantime, rape crisis hotlines are contracting with state corrections departments and prisons to provide abused inmates (who are most often violated by guards and staff) with much-needed help that they can access anonymously.

Mic’s Steven Yoder has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

A handful of states — Virginia, Vermont, Washington and New York — and individual prisons are contracting with rape crisis providers to run hotlines. In San Antonio, the county jail approached the city’s Rape Crisis Center two years ago to staff a hotline. Since then, the center has expanded the service to 15 other detention facilities in Texas and one in Mississippi, says the center’s Deana Buril. In New York state, one rape crisis center reports that they contracted for 500 minutes of cell service annually to run their hotline when they started in 2014. They burned through those minutes in the first month.

Had Booth been in another California prison, he might have been able to get help before he was attacked. One rape crisis center — the Women’s Center High Desert East of Bakersfield — has been staffing one of the nation’s longest-running prison rape hotlines and offering counseling services since 2006 for inmates at the nearby California Correctional Institution. The hotline was launched as a pilot project funded by Just Detention International, an NGO that advocates for an end to sexual abuse behind bars.

The center’s experience shows that the existence of PREA doesn’t guarantee cooperation from prison staff. When the group first went into CCI in 2006, prison guards were mostly hostile, CCI rep Karin Stone said — when they were introduced to guards, they’d often turn their backs and walk away. Stone and her staff would put up posters with the hotline number in the prison yard and come back to find them gone. “Prison staff and even inmates viewed us as outsiders,” she said.

So she and her colleagues started bringing the guards fresh-baked cookies and picking up coffee from Starbucks. Stone would tell them about her father and her other relatives who worked in law enforcement. When that rapport was established, guards started calling the center’s main rape crisis hotline about problems in their own families. Gradually, they warmed to the counselors. By a year or two into the pilot, the sergeant who was introducing Stone and her colleagues would start with, “They’re PREA, but they’re cool.”

There’s no easy way to measure the value of offering prisoners a place to call anonymously, but those who run the hotlines said there’s little doubt the service is needed. Given that perpetrators are often guards themselves, asking a prison staffer to connect them to a counselor is no solution. Numbers from Virginia’s Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance, which runs that state’s hotline, show just how common that is. Of 637 calls the alliance has taken in which the caller identified who assaulted or abused them, 458 of those involved a perpetrator who worked for the prison.


By the way, California Governor Jerry Brown and state lawmakers have reached an agreement on the budget for fiscal year 2016-2017, which starts in July.

The Sacramento Bee’s Jim Miller has a helpful rundown on the noteworthy compromises. We at WLA have been following one particular proposed allocation for jail construction. In Brown’s proposed budget, he set aside $250 million for jail building, Advocates urged lawmakers to reject the jail spending, but the new budget actually increased the jail construction funding to $270 million. Here’s a clip:

▪ Affordable housing: Brown and lawmakers have been on the same page to borrow against the state’s 1 percent mental health services tax on millionaires to help build affordable housing for the mentally ill. But neither house embraced Brown’s proposal to limit local government’s land-use authority over proposed developments that include affordable housing. Similarly, neither Brown nor the Senate had signed on to the Assembly plan to spend $650 million on various affordable housing programs.

Negotiations continue on the housing package, with talk of a possible compromise of $400 million in one-time affordable housing money along with the changes sought by Brown.


▪ Jail construction: Brown’s budget included $250 million from the general fund for local jail construction. But the governor’s proposal found little support from lawmakers. Both the Assembly and Senate wanted to divert the money to other programs, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, law enforcement training and reducing teen pregnancies.

Thursday’s pact includes $270 million for jail construction, but funded by lease revenue bonds instead of the general fund. The compromise disappointed some criminal-justice advocates. “Really disappointed to see $270 mil in funding for new jail construction,” Natasha Minsker of the ACLU posted on Twitter.


  • The subject of bias is perplexing to me. Here we have a study that believes there is bias is the Public Defender system and a recent case in Santa Clara County were a Stanford University was given a slap in the wrist for raping an unconscious female students. There was also a recent case brought before SCOTUS where a black convict on Georgia’s death row alleged bias by the prosecution and the highest court agreed. Not trying to be political…but why all the “righteous indignation” when presumptive republican presidential nominee calls out the proverbial elephant in the room and alleges a sitting Jules potential bias? It’s not far fetched and let’s not be naive to think it has and never will happen. Go TRUMP.

  • 4 dead in Ohio.

    The Government is the enemy, right?
    50 dead in Florida, right?

    I would happily pry the gun from from the cold dead hands of Charleton Heston, the fool who thought
    the 2nd amendment somehow made him safe.

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