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Implicit Racial Bias in Public Defender Triage

25 Pages Posted: 3 May 2013 Last revised: 5 Oct 2014

L. Song Richardson

University of California, Irvine School of Law

Phillip Atiba Goff

UCLA Department of Psychology

Date Written: March 1, 2013


Despite the promise of Gideon, providing “the guiding hand of counsel” to indigent defendants remains unmanageable, largely because the nation’s public defender offices are overworked and underfunded. Faced with overwhelming caseloads and inadequate resources, public defenders must engage in triage, deciding which cases deserve attention and which do not. Although scholars have recognized the need to develop standards for making these difficult judgments, they have paid little attention to how implicit, i.e., unconscious, biases may affect those decisions. There is reason to suspect that unconscious biases will influence public defender decisionmaking due to generations of racial stereotypes specific to stigmatized groups and crime. This Essay urges legal scholars and practitioners to consider how implicit biases may influence the rationing of defense entitlements and suggests ways to safeguard against the effects of these unconscious forces.

Keywords: implicit racial bias, Gideon, triage, public defenders

Suggested Citation

Richardson, L. Song and Goff, Phillip Atiba, Implicit Racial Bias in Public Defender Triage (March 1, 2013). Yale Law Journal, Vol. 122, 2013; U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 13-24. Available at SSRN:

L. Song Richardson (Contact Author)

University of California, Irvine School of Law ( email )

401 E. Peltason
Irvine, CA 92612
United States

Phillip Goff

UCLA Department of Psychology ( email )

Los Angeles, CA 90095-1563
United States
310 206-3481 (Phone)

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