Michelle Ochoa

Michelle Ochoa joined the Public Defender Program with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid in 2011, where she currently serves as a managing attorney (and felony trial attorney) in the Beeville office. One of her proudest accomplishments was the successful litigation of the Martinez case. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for TCDLA (and serves on the women’s caucus and the awards committee). Michelle has served as a TCDLA course director for two different CDLP seminars in Corpus Christi, TX. Michelle also serves as a mentee in the inaugural class of the Future Indigent Defense Leaders. Prior to becoming a Public Defender, Michelle was in private practice working in criminal defense in Corpus Christi and surrounding areas. After attending law school at St. Mary’s University, she worked for several years in the District Attorney’s Office of Nueces County. Originally from Carrollton, TX, she earned her bachelor’s degree from The University of Texas at Austin and taught high school government prior to entering law school. Michelle is a proud parent of an amazingly autistic son Matthew.

Biases. We All Have Them. What Are Yours?

Tired, stressed and with limited time, I hurry into my local grocery store to grab a few items for dinner. As I approach the checkout lines, hoping to find a relatively short one, I see a 5-year-old child flailing on the floor. Her mother is right next to her –and so is the candy display. What are your thoughts? I immediately thought, “This mother needs a firm hand to get control and discipline the child. Otherwise, this spoiled rotten child will grow up to be my client in about 15 years.”

While getting into my vehicle, in a rush to get home, I notice the mother and child getting into their minivan.  More importantly, I notice the autism awareness sticker on the back window. I stop in my tracks. Rather than a spoiled child, or lack of parenting skills, what I witnessed was an autistic meltdown, brought on by overstimulation, that sent the poor child into a tailspin.

How much did your biases play a part in your thinking in the child scenario? A bias is a preference for or against an individual or group that interferes with or influences fair judgment. My bias was about bad parenting or bad behaviors in a child. It clouded my judgment, causing me to see the situation as that of a bad parent or a bad child. 

What Are Biases?

We all have biases. It takes vulnerability to acknowledge these biases. Biases can be both conscious and unconscious. Implicit biases are biases that are unconscious, so they can be hard to spot. Implicit biases are unconscious attitudes and stereotypes, also known as implicit social cognition, that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. They can be seen manifested in all areas of life including the criminal justice system, workplace, school setting, and in the healthcare system.

What Can We Do About Our Biases

How do we address our unconscious biases? Consider the following questions from the website Love Has No Labels: Have you ever avoided sitting next to someone in public because of your perception regarding their race, religion, or ability? Have you ever justified using offensive language because a friend told you it does not bother them? Do your three best friends look like you? Have you ever joked around and told someone to “stop acting like a girl”? Have you ever referred specifically to someone’s race when it was not necessarily relevant (e.g. “a black doctor” or “Latina lawyer”)? Have you ever assumed a person’s stance on social issues based on their religion? Have you ever ruled out certain neighborhoods as places you might live or send your kids to school based on the neighborhood’s demographics?

I regretfully admit I have done all of these. The good news is, I can eliminate my own implicit biases through awareness and action. So can you. 

How do our biases affect our work within the criminal justice system?  There are financial, racial, sexual, gender, and religious biases that permeate the criminal justice system. Have you ever had a prosecutor make a better offer to a codefendant who had a retained lawyer? Is there an implied bias that the person who can retain a lawyer is a better person than the one that has a court appointed attorney? As a court appointed attorney, I demand the same plea bargain that the retained attorney received, thereby doing my best to equalize the playing field.

Have you ever had a judge make a bail or punishment decision based on the orange jumpsuit worn by your client? Is there an implied bias that because someone is in jail and not out on bond they are a bad person and needed to be punished? We can confront and challenge the ruling of the court if we see this disparity. Do not be afraid to point it out.

Have you ever had to talk to a client and explain they would be judged differently due to their race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs? Do not ignore these differences. Everyone else is thinking about it. Discuss these differences with the court and the jury; do your best to demystify and dismantle the prejudices or biases.

Have you ever had to tell a client they will hear the words, “boy” or “little lady” from the bench or prosecutor? Have you ever had to hear these words addressed to you? Tell the Court or the opposing party what you expect to be called. Do not allow them to get away with derogatory language.

It is hard to acknowledge that the world we live has all kinds of biases, stereotypes, and discrimination—and that we unwittingly contribute to them. However, it is a fact. We must acknowledge it. Acknowledging our biases, stereotypes, and prejudices is the first step towards change.

I challenge everyone to take a personal self-assessment, make a personal inventory of your own bias and prejudice, and then make a plan of action of how you want to improve yourself through your thinking. Part of your plan could be reading a book about biases or “blind spots” or talking to your children about biases or stereotypes and how to avoid them. The TCDLA diversity committee can provide a mentor; creating a safe environment to discuss your biases or prejudices. Looking inward and being brutally honest with ourselves is the only way we will be able to reconcile what is happening in our society today with how we can make it better. We must stand together as a legal community to fight against oppression, inequalities, and discrimination. As we continue to grow and reflect as a society and as a legal community, we need to challenge these biases and prejudices when we see them. We will be better advocates against biases by recognizing our own. Keep fighting my fellow warriors and Fight the Bias.

  1. I am a proud parent of an amazing autistic son.
  2. https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/education-outreach/Personal-Self-Assessment-of-Anti-Bias-Behavior.pdf
  3. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.html
  4. https://lovehasnolabels.com
  5. https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/implicit-bias
  6. Mahzarin Banaji & Anthony Greenwald, Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People (2013).
  7. Jerry Kang et al., Implicit Bias in the Courtroom, 59 UCLA Law Review 1124 (2012).