Livable City Year

Implicit Bias in Criminal Prosecution

2018-2019 Livable City Year – Bellevue

City Project Leads:  Steve Penner, City Attorney’s Office
UW Instructor: Grant Blume, Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance
Course: PUB POL 608, Capstone Project Seminar

Project description:

Within the Bellevue City Attorney’s Office is its Division of Criminal Prosecution, one of three functional divisions. The Criminal Prosecution Division directs prosecutorial processes related to misdemeanor charges and traffic infractions. As of Spring 2019, five prosecutors and three legal assistants make up the Criminal Prosecution Division team. To better understand and improve upon diversity and equity goals, the team invited students from the Evan’s School of Public Policy and Governance to deliver 1) an in-depth assessment of how implicit racial bias is present in the City’s criminal justice system and 2) a set of recommendations to address evidence of implicit bias and to avoid future manifestations of implicit bias.

Research Questions

We developed two overarching questions to guide our research and recommendations for the Division of Criminal Prosecution:

  1. What questions about implicit bias can we, the consulting team, answer with the data we have?
  2. How does implicit bias manifest within the City of Bellevue’s criminal prosecution system structurally, culturally, and in decision-making trends?
    • Structural: Evidenced by policies, guidelines, and procedures
    • Cultural: Evidenced by perceptions, attitudes, and understanding
    • Decision-making trends: Evidenced by police interactions, citation records, and prosecutorial determinations

We collected both qualitative and quantitative data as we explored various facets related to our research questions. Interviews with City staff provided insight into office culture regarding implicit bias, including how staff understand and talk about implicit biases. Citation records provided a quantitative measure of trends and disparate racial outcomes for people who interact with Bellevue’s criminal justice system.

Key findings and recommendations

Data collection and analysis

Finding 1

The Division of Criminal Prosecution’s current data management system does not adequately equip it to track or analyze data related to race.

Finding 2

Relative to the City’s demographic composition, a disproportionate number of Black individuals enter the criminal justice system. Similarly situated individuals are receiving differential treatment based on race.


  • Track race and ethnicity data consistently and provide time and resources for routine analysis.
Equity in prosecutorial policies

Finding 3

The greatest proportion of cases the Division of Criminal Prosecution charges is driving with a suspended license, despite discussions to stop prosecuting these cases.

Finding 4

Office leadership encourages prosecutors to consider a pursuit of justice not centered on securing convictions, but to include restoration and rehabilitation. This change represents a significant cultural shift among prosecutors and is essential for the Division of Criminal Prosecution to address the unjust effects of racial bias.


  • Document policy changes shaped by the Division of Criminal Prosecution’s emerging concept of justice so such policies are sustained even as leadership changes.
  • Formally prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion priorities in the City Attorney’s Offce (CAO) by increasing investment in its Diversity Planning Task Force.
Addressing implicit biases in prosecution

Finding 5

There is no common understanding of implicit bias within the City’s Division of Criminal Prosecution.

Finding 6

Everyone in the Division of Criminal Prosecution identifies seeking fairness and justice as the main role of a prosecutor.

Finding 7

The current training structure does not adequately prepare the Division of Criminal Prosecution to confront implicit bias and its impacts.


  • Institute required, recurring trainings for all Division of Criminal Prosecution staff centered on bias — both implicit and explicit.
  • Within the trainings, make it a priority to contextualize the effects and manifestations of implicit bias as they correspond to criminal prosecution.

Part of the 2018-2019 Livable City Year partnership between the University of Washington and the City of Bellevue.

See all Livable City Year projects in Bellevue that UW students and faculty worked on during the year-long partnership.

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