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Linguistic Bias in the Justice System

Room 302: 9:45 AM to 11:15 AM

The way we talk -- our accent, grammar, vocabulary -- strongly influences people's perception of us. Studies from around the world have shown that speakers of"non-standard" varieties of their language are frequently misunderstood or given less credence in legal settings. Studies also show that listeners' self-awareness of their own linguistic bias, both implicit and explicit, is often extremely low.

Linguistic biases can substantially interfere with legal outcomes. For example, after the trial of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin's killer, linguists have argued convincingly that jurors' disregard of the prosecution's star witness, Rachel Jeantel, occurred because of her use of Caribbean influenced African American vernacular language. Indeed, Ms. Jeantel was ignored by the jury, mocked in the media for not speaking "properly," and stigmatized for her language use by lawyers and others in the courtroom.

The panel will discuss linguistic bias in relation to the legal system and the juvenile justice system. Focusing on language as central to culture and personhood, the panel will offer resources and strategies for how public interest lawyers can educate the legal community about linguistic bias, combat implicit and explicit linguistic bias, and advocate for clients from linguistically diverse backgrounds.


  1. Anne Boyle, Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland
  2. Dr. Christine Mallinson, Solo Attorney -- University of Maryland, Baltimore County
  3. Troy Grant, Beyond Rhetoric Nonprofit Organization

Moderator: Neha Lall, University of Baltimore School of Law