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Racial Bias in Bail Decisions

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  • David Arnold
  • Will Dobbie
  • Crystal S. Yang

Abstract

This paper develops a new test for identifying racial bias in the context of bail decisions – a high-stakes setting with large disparities between white and black defendants. We motivate our analysis using Becker's (1957) model of racial bias, which predicts that rates of pre-trial misconduct will be identical for marginal white and marginal black defendants if bail judges are racially unbiased. In contrast, marginal white defendants will have a higher probability of misconduct than marginal black defendants if bail judges are racially biased against blacks. To test the model, we develop a new estimator that uses the release tendencies of quasi-randomly assigned bail judges to identify the relevant race-specific misconduct rates. Estimates from Miami and Philadelphia show that bail judges are racially biased against black defendants, with substantially more racial bias among both inexperienced and part-time judges. We also find that both black and white judges are biased against black defendants. We argue that these results are consistent with bail judges making racially biased prediction errors, rather than being racially prejudiced per se.

Suggested Citation

  • David Arnold & Will Dobbie & Crystal S. Yang, 2017. "Racial Bias in Bail Decisions," NBER Working Papers 23421, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:23421
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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • J15 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Economics of Minorities, Races, Indigenous Peoples, and Immigrants; Non-labor Discrimination
    • J71 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Labor Discrimination - - - Hiring and Firing
    • K14 - Law and Economics - - Basic Areas of Law - - - Criminal Law

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