Distortion of Justice: How the Inability to Pay Bail Affects Case Outcomes

Journal of Law, Economics & Organization, Forthcoming

35 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2016 Last revised: 6 Aug 2018

Megan T. Stevenson

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School, Faculty

Date Written: July 15, 2018

Abstract

This paper uses a natural experiment to analyze whether incarceration during the pretrial period affects case outcomes. In Philadelphia, defendants randomly receive bail magistrates who differ widely in their propensity to set bail at affordable levels. Using magistrate leniency as an instrument, I find that pretrial detention leads to a 13% increase in the likelihood of being convicted, an effect largely explained by an increase in guilty pleas among defendants who otherwise would have been acquitted or had their charges dropped. I find also that pretrial detention leads to a 42% increase in the length of the incarceration sentence and a 41% increase in the amount of non-bail court fees owed. This latter finding contributes to a growing literature on fines-and-fees in criminal justice, and suggests that the use of money bail contributes to a ‘poverty-trap’: those who are unable to pay bail wind up accruing more court debt.

Keywords: bail, pretrial detention, incarceration, socioeconomic disparities

Suggested Citation

Stevenson, Megan T., Distortion of Justice: How the Inability to Pay Bail Affects Case Outcomes (July 15, 2018). Journal of Law, Economics & Organization, Forthcoming . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2777615 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2777615

Megan Stevenson (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School, Faculty ( email )

3301 Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 22201
United States

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