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

49 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2016 Last revised: 10 Feb 2017

Megan T. Stevenson

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School, Faculty

Date Written: January 12, 2017

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. Pretrial detention also leads to a 41% increase in the amount of non-bail court fees owed and a 42% increase in the length of the incarceration sentence. I find large gaps in the pretrial detention rate across the race and neighborhood wealth levels of defendants, partially accounted for by differences in the likelihood of posting monetary bail. If black defendants posted bail at the same rate as non-black defendants, their average detention rate would decrease by 6 percentage points, or half of the entire race gap in detention.

Keywords: bail, pretrial detention, incarceration, socioeconomic disparities

Suggested Citation

Stevenson, Megan T., Distortion of Justice: How the Inability to Pay Bail Affects Case Outcomes (January 12, 2017). 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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