Racial Bias in Bail Decisions

87 Pages Posted: 24 May 2017  

Will Dobbie

Princeton University

Crystal Yang

Harvard Law School

David Arnold

Princeton University

Date Written: May 2017

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.

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Suggested Citation

Dobbie, Will and Yang, Crystal and Arnold, David, Racial Bias in Bail Decisions (May 2017). NBER Working Paper No. w23421. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2971818

Will Dobbie

Princeton University ( email )

Crystal Yang

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

David Arnold (Contact Author)

Princeton University ( email )

22 Chambers Street
Princeton, NJ 08544-0708
United States

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