Race and Class: A Randomized Experiment with Prosecutors

16 Journal of Empirical Legal Studies 807 (2019)

Arizona Legal Studies Discussion Paper No. 19-26

37 Pages Posted: 30 Jun 2018 Last revised: 3 Sep 2021

See all articles by Christopher T. Robertson

Christopher T. Robertson

Boston University; University of Arizona - James E. Rogers College of Law

Shima Baradaran Baughman

Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School

Megan S. Wright

The Pennsylvania State University (University Park) – Penn State Law

Date Written: December 13, 2018

Abstract

Disparities in criminal justice outcomes are well known, and prior observational research has shown correlations between the race of defendants and prosecutors’ decisions about how to charge and resolve cases. Yet causation is questionable: other factors, including unobserved variation in case facts, may account for some of the disparity. Disparities may also be driven by socio-economic class differences, which are highly correlated with race.

This article presents the first blinded, randomized controlled experiment that tests for race and class effects in prosecutors’ charging decisions. Case-vignettes are manipulated between-subjects in five conditions to test effects of defendants’ race and class status. In the control condition, race and class are omitted, which allows baseline measures for bias and pilot-testing of a blinding reform. Primary outcome variables included whether the prosecutor charged a felony, whether the prosecutor would pursue a fine or imprisonment, and the amounts thereof. With 467 actual prosecutors participating nationwide, we found that race and class did not have detectable prejudicial effects on prosecutorial decisions. This finding, contrary to the majority of observational studies, suggests that other causes drive known disparities in criminal justice outcomes.

The National Prosecutor's Survey can be accessed at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=3917195.

Keywords: prosecutors, race, class bias, criminal justice, experiment

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Robertson, Christopher T. and Baughman, Shima Baradaran and Wright, Megan, Race and Class: A Randomized Experiment with Prosecutors (December 13, 2018). 16 Journal of Empirical Legal Studies 807 (2019), Arizona Legal Studies Discussion Paper No. 19-26, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3205657

Christopher T. Robertson (Contact Author)

Boston University ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States
6179100649 (Phone)
02215 (Fax)

University of Arizona - James E. Rogers College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 210176
Tucson, AZ 85721-0176
United States

Shima Baradaran Baughman

Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School ( email )

430 JRCB
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602
United States

Megan Wright

The Pennsylvania State University (University Park) – Penn State Law ( email )

Lewis Katz Building
University Park, PA 16802
United States

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