Bail, Jail, and Pretrial Misconduct: The Influence of Prosecutors

59 Pages Posted: 25 Feb 2019 Last revised: 22 Jun 2020

See all articles by Aurelie Ouss

Aurelie Ouss

University of Pennsylvania

Megan T. Stevenson

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: June 20, 2020


Dozens of jurisdictions across the country are engaging in bail reform, but there are concerns that reducing monetary incentives will increase pretrial misconduct. We provide new evidence on this question by evaluating a prosecutor-led bail reform in Philadelphia. In February 2018, Philadelphia’s district attorney announced that his office would no longer request monetary bail for defendants charged with certain eligible offenses. This was an advisory change; bail magistrates retained final say. Using a difference-in-differences approach we find that this policy led to a 22% increase in the likelihood a defendant will be released with no monetary or supervisory conditions, but had no impact on pretrial detention. This provides a unique opportunity to evaluate the primary justification for cash bail: that it provides incentive for released defendants to appear in court. We find no evidence that cash bail or pretrial supervision has a deterrent effect on failure-to-appear or pretrial crime. We argue that one explanation is that asymmetric reputational penalties cause magistrates to set bail higher than necessary. In addition, our study provides evidence on the role of discretion within criminal justice reform. We find that discretion led to racial disparities in implementation, and diluted the impacts of the reform.

Keywords: bail, prosecutors, criminal justice reform, pretrial detention

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Ouss, Aurelie and Stevenson, Megan, Bail, Jail, and Pretrial Misconduct: The Influence of Prosecutors (June 20, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Aurelie Ouss

University of Pennsylvania ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

Megan Stevenson (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

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