Measuring Racial Discrimination in Bail Decisions

73 Pages Posted: 9 Jun 2020 Last revised: 10 Jun 2020

See all articles by David Arnold

David Arnold

Princeton University; Princeton University - Department of Economics

Will Dobbie

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Peter Hull

University of Chicago - Becker Friedman Institute for Economics

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: April 22, 2020

Abstract

We develop new quasi-experimental tools to measure racial discrimination in the context of bail decisions. Observational comparisons of white and black pretrial release rates suffer from omitted variables bias when there are unobserved racial differences in pretrial misconduct potential. We show that the bias in these observational comparisons is a function of average white and black misconduct risk, which can be estimated from the quasi-random assignment of bail judges. Estimates from New York City show that less than one-third of the release rate disparity between white and black defendants is explained by unobserved differences in misconduct potential, with more than two-thirds explained by racial discrimination. We then develop a hierarchical marginal treatment effects model that imposes additional structure on the quasi-experimental variation to investigate the drivers of this discrimination. Model estimates show that discrimination in bail decisions is driven by both racial bias and statistical discrimination, with the latter coming from a higher level of average risk and less precise risk signals for black defendants.

Suggested Citation

Arnold, David and Dobbie, Will and Hull, Peter, Measuring Racial Discrimination in Bail Decisions (April 22, 2020). HKS Working Paper No. RWP20-014, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3569293 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3569293

David Arnold

Princeton University ( email )

22 Chambers Street
Princeton, NJ 08544-0708
United States

Princeton University - Department of Economics ( email )

Princeton, NJ 08544-1021
United States

Will Dobbie

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Peter Hull (Contact Author)

University of Chicago - Becker Friedman Institute for Economics ( email )

Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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