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Joint Labor Economics, Public Economics & Policy Analysis and Management Workshop - Will Dobbie

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 11:40am

Will Dobbie

Princeton University

115 Ives Hall

"Racial Bias in Bail Decisions"

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 unbiased. In contrast, marginal white defendants will have a higher probability of misconduct than marginal black defendants if bail judges are racially biased. 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 descriptive evidence that experienced and inexperienced judges place different weight on other, non-race characteristics that predict misconduct. We argue that these results are consistent with a model of on-the-job learning where racial bias decreases as judges adjust the predictive weight they place on the most salient observable defendant characteristics such as race.

Event Categories: Labor Economics