NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Racial Bias in Bail Decisions

David Arnold, Will Dobbie, Crystal S. Yang

NBER Working Paper No. 23421
Issued in May 2017
NBER Program(s):LE, LS

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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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w23421

 
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