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Racial Divisions and Criminal Justice: Evidence from Southern State Courts

Benjamin Feigenberg, Conrad Miller

NBER Working Paper No. 24726
Issued in June 2018
NBER Program(s):Law and Economics, Labor Studies, Political Economy

The US criminal justice system is exceptionally punitive. We test whether racial heterogeneity is one cause, exploiting cross-jurisdiction variation in criminal justice practices in four Southern states. We estimate the causal effect of jurisdiction on initial charge outcome, validating our estimates using a quasi-experimental research design based on defendants that are charged in multiple jurisdictions. Consistent with a simple model of ingroup bias in electorate preferences, the relationship between local punitiveness and the black share of defendants follows an inverted U-shape. Heterogeneous jurisdictions are more punitive for both black and white defendants. By contrast, punishment norms are unrelated to local crime rates. Simulation results suggest that adopting the punishment norms of homogeneous jurisdictions would decrease the share of charges leading to an incarceration sentence and the black-white gap in this share by 16-19%.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w24726

 
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