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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, Revised in September 2019
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 punishment in four Southern states. We estimate the causal effect of jurisdiction on arrest charge outcome, validating our estimates using a quasi-experimental research design based on defendants charged in multiple jurisdictions. Consistent with a model of in-group bias in electorate preferences, the relationship between local punishment severity and black population share follows an inverted U-shape. Within states, defendants are 27%-54% more likely to be sentenced to incarceration in ‘peak’ heterogeneous jurisdictions than in homogeneous jurisdictions.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w24726

 
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